No Longer the Miner’s Canary

By Zoltán Grossman

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Indigenous Nations’ Responses to Climate Change

Climate change is usually portrayed as a process of “global warming” that is so large that it can be addressed only by national governments or international agencies. We are told that we can only respond to climate change in a personal way—by changing our light bulbs or automobiles—and that we cannot change the industrial policies that generate most greenhouse gases (also called carbon emissions). We are made to feel powerless and fatalistic in the face of the biggest threat to the Earth’s well-being in its history.

Excerpt from Asserting Native Reslience: Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Face the Climate Crises, edited by Zoltán Grossman and Alan Parker. Copyright © 2012 by Zoltán Grossman and Alan Parker. Reprinted by permission of Oregon State University Press. A previous version of this article was published in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal 32:3 (2008).

Asserting Native Reslience: Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Face the Climate Crises, edited by Zoltán Grossman and Alan Parker

Yet increasingly, the most effective solutions to global warming are not being seen at the national or international scale, but at the local scale. European cities have taken steps to curb their greenhouse gases, and U.S. cities are beginning to follow their example, rather than follow the inaction of their federal government. Municipal, state, and provincial governments are also beginning to respond, particularly on the west coast.

On one hand, Indigenous peoples are on the front line of climate change—the first to feel its effects, with subsistence economies and cultures that are the most vulnerable to climate catastrophes. Paraphrasing Felix Cohen, Paul Havemann and Helena Whall observe, “Indigenous Peoples are like the miner’s canary. When their cultures and languages disappear this reflects the profound sickness in the ecology.” In this view, the fate of Native peoples provides an early warning to the fate of all humanity.

On the other hand, Indigenous peoples have certain advantages in responding to the challenge of climate change, compared to non-Native neighbors or local governments. They want their continuing lifeways (not their death) to provide some direction to the rest of humanity. Perhaps the “miner’s canary” formulation could be revised, so the canary escapes the cage, flaps its wings, and shows the hapless miner a safe way out of the toxic mine. Indigenous knowledge and experience has the potential to help the rest of humanity get more out of harm’s way.

Native peoples have faced massive ecological and economic changes in the past—from colonialism, genocide, epidemics, industrialization, and urbanization—yet many Native cultures have survived against overwhelming odds. The climate crisis is the latest, and perhaps the ultimate challenge, but this history may make Native peoples better equipped than the non-Native society that is reliant on chain grocery stores and shopping malls. It is critical that tribal climate change discourse not only warn Native communities of the dangers in climate instability, but empower them around inherent tribal strengths:

  • Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Indigenous cultures have centuries of experience with local natural resources, so they can recognize environmental changes before Western scientists detect them and can develop ways to respond to these changes.
  • Political Sovereignty: Because tribes have a unique status as nations, they can develop their own models of dealing with climate change and managing nature in a sustainable way.
  • A Sense of Community: In contrast to much of the non-Native population, Indigenous peoples still have community. Native peoples still have extended families that care for each other, assume responsibility for each other, and extend hospitality in times of need.

The Treaty of Indigenous Nations builds that sense of community, by including other tribal nations in the community, even those who live on the other side of imposed colonial borders or on the other side of the ocean. Indigenous peoples have survived the effects of colonialism and environmental destruction only by cooperating with each other. It is no longer just a good idea to build these relationships; climate change makes them much more urgent. This article explores some of the relationships that are already being built or have the potential to be built among Indigenous nations, then with local governments, national governments, and international agencies.


Cooperation among Indigenous Governments

In the coming years of climate change, intertribal cooperation will become more important, in order for Indigenous cultures and communities to survive. Many recent reports and articles have examined in depth the threat of climate change to Indigenous peoples and cultures, but precious little has been written about possible responses.

The Northwest Indian Applied Research Institute (NIARI) has described the effects of climate change on the Pacific Rim region in its 2006 report Climate Change and Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations. NIARI later published a companion Community Organizing Booklet, with the technical language translated into understandable English for tribal members. NIARI’s Climate Change and Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Project has developed and presented recommendations to tribal governments.

On August 1, 2007, indigenous nations from within the United States, Canada, Australia, and Aotearoa (New Zealand) signed a treaty to found the United League of Indigenous Nations. The Treaty of Indigenous Nations offers a historic opportunity for sovereign Indigenous governments to build intertribal cooperation, outside the framework of the colonial settler states. Just as the Pacific Rim states have cooperated to limit Native sovereign rights and build polluting industries, Indigenous nations can cooperate to decolonize ancestral territories and protect their common natural resources for future generations.

