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Native Americans Have Front Line Seats to Climate Change Show

Article discusses some of the impacts of climate change on tribes.

Native Americans Have Front-Row Seats at the Global Warming Show

By Vinnie Rotondaro

A collared moose swimming circles in Lake Superior. According to wildlife biologist Seth Moore, "It was euthanized just before drowning. It had a non-native parasite in its eyes causing blindness."

There’s been a good deal of talk about the weather lately. According to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, this March was the hottest on record in the lower 48 states. And this past winter? A joke. The fourth warmest on record, and the third-least snowy. There have been earthquakes and tornados, and even reports of hybrid sharks.

Most of us have registered this elemental weirdness in one way or another. Our “non-winter” has come up in countless conversations I’ve had in past months. Some people (usually liberals) see it as a result of man-made global warming. Others (usually conservatives) call bullshit on the theory. But for the most part, it hasn’t caused much alarm. Until very recently, most Americans have treated the issue of climate change as something to be debated—as something abstract, even political.

But not all Americans. Native Americans, the people who have been on this land the longest, tend to consider climate change a matter of fact. For years indigenous individuals and groups, like the Indigenous Environmental Network, have voiced concern over climate change, pointing as much to changes they’ve seen in ancestral lands as to scientific studies. Now, month after month of unseasonably hot and destructive weather and reports of strange animal behavior have confirmed many suspicions that dramatic shifts are underway.   

“People who have deep inter-generational knowledge about a landscape or a seascape aren’t wasting any time talking about whether or not this is happening,” said Daniel Wildcat, a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, and an expert on indigenous environmental thinking, who has seen “almost an invasion” of armadillos move north into his state.

“I think there’s a difficulty in getting through to people who live in a society that’s so geographically mobile,” Wildcat said. “Indigenous people are stepping out on this because their tribal identities, who they are as people, don’t come from nation-state status or written constitutions. Their identities are emergent out of landscapes and seascapes.”

In northeastern Minnesota, along Lake Superior, the fastest-warming fresh body of water in the world, a group of Chippewa Indians are dealing with the issue of changing climate and identity head on.

“Who we are is changing because the land is changing,” said Seth Moore, a wildlife biologist for the Trust Lands Department of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

There were days last winter when the weather was 60 degrees higher than average in Grand Portage, Moore told me. And he said the warming is nothing new. The average August maximum temperature has increased by about five degrees Fahrenheit from 1960 to the present, while the average February snow depth has decreased by about 50 percent since 1950. The changes have badly disturbed the ecosystem in Grand Portage, resulting in an invasion of gray squirrels from the south, the total depopulation of trout in some area lakes, and an exponential increase in deer. Deer in particular have spelled trouble for moose, the Chippewa’s primary cultural subsistence species, which has plummeted 60 percent in population over the past decade.

This moose was diagnosed with brain worms, Seth tells us. "Collar data indicated it had not moved in several weeks. We hiked in and found it barely alive, but unable to move its hind legs. It was euthanized and brain tissue was sent for diagnosis."

“It’s staggering,” Moore said. “Our winter severity hasn’t been sufficient to knock the deer population back, and they started transferring parasites like liver flukes, brain worms, and ticks to moose.”

“Moose aren’t a native host, and it makes them crazy. They get all kinds of neurological symptoms—they walk in circles, don’t eat, and ultimately die.” 

In response to this, Moore and other band members have developed a climate-change adaptation plan that is premised on a Native American philosophy called Seventh Generation Planning. The philosophy aims to keep the quality of the environment the same from great grandparent to great grandchild. In Grand Portage, Seventh Generation Planning has a strong focus on species that are of critical importance to the Chippewa tribe, like moose.

But it also stresses cultivating an ability to adapt. While there are moose on the landscape, Moore says, the tribe will do everything it can to protect them. But if the population falls below a certain threshold, the Chippewa may be forced to make an ecological—and cultural—decision to shift their focus to deer. And for a group that’s been hunting moose as long as it can remember, that’s crushing.  

