Indigenous Peoples face disproportionate impacts from climate change—and are using traditional knowledge to address the threat
During a bird hunt, boys (above) cross a flooded walkway in the Yup’ik village of Newtok, Alaska. Destabilized by melting permafrost and erosion, the village began relocating residents to higher ground in 2019, the first Native Alaskan village forced to move because of climate change. Bounded by the Quinault River and Pacific Ocean, the town of Taholah, Washington (below)—heart of the Quinault Indian Nation—floods when high tides overwhelm the sea wall built to protect the town. (Photo above by Katie Orlinsky)
THIS PAST JANUARY, OFFSHORE WINDS and an exceptionally high tide sent 13 feet of Pacific Ocean water pouring over Lia Frenchman’s house in Taholah, Washington, heart of the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington state. Waves also crashed over the town’s sea wall, flooding streets and forcing residents to scramble to safety. It has become an all-too-familiar trauma.
Heavy rain pelted the village for the next five days. Its drainage system, built in the early 1900s, couldn’t handle the volume and backed up, causing further flooding. Frenchman and her two children stayed with a friend until the rain stopped and the water drained. One neighbor, with memories of devastation from an equally intense winter storm last year, left town. Years ago, in response to rising water, the village drafted plans for relocation to higher ground.
Taholah is bearing witness to rising sea levels, coastal erosion and frequent, intense storms that are among the hallmarks of climate change. “We are at the mercy of how the planet is reacting to what is happening to the planet,” says Frenchman. “We can either address the warning signs or ignore them and suffer the consequences.”
Indigenous Peoples across the United States—indeed, across the world—are at disproportionate risk from the devastating impacts of climate change, including sea-level rise, drought, erosion, melting permafrost, extreme heat, violent storms, displaced wildlife, loss of traditional foods and medicines and the ill health resulting from these assaults. Though Indigenous Peoples had lived sustainably in harmony with the natural world for millennia, their forced removal to subpar lands by colonizers—and exposure to greenhouse gas emissions from the fossil fuel-based economies of the world’s richest nations—have put them on the front lines of today’s climate crisis.
A study published last year in the journal Science found that Indigenous Peoples in the United States have lost nearly 99 percent of their original homelands, and “the lands to which they were forcibly migrated are more vulnerable to climate change and contain fewer resources.” “We are the ones who have had the least to do with carbon emissions, and yet we’re the ones who are being most heavily impacted,” says Patricia Cochran, an Iñupiaq Elder and executive director of the Alaska Native Science Commission.
Stark examples abound. In Newtok, Alaska, melting permafrost caused the schoolhouse to sink, cliffs to crumble and rooftops to split in two, forcing residents to relocate inland. On Isle de Jean Charles off coastal Louisiana—home to descendants of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw People—98 percent of the land has vanished into the Gulf of Mexico due to storms, erosion and sea-level rise. Across the Upper Midwest, crop yields of northern wild rice, a traditional staple food for Anishinaabe communities, are dwindling due to excessive rains, higher water temperatures and invasive species. And subsistence foods—from salmon and shellfish to caribou and whales—are in decline in many Indigenous regions due to climate-related disruptions.
The nation’s history of marginalizing Indigenous Peoples—taking their land and then failing to ensure adequate funding, infrastructure, rights or resources—exacerbates the challenges for Tribal Nations and other Indigenous communities. “Many of the federal programs that focus on natural resource management and conservation outright exclude Tribes,” says Garrit Voggesser, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Tribal Partnerships Program.
While climate change isn’t discerning about who it impacts, how or when, a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report points to communities on coastal and river floodplains as being especially vulnerable because of the intense impacts of sea-level rise, coastal flooding and erosion. The crisis is particularly acute in Alaska, home to more than 220 Indigenous groups. Recent scientific estimates show that the entire Arctic is warming as much as four times faster than the rest of the world, destabilizing communities, ecosystems and the people who depend on them for survival. “Our greatest fear,” says Bruce Sexauer, chief of civil works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Alaska District, “is that a storm will hit Shaktoolik in the middle of the night ... and the whole community is wiped out.”
Relocation is the only option for many of these vulnerable Native Alaskan coastal communities, and at least four of them—Shaktoolik, Newtok, Shishmaref and Kivalina—are considering or have begun relocating. Moving to safer homes with modern infrastructure can improve quality of life in some ways, but the process is complicated and extremely expensive, given the remote locations and convoluted funding structure for such projects, which may involve state, federal, Tribal and private funds. More important, the psychological toll can be incalculable.
The physical, mental, cultural, intellectual, spiritual and social well-being of Indigenous Peoples are intimately linked to the natural world and a generational connection to homelands, which are all the more sacred because they hold the burial grounds of ancestors. This can make the prospect of leaving—especially for those whose ancestors had already been forced out of their traditional lands—deeply painful.
The Iñupiat village of Kivalina is working to find a way forward as its people face these very issues. Located at the tip of a narrow barrier island between the Chukchi Sea and a lagoon at the mouth of the Wulik River, this village of roughly 400 people is only about a half-mile long and 800 feet wide. Though they historically ranged widely across the region, hunting on the island seasonally, the Iñupiat settled on Kivalina in the early 1900s after the U.S. government built a school there and told the people they had to send their children to the school or face imprisonment.