The treaty process has involved indigenous political alliances such as the National Congress of American Indians, the Assembly of First Nations in Canada, and Ngati Awa Maori Confederation. The treaty identifies four main areas of cooperation: increasing trade among Indigenous nations, protecting cultural properties, easing border crossings, and responding to the urgent threat of climate change.

Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Rim already share much in a common natural region, have similar fishing cultures, and have been in contact with each other for many centuries. In the treaty, the second Mutual Covenant commits the signatory nations to “collaborating on research on environmental issues that impact indigenous homelands, including baseline studies and socio-economic assessments that consider the cultural, social, and sustainable uses of indigenous peoples’ territories and resources.” The United League of Indigenous Nations (ULIN) can help facilitate this collaboration by helping to build an Indigenous nations’ climate change network. This network could include different working committees, which would include representatives from:

  • Tribal or First Nation sovereign governments
  • Indigenous community members, traditional harvesters, and spiritual leaders
  • Researchers, educators, and students

Exchanges within this network (working with existing Indigenous organizations) could help implement practical projects to adapt to (or mitigate) survivable climate changes and develop joint responses to more destructive climate changes. These exchanges could include sharing information, connecting tribal youth, training harvesters of shifting plant and animal species, and ensuring access to food, water, and power.

Sharing Information

In order to survive climate change, Indigenous communities will have to share information with each other about the effects of global warming, as well as share different responses. But the first priority is to share information within each community. With Indigenous governments’ success in establishing their own environmental departments, many tribal members assume that staff members will take care of all natural resource issues. Some tribal natural resources staff are already working on climate change–related issues. But the challenge of climate change will not be met by tribal government officials alone; it is simply too huge of a problem and needs to involve the entire community.

The tribal government can get tribal members gathered together to share information, and tribal members can request their elected officials to respond to their concerns about the effects of climate change. The first step is to bring together tribal members to discuss how climate change might be affecting tribal life and culture and what can be done about it within the tribe, or in cooperation with other governments. In 1998, NASA funded a Native Peoples/Native Homelands national conference, which included workshops of tribal members documenting the effects of climate change on their regional cultures.


In November 2009, the second conference drew tribal college and university students and White House Council on Environmental Quality staff to Shakopee (Minnesota) to discuss “Indigenous Responses to the Challenge” of climate change.

A series of regional and national conferences have been held on tribal climate change issues. The Tribal Lands Climate Conference held at the Cocopah Nation in Arizona in 2006 was an example of intertribal cooperation to document global warming. A water rights group held a climate change conference hosted by Washington’s Squaxin Island Tribe in 2007. Around the same time, the University of Colorado Natural Resources Law Center published a report on the effects of the climate crisis on tribes in different U.S. regions:Native Communities and Climate Change: Protecting Tribal Resources as Part of National Climate Policy.

In 2008, the emphasis began to switch from documenting the effects of climate change to discussing tribal responses. A conference was held in Boulder on “Planning for Seven Generations: Indigenous and Scientific Approaches to Climate Change,” by the American Indian and Alaska Native Climate Change Working Group. Tribal Climate Change Forums in Oregon drew tribal agency representatives from around the Northwest starting in 2009. Northern Arizona University started a Tribes and Climate Change websiteto gather information of effects and responses.

Because their environment is being so drastically altered by climate change, Indigenous peoples in the Arctic and Subarctic are leading the way in sharing information about its effects. For example, one Inuit community in Nunavut held large community discussions and produced a video. An educational book was cooperatively produced from interviews with hunters and fishers from 26 Inuit and Cree communities around Hudson Bay. In Alaska, according to Aleut leader Larry Merculieff, Aleut villages have held community meetings of harvesters to discuss changes in the resources. Merculieff stresses the importance of including both elders and youth in these discussions and of collecting field samples and observations together. He says, “As species go down, the levels of connection between older and younger go down along with that.”

Connecting Youth

It will be especially important to share information with youth in Indigenous communities, to make them more aware of climate change and get them energized and involved in the issue. Through practicing their culture with their elders, they can learn traditional ecological knowledge and be more able to understand changes in weather patterns or in plant and animal species. Through working with each other, young people can also learn about climate change and educate their entire communities about the issues. The urgency of responding to climate change is being incorporated into tribal youth conferences and can become a key part of exchanges among Indigenous nations.