Elsewhere, tribes are finding that changing climate creeps in to seemingly unrelated issues. An effort to correct a lack of quality housing in South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation, for example, where thousands wait on a Bureau of Indian Affairs housing waiting list, has been forced to address an increase in erratic weather patterns.

Earlier this year, Nick Tilsen, a 29-year-old Lakota organizer from Pine Ridge, partnered with a number of area organizations and educational institutions in an effort to produce environmentally sound housing in the reservation, where he saw “almost no snow” this winter and “ducks flying north in January and February.” Now, he says, spring has sprung so early that he’s already seen A) a Bull Snake, B) flowering wild plumb trees and lilac bushes, and C) no snow when there’s usually “six to eight inches of” it. Tribal leaders, fearing that a severe drought may be on the way, have already issued a reservation-wide ban on fires.

But back to the issue of housing. As a matter of necessity, Tilsen says, the buildings will need to be able to withstand increasingly sudden shifts from cold to hot weather. “In the northern Plains there have always been extremes,” he said. “What I’ve seen lately is that the extremes ride closer together. You need heating and cooling systems that can adjust to that.” 

Native Americans like Tilsen and Moore have only recently taken to preparing for climate change. Many state governments currently have them beat. Thirty-one U.S. states, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, have worked out climate-change adaptation plans. Conversely, federally recognized tribes, which often lack financial resources, find themselves behind the curve.

But they are catching up. In the past two years a total of 138 participants have taken part in the climate-change training at the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, at Northern Arizona University. The institute provides educational and technical assistance, and is helping create a sense of group consciousness on the issue among tribes.

Some tribes, however, already face impacts that may be too grave to mitigate. This is particularly true in circumpolar areas.

In Canada’s Northwest Territories, the Inuvialuit have seen scores of lakes and inlets vanish as a result of erosion and melting permafrost. Grimly, they have also seen an increase in the phenomenon of Inuvialuit gravesites washing away into the sea.

Photo by Leah Byrne

No one I spoke with was able to provide an accurate count of the number of gravesites that have disappeared. In the old days, I was told, gravesites used to dot the coastline, but all said that erosion has dashed the number.

“When I was growing up the graveyards were a long ways from the ocean, maybe 40 feet from the shoreline,” said Frank Pokiak, Chair of the Inuvialuit Game Council. “Now most of them have eroded into the ocean.”

“It’s a real big change,” Pokiak said. “You walk along the beach and find the remains of bones.”

In a case of catch-22, the Inuvialuit do not believe in disturbing gravesites, so the remains of the dead, and items buried with them, simply unearth themselves and lay exposed. But even if the Inuvialuit were to touch the graves, Pokiak says, the fact of the matter is that the erosion is beyond control. “There’s nothing we can do to try to stop it,” he said. “There are too many shorelines to protect.”

Glenn Burlack in his backyard with kids after a hunt.

But it’s not always major shifts, melting permafrost and vanishing moose, that convince. A cascade of little things tipped off Glenn Burlack, a 44-year-old Lumbee Indian, who has seen one anomaly after another in the woods and swamplands that surround his home in La Plata, southern Maryland.

It started last winter when Burlack began finding ladybugs and stinkbugs—summer bugs—in his house. “I even saw mosquitos in there,” he says. Then hunting season came and he shot a deer. Its intestines were full of tiny white worms, parasites usually found in the summertime. “But this one was loaded.” So was the next. When trapping season came he caught a raccoon. Should have been denned up, he thought. Then he caught another, and another, and another after that.

Almost every animal he bagged had a tick on it. The cilantro plant in his backyard never died. The ground didn’t freeze. Nature didn’t get a chance to rest.

“When its supposed to be cold and you’ve got 70-degree weather, people get excited,” Burlack, who now fears a spring epidemic of mange, said. “But I’m like, 'you’re gonna pay. We’re gonna pay.'”

“And you know how it leaves me feeling?” he said. “It leaves me feeling sad.”

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