Despite their forced move, the Iñupiat People continued to make a life, traversing thick sea ice to hunt bearded seals and bowhead whales as part of a subsistence diet. That ice protected the island from surging seas, and ice cellars carved into permafrost preserved food. But climate change profoundly threatens this way of life.
Coastal erosion and rising sea levels have been shrinking Kivalina for decades. Witheringly thin and patchy sea ice makes hunting unsafe and can no longer protect the island from more frequent and severe storms. And warming temperatures are melting the permafrost, releasing carbon and potentially dangerous microbes and putting ice cellars, infrastructure and homes at risk.
“We saw gradual changes, but for us, it was 2004 when our land started falling and we realized that the ice wasn’t there to buffer the fall storms,” says Colleen Swan, a Kivalina Elder. The community considered relocating inland to Kiniktuuraq, but studies showed melting permafrost made that site potentially unstable, and the cost would have been astronomical—up to $400 million. To buy time, in 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worked with the Iñupiat to construct a rock retaining wall around Kivalina to slow erosion, and in 2020, the state built a roughly 7-mile evacuation road across the lagoon to connect Kivalina to the mainland and provide access to a newly built school. That road might literally become a lifeline: The Army Corps predicts the island could be underwater as soon as 2025.
Hundreds of miles away, on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula, the Quinault and other coastal Indigenous Peoples are grappling with similar issues, but instead of melting sea ice and unreachable bowheads, it’s the threat of tsunamis and dwindling salmon that spark sleepless nights—with good reason. Taholah sits on the Cascadia subduction zone, susceptible to earthquakes and subsequent tsunamis, which could submerge the village in at least 40 feet of water, exacerbating the increasingly worrisome high-water threat.
Frenchman’s 8-year-old son is anxious about tsunami drills held regularly at his school. “He talks about it all the time,” she says, “but we know where to go.” This 3-square-mile village of nearly 800 residents has an evacuation road that leads to what will eventually be a new village about a half-mile uphill, safer from pounding storms and high water. “The great news is we’re still on the lands of our ancestors,” says Michael Cardwell, a Quinault Indian Nation Elder and land use planner who was instrumental in developing Taholah’s hazard mitigation plan.
Beyond relocation—an option of last resort—Indigenous Peoples use their own traditional ecological knowledge to sustain their natural resources and ways of life in the face of climate change. This knowledge is rooted in stories passed down through generations and based on observations of how to live in harmony with nature. These stories teach when caribou and salmon will migrate, where wild herbs will blossom and when grasslands or forests should be burned to spark new growth. And they teach how to spot imbalances in nature, as when sea ice is too thin or invasive pests weaken trees traditionally used for basket weaving.
Armed with such knowledge, Indigenous Peoples are leading the way as climate stewards, demanding a seat at the decision-making table and collaborating with each other and non-Tribal agencies and organizations to build climate resilience and preparedness. They have much to teach those willing to listen.
Known as the People of the Salmon, the Swinomish Tribe—now confined to a reservation on low-lying Fidalgo Island in Washington state—developed an ambitious climate action plan in 2010 to address the alarming drop in salmon populations and sustain other traditional foods. They’ve restored river channels, planted trees to cool warming waters and convinced farmers to increase setbacks to improve water quality. In 2018, to restore littleneck clam populations, the Swinomish revived the centuries-old Tribal practice of clam gardening, which involves building rock walls to create terraces where clams can thrive, then be harvested at low tide—the first modern-day clam garden in the nation.
Many other Indigenous groups are combining traditional knowledge with modern methods to understand and mitigate climate challenges. In 2020, for example, the Iñupiat on Kivalina partnered with the University of Washington to develop the Kivalina Sea Ice Project, which uses tools like NASA’s Worldview to document changes in sea ice along Kivalina’s Chukchi coast. And the Quinault People are working to restore spawning habitat for blueback salmon, also called Quinault sockeye, by using huge cranes to construct log jams in the Quinault River. The jams slow the river and create space where salmon can rest and grow.
On the world stage, Indigenous Peoples from across the globe gathered at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Scotland in 2021 to share their lived experiences and demand meaningful climate action. In a speech prior to the conference, Fawn Sharp—former president of the Quinault Indian Nation, president of the National Congress of American Indians and the first Tribal leader named an official U.S. delegate to the climate conference—recalled flying in a helicopter over a glacier that had fed the Quinault River in her homeland for centuries. When she looked down, she saw only “a pool of murky water” where ice once stood. “The place where my ancestors signed our treaty is now underwater,” she said.
Such visceral experiences of the impacts of climate change and their long tenure as natural resource managers give Indigenous Peoples a leading voice in demanding environmental justice and determining how it should be achieved. “You have to look at how the climate affects the animals, the people, the plants, the air, the water, everything,” says Cochran. “Everything is circular. That’s the kind of worldview that we’re lucky to be born into.”
Recognizing historic inequity toward Tribal Nations, the National Wildlife Federation partners with Tribes to ensure access to the resources necessary to address climate impacts to their communities. Since 2005, NWF has collaborated with Tribes to secure equitable funding in federal climate initiatives and, in 2011, played a key role in advancing the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ climate resilience program, which now provides $17 million a year for Tribal climate conservation, adaptation and relocation. From wildlife management to infrastructure to employing traditional ecological knowledge, climate is a priority for Tribes—and NWF helps ensure Tribal voices are heard and the U.S. government fulfills its obligations to sovereign Tribal Nations.
Science writer Divya Abhat is based in Maryland.
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