Tribal leadership can encourage middle school, high school, and college-age youth to form their own groups to get active. First Nations youth were among the activists outside the UN conference on climate change held in Montreal in 2005, as part of the Energy Action’s youth climate movement It’s Getting Hot in Here. Native youth organized by the Indigenous Environmental Network have represented the Campus Climate Challenge and attended Powershift student climate conferences and rallies, such as the 2009 Green Jobs rally in front of the U.S. Capitol. Alaska Youth for Environmental Action sent delegates to Japan and Iceland to attend the International Youth Eco-Forum on Climate Change and Renewable Energy and collected thousands of signatures on a climate change petition, which they presented to their congressional delegation at the U.S. Capitol.

But youth also can become involved in their local communities. A model already exists among B.C. First Nations, who have trained Aboriginal young people to map their territories, in order to protect natural resources and strengthen land claims. The youth in the strategic watershed analysis teams interview elders and other harvesters, gather field data with GPS units, and produce maps. Starting in the Tribal Canoe Journey of 2008, First Nations and tribal youth have been involved in water sampling to investigate effects of climate change in the Salish Sea, as part of an initiative sponsored by the Coast Salish Gathering. Similar youth teams could also participate in tribal hazard identification and vulnerability assessments to examine how to “harden” their communities against destructive climate change, or help tribal planning departments develop long-term plans for survival. Since they will be around to see the full effects of global warming, tribal youth deserve a role in planning for the future.

PelicanTraining for New Species

As the weather becomes warmer farther north, we will be seeing more species shift out of their usual habitats and into other regions. In the Pacific Northwest, this will both mean that some plant and animal species will move from south to north and also that they will shift up mountain slopes. The most endangered species are those that cannot shift quickly—such as trees—and shifting land-based species that are blocked by a body of water (such as the Salish Sea), high elevation (the tree line), or high latitude (the tundra) and cannot migrate any further. Droughts could also severely hurt species just when they are vulnerable, unless urgent measures are taken to protect their habitats.

Plant, animal, and marine species will shift into new areas, where tribal harvesters may not be familiar with them, and they may not fit into local Indigenous cultural and spiritual systems. Indigenous communities are already thinking about the implications of traditional resources moving out of their historic territories. Some fish runs, for example, may disappear, and other fisheries may be replaced partially or entirely by new species coming from the south. Whether or not Indigenous harvesters can adapt to these new species may determine whether tribal economies survive. New pests and diseases (such as the spruce bark beetle infestation) already threaten tribal health and economies. In either case, Indigenous nations that choose to adapt to the new species can draw on the expertise of neighbors further south.

Species have migrated before in the past (even if not as suddenly), so tribal ancestors must have helped each other adapt. Indigenous governments can help facilitate a series of exchanges between tribal communities, so they can teach each other about unfamiliar species and train each other how to harvest (or avoid) them. At the Tribal Lands Climate Conference, a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) woman reported that she had visited relations to her south to learn what was coming into her territories, then visited communities to her north to let them know what may be coming their way.

In the Pacific Northwest, we can learn from people in California about their species, and people in British Columbia and Alaska may have to learn about our species. Basketweavers from coastal tribes have “stated that they often purchase bark from gatherings or trade with other tribes” further north. The existing relationships and family bonds among different nations will be immensely helpful in preparing for the arrival of new species and in learning techniques to harvest them.

Cooperation in Food Security

Another important area in which tribes can cooperate is in securing access to food in times of shortage. We have all grown used to going down to the supermarket to get our basic essentials. But all it takes is one storm power outage, or one flood or landslide, to remind a community of “the old days” when food did not come only out of a grocery bag. Indigenous peoples know (better than most non-Native neighbors) how fishing, hunting, gardening, and so on can supply needed food in hard times.

A growing movement for Native agriculture and food systems is emphasizing locally grown, traditional foods that revitalize tribal cultures and a sense of community and local control. Traditional foods are also healthier for tribal members than the colonial white flour and sugar diet that has created an epidemic of diabetes. Because traditional crops and animals are historically more locally adapted, they also can be more resilient to climate changes. Some tribes are researching and adopting more deep-rooted or drought-resistant “ancient seeds for modern needs” into their food systems (through such organizations as Native SEEDS/Search). Other tribes are reintroducing bison and other locally adapted livestock.

