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Tribes take lead on climate change solutions amid uphill climb

DENVER — Scientists and other leading experts on climate change admit there is an urgent need for mitigation. Even a quick glance at news reports tell much of the story: increases in landslides, wildfires, drought, extreme storms, floods, sea level rise, earthquakes and tsunamis.

A considerable portion of the agenda at the 75th National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) conference was dedicated to climate change issues – both the effect on Native Americans and the way tribes have taken the lead to combat it.

The NCAI annual convention and marketplace took place at the Hyatt Regency Denver at Colorado Convention Center Oct. 21 – 26.

‘Respect for Mother Earth, waters’

One of NCAI’s main sessions on the issue was titled: “Taking Climate Action: Protecting Our Peoples, Lands and Futures.” It took place Oct. 24 in a room full of attendees and a lineup of experts.

Representatives from several tribal nations who are considered to be leading on climate action spoke about their experiences.

Aaron Payment, the chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and 1st vice president of NCAI, said his tribe was one that was selected in 2014 as a “Climate Action Champion” by former President Barack Obama’s administration.

Sault Ste. Marie, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, was chosen because of the strategic plan it submitted. The tribe received support and funds for its initiatives.

“We have respect for our Mother Earth and our waters,” Payment said. “Our plan is holistic – a lower carbon blueprint, building community resiliency, the harvest of traditional foods.”

Payment said one missing initiative that he hopes to implement soon is a central recycling program.

Jason Ramos, tribal council member of the Blue Lake Rancheria in Northern California, was also chosen as a “Climate Action Champion” under Obama.

“We’re all missing that kind of leadership nationally under the current administration,” Ramos said as part of the panel.

His tribe has set out a plan to have net zero carbon emissions by 2030.

‘On the brink’

Also on the panel was Joel Clement, a senior fellow with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

He thinks the energy to prevent further climate change has shifted to state, local and tribal levels, especially after President Donald J. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the The Paris Agreement.

“The fact is that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world,” Clement said. “There are Native villages on the brink. We need to integrate Indigenous knowledge into Western science. The relationships among humans and ecosystems are essential,” he said.

Clement said there are about three dozen Native villages in Alaska that are at risk from climate change effects.

Terry Williams, treaty rights office commissioner of the Tulalip Tribes Williams – about 30 miles north of Seattle – talked about how climate change is already decimating their fisheries.

“There are tribal members who rely on subsistence living – fishing, gathering, hunting,” Williams said. “We have campgrounds already underwater and relocations have already taken place. Indian people are place-based. The thought that we have to move because of the dereliction of our governments is unacceptable,” he said.

Initiative 1631

Washington State voters just rejected Initiative 1631 on Nov. 6, a proposed carbon fee on fossil-fuel emissions that spurred the biggest ballot-measure spending spree in the state’s history, according to the Seattle Times.

The charge to pass I-1631 was led by Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, a Southwest Coast Salish people.

With almost 2 million votes cast from all of the state’s 39 counties, the measure failed by a 56.3 percent to 43.7 percent margin, the Seattle Times reported. Those who supported the initiative said they’ll continue to push for a carbon fee.

The opposition, who saw I-1631 as a costly and unfair energy tax, was largely bankrolled by the oil industry.

I-1631 would have created a first-in-the-nation carbon fee intended to cut greenhouse gas emissions, one of the causes of global warming and climate change. It was reported that the fee would have raised more than $1 billion annually by 2023.

The measure received national attention, in part, because of the aforementioned backing out by the Trump Administration from federal efforts to combat climate change this year.

Counties that voted to pass the initiative were located where much of the state’s Native American population lives.

Sharp spoke at the NCAI general assembly Oct. 24. As one of the most ardent advocates of I-1631, she spoke about its importance, saying that Native Americans have had to relocate in some cases because of sea level rise from climate change.

Sharp talked specifically about the disappearance of the Anderson Glacier, which was at the headwaters of the Quinault River in the Olympic Mountains. It has affected fishing, which is one of the biggest food sources and economic drivers for Native people.”Despite the oil companies, the average citizen knows climate change is real,” Sharp said.

Sharp was instrumental in obtaining 375,000 signatures to put I-1631 on the ballot and have a tribal sovereignty provision included in it. She said it’s been a decade long effort.

“It would secure 10 percent of carbon revenues for tribal nations, which would be $100 to $400 million for our tribe to invest in the environment,” Sharp said.

“We know as tribal nations, big oil can’t buy our hearts and it can’t buy our conscience. We are immune from that corruption and influence. We will stand on our power and sovereign authority,” she said.

The NCAI has a new policy brief on climate action data and a climate action resource webpage. Both can be accessed online at


Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at

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