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Tribal climate conference addresses environmental issues in Indian Country

Winona LaDuke, co-founder of Honor the Earth, was the keynote speaker at the National Tribal and Indigenous Climate Conference in September. (Courtesy image)

More than 2,400 participants from 30 countries and over 150 tribal nations sat in front of their screens to attend the first biennial National Tribal and Indigenous Climate Conference, held online Sept. 14-17.

The virtual conference examined how climate change affects Indigenous peoples and emphasized the importance of traditional knowledge and Native stewardship of the earth.

Paul Backhouse, senior director of the Seminole Tribe’s Heritage and Environment Resources Office, attended the conference with staff from the Tribal Historic Preservation Office.

“It was a really timely conference given the Tribe is working on our climate plan and recognizes this is a huge threat,” Backhouse said. “It was a great conversation and we got insights from across the world.”

Opening session

All conference presenters and panelists came from different locations around the globe. Ann Marie Chischilly (Diné Nation), executive director, Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, welcomed attendees to the opening plenary session while standing outdoors in the foothills of the San Francisco peaks on the Navajo reservation in Arizona.

“I wanted us to come together even during the pandemic to give hope, encourage each other and share our stories,” Chischilly said. “We are in the time of the long walk. The Navajo people were taken from their lands and kept away for years. They struggled to stay alive so I could stand here. It’s through that resilience that they came back and built a new life. Resilience in in our DNA.”

Ann Marie Chischill, executive director of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, provided welcoming remarks to the attendees of the conference, which was held virtually. (Courtesy image)

Ella Ruth Ahrens (Diné Nation) spoke from the bottom of her 9-year-old heart.

“Mother Earth is one of a kind and we need to take care of it,” said the S.T.A.R. School student, from Flagstaff, Arizona. “Actions have consequences and we can’t afford that. We need your help.”

Dr. Donald Warne (Oglala Lakota Nation) comes from a family of traditional healers and medicine men and understands how the health of the earth has a direct effect on people.

“We can’t separate ecological understanding of climate change from the health of human beings,” said Warne, associate dean, University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “We have to be aware that climate change is having a big impact on people. This isn’t different from traditional beliefs that the earth is our mother. When we blend modern science and medicine with traditional beliefs, we can make real strides.”

Warne talked about the long history of genocide of people and animals and the removal from their homelands.

“We are told our ancestors are still watching over us,” Warne said. “If we look for the signs, we can see them. In this image of the map of Minnesota, look carefully at the eastern border; it is the image of a beautiful Lakota chief looking directly at the Black Hills, the heart of everything that is. There is a deeper knowledge and understanding among Native people.”

He showed four maps of forests across the country from 1620, 1850, 1926 and 1990. The difference across the years was striking. When huge swaths of forests are destroyed, it has an impact on the climate.

“The health of the earth impacts us all,” Warne said. “The buffalo are back; what do they teach us? The strongest bulls stand and face the coming storm to protect those behind them. We have to be those strong bulls and face each challenge head on. Our future generations are depending on us.”

During the conference, Dr. Donald Warne (Oglala Lakota Nation), associate dean, University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, showed four maps of forests across the country from 1620, 1850, 1926 and 1990. (Courtesy image)

Keynote speaker Winona LaDuke, Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe) and co-founder of Honor the Earth, said crises create opportunities.

“What a time we are in, maybe when our descendants come they will say it was the time of the bat,” LaDuke said. “Little creatures can make a huge difference in our lives, causing more diseases to come from them to the world. My advice is to help protect our biodiversity.”

She believes now is the time for Indigenous nations to rebuild their food and energy resources to protect the biodiversity of the earth.

“Biodiversity is what you want in a time of climate crisis,” LaDuke said. “When you have many different sources, you keep your seeds strong.”

LaDuke noted three things she is focused on to meet the biodiversity goal: food, energy and hemp. She talked about how the Incas in Peru were the first to cultivate potatoes; by growing them at different altitudes, they created new varieties.