But what if climate change also affects traditional foods, creating a shortage of fish and wild game, or drying up farm crops or gardens? Tribes need to think ahead to these situations when basic needs cannot be met with local foods. Some tribes have food storage facilities, but storage for both perishable and non-perishable crops are needed for food security. Intertribal cooperation will become essential, since some tribes lack suitable conditions or enough land for sustainable agriculture, while other tribes have adequate land, food crops, and livestock herds. Intertribal agreements could set up a trade network that takes food security into account, particularly within a single region (since fuel shortages may disrupt long-distance transport). A precedent can be seen in the growing network of remote agricultural tribes supplying Native foods (such as bison and salmon) to tribal casinos in more urbanized areas.

Whether they decide to cooperate about food security, harvesting new species, or sharing information, it is to the advantage of Indigenous governments to make agreements with each other now, when they have funds and resources available, rather than in response to a local climate change crisis, in which resources may be scarce and funding prioritized for other communities. The same situation holds for cooperation between tribes and their neighboring non-Native towns, especially since the relationships between tribal and local governments are often tenuous or even tense. Building a positive relationship before an emergency hits will enhance mutual understanding and cooperative bonds that can help each other survive.


Tribal and Local Governments

In some areas, Indigenous and local governments have begun to overcome their differences over jurisdiction and work together for the common good. This cooperation between Native and non-Native neighbors is going to become more crucial as climate changes intensify. The most important ways to survive climate change—adequate food, water, shelter, power, and so forth—are most efficiently and cheaply found in our own local areas. Cut off from help by floodwaters or mudslides or lacking aid from unreliable national agencies (remembering the Federal Emergency Management Agency during Hurricane Katrina), we will all have to rely on our neighbors. When push comes to shove, all that we will have is each other.

Climate change adaptation is usually presented as a sad or scary topic, but it can also be viewed as an unprecedented opportunity. Climate change adaptation can be effectively used as a reason to quickly make fundamental changes in our environmental, economic, and cultural practices that otherwise may take years to implement. Adaptation is a good excuse to make necessary changes that we should be making anyway for a healthier future, and making the changes more quickly than we otherwise would have. For example, regulating stormwater runoff has become more urgent to offset increasing acidification (linked to climate change) of the Salish Sea. A sense of community and respect for the land are no longer just good ideas, but they are absolutely necessary to survive the troubles ahead.

Climate disasters are often used to centralize political control and privatize economies, as described in Naomi Klein’s 2007 classic The Shock Doctrine. As a flip side of the shock doctrine, communities can use climate change adaptation to increase awareness of ecological ways to prevent future disasters, the need to share resources among neighbors, and deepen cooperation between communities—beyond the immediate sandbagging of a river. Some of the most important “green jobs” for youth may be in rural and urban planning, disaster prevention, and emergency response, not only to heal our communities but to make them more humane and sustainable than they were before the disasters.

Renewable Energy Partnerships

Tribal and local governments can cooperate to build renewable energy projects that can reduce their dependence on dirty fossil fuels. Tribes can have access to federal funds and “green tag” renewable energy credits to start up their own energy projects. Perhaps the most promising direction for Indigenous nations in combating climate change is in adopting renewable energy technologies that reduce Native dependency on the colonial economy and the centralized electrical grid, at the same time as providing a model for non-Indigenous communities of reducing fossil fuel use. As a Little Traverse Bay Bands (Michigan) tribal resolution from 2005 states:

Tribal lands represent a vast amount of renewable energy potential, including wind and solar power that can meet the energy needs of both local tribes and surrounding communities; wind power blowing through Indian reservations in just four northern Great Plains states could support almost 200,000 MW of power, enough to reduce output from coal plants by 30 percent and reduce our electricity base global warming pollution by 25 percent, and Great Lakes Indian nations could similarly produce alternative non-polluting renewable energy for our tribal communities and for export.

Renewable energy projects on Native American reservations enable tribes to tap into federal funds and use their sovereignty to shift their energy economies away from the centralized, fossil fuel-dependent model. On the Hopi Reservation, for example, NativeSUN has been installing photovoltaic panels on tribal homes to harvest the Southwest’s abundant solar power. Other U.S. tribes are involved in energy projects that tap into geothermal, tidal, or wind energy sources. They have asked Congress for renewable energy production tax breaks, because the export of renewable power can build a sustainable reservation economy that brings revenue and jobs to rural communities.

