Instead of harvesting ceremonial fish, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community must now purchase enough quantities for annual homage festivities. Salmon stocks the tribe has counted on for 10,000 years have been reduced from an 8-month season to a few days per year, but the Swinomish haven’t given up. To improve water quality and re-establish the salmon, they’ve restored tidelands and channels, planted trees along stream beds to cool warming waters, and collaborated with farmers to increase stream setbacks.
And the Swinomish are not the only native tribe designing their own climate plans. An additional 50 Native American tribes are also implementing original and personalized climate strategies to protect their lands and cultures.
Most US communities lag far behind.
Native nations are at the forefront of the climate change crisis and planning. Indigenous peoples each have their own distinct cultures and economies that are spiritually connected to the environment and land. But high hazards associated with their location, political and economic marginalization, and existing social, health, and poverty disparities make them particularly susceptible to climate change impacts.
By tackling complex climate change problems across multiple scales with fewer resources to increase the resiliency of their communities, these Native communities are becoming models for climate action. Transformations are occurring in Native communities as tribal sovereignty, self-governance, and strategic and sustainable natural resource management have become inherent into tribal climate planning and decision-making processes.
Increasing numbers of Native nations and tribal institutions have designed climate change plans that include formal strategies and initiatives to increase the resiliency of their communities. The role of embeddedness in networks, as opposed to financial capacity, helps tribes to adopt new policy approaches that are risky and yet more suitable to solve a problem with cross-sector spillovers.
Climate Crisis: Risks to the Most Vulnerable Communities
Some of the most vulnerable populations to the impacts, Native Americans also possess the highest levels of knowledge and experience with adaptation.
Native Americans acutely feel the effects of the changing climate because they were forced onto the most vulnerable lands, places that were of little use to others, Nikki Cooley, co-manager of the Tribes and Climate Change Program for the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, told the Washington Post. “We’ve always been taught and are still being told we have to preserve for the future generations,” she stated.
The Institute strengthens tribal capacity and sovereignty in environmental and natural resource management through culturally relevant education, research, partnerships, and policy-based services. Cooley noted how the Institute has consulted with more than 300 of the 574 tribes in the US, as climate adaptation and hazard mitigation planning are becoming increasingly necessary for tribes across the US.
According to a US Climate Resilience Toolkit case study, the combination of projected sea level rise, an associated increase in wave energy, and shoreline development are predicted to change coastal ecosystems that have supported the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and other Pacific Northwest indigenous peoples for millennia. When the habitats that support production of these foods are impaired, the resulting negative effects amplify and reverberate throughout the intertwined social, cultural, mental, and physical aspects of Swinomish life. Progress to reintroduce the salmon, for example, has been slow; some researchers predict it could be 90 years before the salmon recover.
The Swinomish tribe’s pioneering climate action plan was designed with many generations in mind.
“We’re installing native plants to re-establish a nearshore that is more consistent with historic habitats,” said Steve Hinton, restoration coordinator for the Skagit River System Cooperative, the natural resources arm of the Swinomish and Sauk-Suiattle tribes. “This helps both native fish and wildlife species that depend on these habitats for survival.”
Indigenous Health Indicators: A Framework for Swinomish Climate Plans
The climate crisis has disruptive health, sociocultural, and economic impacts on the Swinomish and other Native communities. Mental health, social capital, food security, water supply, sanitation, infectious diseases, injury, and health care access become at risk when sea levels rise, permafrost melts, coasts erode, waters become too warm for local fish species, and plants struggle to thrive in drought or flood conditions.
Native peoples face considerable environmental public health risks due to the destruction of the natural resources that comprise their homelands. Jamie Donatuto, a community environmental health analyst for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, enacts investigations on behalf of the Tribe, including researching topics in local traditional foods and tribal health-related impacts from climate change. She collaborated with Swinomish elder, Larry Campbell, to launch the Swinomish Community Environmental Health Program and a tool called the Indigenous Health Indicators.
As is typical with health indicators, they establish risks and impacts as objective measures of physiological morbidity or mortality outcomes. But Donatuto and Campbell’s Indicators also do much more — they connect to ecosystem health and social and cultural beliefs and values integral to indigenous definitions of health.
“It’s a different worldview. The salmon and the crabs and the clams are relatives,” Donato explained. “They’re living relatives. They’re not just resources. And so you treat them with a symbiotic respect. They feed you because you take care of them. It’s a very different way of thinking about why these areas are important.”
Donatuto and Campbell have created an index of 6 health indicators:
- cultural use
- community connection
- transferring traditional knowledge across generations
- natural resource security
“We believe that if we can go back to the foundation of our teachings, the foundation of what our elders knew, that it would help us in the long run,” Campbell said, adding that merging traditional knowledge with Western science is “the best of both worlds.”
Other Tribes Push Ahead with Climate Plans
The Karuk Tribe in California developed a Climate Adaptation Plan to address established vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities include Tribal traditional foods and cultural use species; Tribal program infrastructure; Tribal management authority and political status resulting from changing conditions; and, a focus on increased frequency of high-intensity wildfire events within the Karuk Ancestral Territory.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes of Montana have a resilience plan that calls for prescribed burns and restoring whitebark pine, a key part of tribal culture.
In Alaska, a partnership of 11 tribes has formed to identify harmful algae blooms so that it’s clear when shellfish can be safely harvested. Baseline data collection includes weekly phytoplankton species identification and quantification, collection of filtered water samples to analyze for cellular toxins, and recording of environmental parameters
Final Thoughts about the Swinomish Climate Plans
The Swinomish hope to interest younger members of their community in exploring science, going away to study and, perhaps, returning to help develop and implement future climate adaptation. That’s important, as local knowledge is imperative for substantive climate planning. Even differences in the structural location of Native communities can result in divergent understandings of and practices in relation to the changing climate.
Differences in values can inhibit academic/ tribal collaboration for sustainable and innovative adaptation, too, so research endeavors must address this gap by integrating community values into adaptation analysis. Contextual planning concerning Indigenous communities must be done with Indigenous peoples from the community. As the Biden-Harris administration takes office, it is clear that a shift is needed so federal and Native co-create and evaluate climate training programs and take into account the challenges faced in cross-cultural partnerships. Collaborations between Native American tribes and climate science organizations providing decision-support for climate change planning need also to accentuate the potential for climate services to have social justice implications through either deepening or softening existing inequities.
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