“Our seed savers are saving our communities,” she said. “We need to think about how not to waste food.”

She said climate change will cause more frequent power outages.

“We need to create more local energy production, such as solar panels,” she said. “We need to get more simple, smart and efficient. We have to figure out how to reindustrialize the country using renewables, like wind power in Indian Country.”

LaDuke has been growing fiber hemp for five years and said the country had a choice in the 1920s to pursue a hydrocarbon economy based on fossil fuel or a carbohydrate economy based on hemp. She said the country made the wrong choice; small farmers are now growing hemp and calling it the new green revolution.

“Look to our ancestors, hold our heads up and pray hard,” LaDuke said. “We have the opportunity to take a new path, to make a regenerative and restorative economy. The next economy isn’t about competition, it’s about cooperation.”

Air, health and well-being

The climate has always been changing and over the last 12,000 years temperatures have been both warmer and cooler. But for the last 150 years they have been getting warmer more quickly, according to Maureen McCarthy, research professor, Desert Research Institute at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Drought is tied to climate and temperatures; there have been extensive droughts during the last 1,000 years, but recent droughts are extreme. McCarthy believes Native wisdom and western science should be integrated to understand how humanity fits into the natural world.

“In March 2020 the Covid pandemic hit the world, but hit Indian Country exceedingly hard,” McCarthy said during a session that explored intersection between air, health and well-being as it relates to climate change. “Indigenous people are resilient, but the combination of the two has put a stress in the system.”

McCarthy and a group researching Native waters on arid lands identified a few urgent issues which included economic relief for farmers with irrigation payments due; essential needs such as food, wood to heat homes, water and hay for livestock; educational support for students who don’t have electricity, computers or internet access making virtual school an impossibility.

They got the USDA to bring food and supplies to rural communities, including wood, hay and personal protection equipment to Hopi and Navajo communities.

“We are facing concurrent emergencies of climate and Covid,” McCarthy said. “Climate issues have been compounded by Covid. Arid lands’ major issue is drought, which has gotten worse since July and the projections are not good.”

Wildfires are another serious result of climate change. Native communities have knowledge about wildfire management. McCarthy said not using that knowledge for the last 100 years was a mistake. She hopes we use it for the next 100.

One positive thing coming from these times is the increase of food sovereignty programs on reservations. McCarthy said the impact of Covid shutdowns and limited access to food supplies, compelled some tribes to enhance and build their food sovereignty programs. With the help of the CARES Act funding, these programs have been expanded substantially.
Alaska is on the front line of climate change; as temperatures rise sea ice disappears, storms are stronger and more frequent causing substantial coastal erosion. The Local Environmental Observer (LEO) is an online platform that connects people about climate change in the state.

Anyone in Alaska can join the network and report changes they see in their own communities. LEO reviews the data to try to determine trends going forward.

“Our goal is to raise awareness about climate change and develop specific adaptation strategies,” said Erica Lujan, LEO coordinator. “Animal mortality was a big trend in 2019; seabirds, ice stranded seals, krill and salmon kills have a huge implication for food security in communities.”

When LEO gets information, they pass it along to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other agencies. The LEO network is meant to be the hub of a wheel, information they get from local observers provide information and guidance to inform the public. LEO currently has 1,300 observation posts throughout Alaska.

Each community has its own page on the LEO website. Residents’ posts document the changes in real time. Put together over a few years, a larger picture of climate change emerges.

“LEO shows how we can work together,” Lujan said.

Climate justice

Indigenous climate refugees exist already in Alaska and Louisiana. The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe in southern Louisiana saw 98% of their ancestral lands vanish due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion and are forced to relocate.

Nancy Van Leuven, assistant professor, California State University, Fresno discussed how native versus mainstream media voices can define an issue. In the case of the Louisiana tribe, she said the mainstream media framed it as a sad story.