The Intertribal Council On Utility Policy (COUP) provides a tribal forum for policy issues dealing with energy operations and services. It asserts that U.S. tribes have “tremendous untapped energy potential in reservation wind resources” such that the Northern Great Plains could become the “Saudi Arabia” of renewable wind energy. In partnership with Native Energy, Intertribal COUP is developing an 80 MW distributed wind project, hosted in 10 MW clusters at eight different reservations. With access to a predictable revenue stream from renewable energy, the tribes can sell power at a profit through the federal energy grid and at the same time reduce dependency on incoming power through the same grid. A successful tribal effort to convert to renewable energy can become the prototype for non-Native communities that also wish to develop decentralized energy economies and reduce fossil fuel use. Northwest Tribes have Energy Planning: A Guide for Northwest Indian Tribes to identify the technologies most appropriate to their locations.

The concept of Native American renewable energies is slowly being combined with the commitments of U.S. cities to shrink their carbon footprint. Mayors from 180 U.S. cities symbolically signed the Kyoto Protocol, committing their governments to reducing carbon emissions even though the federal government had not ratified the protocol. In November 2005, a Native renewable energy summit was held in Denver to discuss ways that U.S. cities and tribes can partner to achieve their economic and environmental goals. The summit was one step toward tribes and cities working together to reduce fossil fuel consumption while generating sustainable energy employment. At least 29 Local Governments for Sustainability have expressed interest in such partnerships, including Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, New Haven, and Brooklyn. As Indian Country Today noted in 2005, “The many cities that have pledged to reduce their dependence on carbon-producing power share a common ground with the tribes. Tribes could lead the way by showing their commitment to clean air and water and creating the potential to expand the distribution of power.”

In Washington state, for example, the Tulalip Tribes are working with local dairy farmers on the Qualco Energy methane project, which creates biogas power from cattle waste. The waste is thus also kept out of the Snohomish River, aiding in tribal salmon recovery efforts. The Makah Tribe was part of a consortium operating the Makah Bay Offshore Wave Energy Pilot Project, studying how to use special buoys to turn the motion of ocean waves into electricity for the county utility, at least until the project’s major investor withdrew in 2008. In British Columbia, the Gitga’at and other First Nations are exploring options for small-scale hydroelectric dams that would not endanger salmon runs.


Joint Land-use Planning

Joint land-use planning by tribal and local governments can prevent some of the most disastrous effects of climate change and build more self-sufficiency. Together, governments also have to anticipate the effects of climate changes, such as preventing hillside erosion, maintaining alternate road access, growing local food crops, and preventing new pests and diseases from getting a local foothold.

One of the most important areas for cooperation is to ensure a supply of fresh water, which may be in demand as glaciers melt and streams and rivers dry up in the summer months. Tribal and local governments can work together to protect and treat their water supplies, conserve water use, and store the glacial runoff in reservoirs or underground aquifer. Tribes can use their federally recognized senior water rights (under the Winters Doctrine) to secure access to fresh water, as it becomes a commodity as valuable as oil or gold.

One of the main threats of global warming is rising sea levels, from both melting polar ice and the warmer, expanding oceans. Coastal communities that already face dangers from storms, floods, and tsunamis now also have to contend with the new threat of rising ocean levels, which make the more familiar threats much more dangerous. The Pacific Northwest coast is particularly vulnerable to these risks. Tribal and local governments need to build and retain wave barriers, prevent shoreline erosion, and build new homes above the floodplains. As one innovative example of planning ahead, the Nisqually Tribe signed an agreement with the City of Olympia in 2008 to switch its drinking water source from McAllister Spring to a wellfield on higher ground. The proactive move avoids possible saltwater intrusion from sea-level rise and restores water flow to Medicine Creek, ironically the site of the signing of the 1854 Treaty.

Joint Emergency Planning

If catastrophe occurs, collaboration by tribal and local governments can also prevent loss of life and community wealth. Many tribes now work with local governments on emergency services, such as acquiring fire trucks or sharing EMT services. Deeper relationships will be needed in case of climate change disasters (such as windstorms, floods, droughts, and landslides) to keep them from wiping out communities and their livelihood.

Tribes can lead the way by being models to neighboring local governments. For example, during a June 2005 tsunami warning, Washington coastal tribes quickly evacuated their reservations, while non-Native citizens were angered that their own local governments did not respond as quickly. In the December 2006 windstorm blackouts, some Washington tribes opened their emergency shelters and health clinics to adjacent towns. After the December 2007 megastorm devastated Lewis County with mudslides and flooding (making Interstate 5 inaccessible for one week), the Chehalis Tribe offered preference for flood victims in job openings for its new resort. The December 2008 blizzard (and resultant January 2009 floods) and January 2012 ice storm also brought together tribal and local governments in their responses. Whether these particular storms were caused by climate change is a matter of scientific debate, but because many residents have experienced isolation during the more intense winter megastorms, they are thinking more about cooperation with their neighbors.