“The story shifted because of the tribal community’s messaging,” Van Leuven said. “They see it as a living bridge between the ancestral lands to a future that is now sustainable. Their leadership used it as a toolkit for other tribes undergoing environmental pressures.”

Culture can be a powerful weapon in communications and powerful statements keep Native American messages front and center. Van Leuven showed a video of an Alaskan Native woman.

“In Alaska, 100 years ago we were completely nomadic community. We harvested whales, fish, birds and were there when they were. We had to keep land clean for them or they wouldn’t want to come back. We love to eat what they gave us and had much gratitude for them when they came. This is our land where we get our whale and fish,” she said.

As a climate justice organizer, Ruth Miller advocates for the protection of Native environments and food systems.

“We know the core of climate justice work is bringing our view to industry to create a balance in the world,” said Miller, who lives and works in Alaska. “Alaska is at the front line of climate change. Corporations increase toxins and cancers in our people, food systems, caribou and salmon. Erosion, permafrost melt and melting sea ice are making our environment uninhabitable. We as a global community have degraded our environment.”

Miller sees some clear battlegrounds for climate justice.

“Culture informs and directs our work, we need to think about how we can incorporate marginalized indigenous views,” she said. “The western viewpoint of science is just data, with less value in storytelling and history.

Indigenous people who live closely to the land witness science firsthand; we need to look to them for leadership in climate policies.”

Who gets to tell the story of climate change and justice is critical to Miller’s work.

“We experience climate chaos firsthand,” she said. “What happens to the water happens to us. We see the changes in food security, patterns in animals, fish and birds. We are the original stewards of this land and have been so since creation.”

Miller believes market based solutions won’t help indigenous communities or heal the world. Directing resources to collective well-being, however, could begin to undo the damage colonization had on Native regions.

“We in Alaska have the knowledge that will sustain us for the millennia,” she said. “We have our original instructions and we have a plan that will lead this world to a more liberated, collective future.”

Karla Bollier, founder and director of the Climate Justice Initiative, focuses on Indigenous human rights and climate change.

Indigenous people have always been adaptable in the past, but climate change is more complex and is compounded by cultural and social pressures. Adjustment to new conditions require resources that a lot of communities don’t possess. Indigenous people who migrate from their traditional homes can be more vulnerable.

“Deforestation is pushing indigenous from the forest to urban slums,” Bollier said. “Climate change exacerbates existing inequalities. Women are effective agents of change and are the ones people often look to in a crisis. Empowering and investing in women provides a ripple effect in a community; when women do well, families do well and thus the community does well. Women have always been the stewards of our lands, families and cultures.”

Elders and youth

Tribal elders and youth provided insights into climate change from their unique perspectives. The session revealed things that can be learned from the past to prepare for the future.

Rose High-Bear, founder of Wisdom of the Elderberry Farm in Oregon which helps to restore native food species and habitats, believes young people will make great change in the world.

“There are many things we can say about climate,” High-Bear said. “We never had out of control fires because we always did controlled burns. The forest was rich and full of food and medicine. Today we have soil that isn’t being taken care of because of single purpose farms. Monoculture depletes the soil. Now I am surrounded by fires but we don’t call them wildfires, we call them climate fires.”

As the principal of the Oneida Nation High School, Artley Skenadore spends his life surrounded by young people. He said climate change provides the opportunity to share stories, understand the way life was for their ancestors and what can be done together to shape the future.

“Mother Earth provides for us,” Skenadore said. “This type of gathering bundles us together to look at a common footprint of what steps we need to take to renew her strength and spirit.”

He gave advice freely including: air, water and earth need to be respected, Earth is our only home and we all share the responsibility for it.

“The footprints of the future come to us through resilience,” Skenadore said. “As we look at all the struggles Earth has been through, she has worked to fulfill her responsibility and we need to make sure we do a good job of making her stronger. We will never quit; we are Earth people.”

After the adults spoke, young people shared stories of their own resilience in this time of climate change and coronavirus.

Ella Ahrens, of Flagstaff, Ariz., was a guest youth speaker at the conference. (Courtesy image)

Sixth- and seventh-graders Prathona and Prokriti Datta, of Saskatchewan, Canada, have been keeping busy and gaining respect for the environment during the months of the pandemic. They have listened to ancestors’ stories, read, wrote, walked, danced, played instruments and sang.

“I am writing about Covid-19 so the next generation can learn about what happened during this pandemic,” Prokriti said.

Their parents are originally from Bangladesh, where they were a minority.

“Minorities, like indigenous, face racism in everyday life,” Prathona said. “First nations elders taught us about the resiliency wheel. We learned why the natural elements are important and that the air, sun, water and insects are all our relatives. We don’t own the land, it owns us. The land is our mother; it gives us food. Culture is who we are; in language and knowledge we find our identity.”

Northern Arizona University student Meronda Walker has been aware of climate change since first grade and has tried to incorporate sustainable techniques into her lifestyle.

“I care about future generations, wildlife and the planet,” she said.

“Everything we do is intertwined with what happens to our planet. The Earth doesn’t belong to us, we belong to Earth and have an obligation to make it livable for future generations. Native Americans are about preserving for the future, that’s our duty.”

Walker believes the solution to climate change will be collaboration and everyone must work to reduce their carbon footprints with hard choices.
Sara Sprague grew up in the woods and experienced the effects of climate change first hand. She was devastated when the woods around her were replaced with houses.

“It’s hard to put into words how important nature is,” said Sprague, at graduate student at Northern Arizona University. “As a child I was surrounded by wild flowers, fruits, plants and was privileged to have the experience of living in the wilderness. Climate change impacts everyone, but most of all people of color and those least able to contribute to the problem.”

She believes everyone should become more connected to nature.

“We have no other home,” Sprague said. “We need to consider how we can live without exacerbating climate change. We are at risk of losing something vital and need to act before it is too late.”

Graduate student Sarah Chacon believes climate change classes should be taught on the reservations, as it is in some other schools.

“As we become knowledgeable of how interconnected we are with the Earth, we will realize we have to make it a priority and teach it to our kids,” said Chacon, who also attends Northern Arizona University. “I believe our people have a lot of fight in us. What you do to the Earth affects everyone. Kids need to know about climate change, so let’s keep spreading awareness.”

During the sessions, attendees were able to contribute comments or ask questions through the chat session on the screen. One comment came from Sheema Saeed, who grew up in the Maldives, a nation in the Indian Ocean near the equator.

“In 1971 I was 3-years-old when an elder taught me about climate change, about polar ice caps melting. I was living on an island on the equator and had not even seen an ice cube than. Who would have thought we Maldivians will be the most vulnerable to impact of climate change? In 2010, I tried to teach primary teacher trainees at Leicester University science of climate change in a way kids could understand. I was told kids are too young to understand climate change and here I am listening to kids talk about it,” Saeed wrote.

Many of the sessions were interactive and ended with a live question and answer period.

“It’s been a fabulous experience being in a Zoom box with all of you,” High-Bear said. “We have the opportunity to bring healing messages to one another. I think the young people will do a lot to save the Earth. I found a new medicine; all these young people rising up. You are filling my heart today.”

Juan Cancel, THPO assistant director, and Quenton Cypress, THPO community engagement manager, are creating a climate resiliency plan for the Seminole Tribe. With input from the community they have been building the plan that will maintain the Tribe’s cultural identity. They both attended the conference and were pleased to learn from people the world over.

“It speaks to how people are anxious to learn,” Cancel said. “We want to make sure we build some of the things we learned into our climate resiliency project. It’s an intriguing concept, how to protect against climate change while adhering to cultural norms. A lot of this is about planning, but be careful about technology. If you don’t have a good plan it won’t matter. That helped us with the adaptation plan we are trying to build.”

Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at