The Swinomish Tribe has taken the lead among Native American nations by starting the Swinomish Climate Change Initiative. The tribe is working closely with local non-Native governments in the Skagit Delta, and has a community engagement group for tribal members to get involved in the adaptation planning process. Chairman Brian Cladoosby hopes the initiative serves as a model for other Northwest tribes to account for climate change in their joint planning with their neighbors.

Tribal and local governments can develop hazard identification and vulnerability assessments not only to deal with short-term emergencies or to develop evacuation procedures. They will also need to look toward pooling their resources for longer-term periods without electricity, gas, or access to supermarkets. People tend to come together in disasters, and sharing will become more essential in the future to meet daily needs of food, water, heat, and power.

However, tribal-local cooperation only works if local governments respect the inherent sovereignty of Indigenous nations and understand how tribal sovereignty can actually benefit them—by pressuring state and federal governments into action. By slowly turning local governments from adversaries into allies, tribal governments can strengthen their own sovereignty.


Native Nations and Federal Governments

Indigenous nations in different countries have many varied relationships to their national governments—from treaty relationships to autonomous territories and (in the United States) federal trust responsibility. In the United States, the Bush administration was reluctant to meet with tribes or to meet international standards. President Obama has been more open to a stronger trust relationship with sovereign tribes, giving an opportunity to tribes to shift gears and go from the defensive to the offensive when it comes to protecting natural resources and economies from climate change. A major obstacle to climate action at the federal level is the climate-skeptic sentiment that has grown during the Obama Administration, shaping its reluctance to take a stand for change at UN climate summits.

One cartoon of the 2009 Copenhagen summit sums up the problem. The conference screen displays the desperately needed measures to lessen greenhouse gas emissions: “Preserve rainforests, Sustainability, Green jobs, Livable cities, Renewables, Clean water, air, Healthy children.” A perturbed white man turns to a woman of color and asks, “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?” (She merely looks back at him, annoyed.)

In September 2009, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar ordered his staff to pay attention to tribal concerns about climate change:

Climate change may disproportionately affect tribes and their lands because they are heavily dependent on their natural resources for economic and cultural identity. As the Department has the primary trust responsibility for the Federal government for American Indians, Alaskan Natives, and tribal lands and resources, the Department will ensure consistent and in-depth government-to-government consultation with tribes and Alaskan Natives on the Department’s climate change initiatives. Tribal values are critical to determining what is to be protected, why, and how to protect the interests of their communities. The Department will support the use of the best available science, including traditional ecological knowledge, in formulating policy pertaining to climate change.

Reforming Federal Laws

An important tribal tool in the United States has been the Treatment-As-State (TAS) status recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The U.S. Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1977, adding Prevention of Significant Deterioration provisions allowing a governmental entity to “redesignate” its air quality to a higher standard. The Northern Cheyenne tribe in Montana was the first tribe to use the amendment to secure “Class I” air quality over its reservation. In 1990, Congress again amended the Clean Air Act to authorize the EPA to treat tribes as “states” whenever tribes are capable of carrying out state-like regulatory and enforcement authority.

TAS status and sovereign environmental standards have been an even stronger tribal environmental tool when they were used to protect a more localized and trackable natural resource: water. In 1987, congressional amendments to the Clean Water Act allowed the EPA to treat “qualified” tribes as states for regulatory and enforcement purposes. The act allowed tribes designated by the EPA to have the same powers as states in setting EPA-approved water quality standards that would govern upstream polluters inside and outside reservation boundaries. Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico, for example, successfully secured TAS status in order to force Albuquerque to stop dumping municipal wastes into the Rio Grande upstream from the reservation.

The power to enhance tribes’ own air and water quality standards represented a new and potentially powerful tool to protect traditional resources and reservation environments, but it has stimulated strong resistance from state and local governments. As of now, TAS standards can counter threats to air and water that (in the words of one tribal environmental coordinator) are “very close, very big, very nasty.” But in the emerging political landscape, tribal governments and their allies could begin to lobby for a change in the law to cover impacts on tribal air and water from more distant sources, such as coal plants, to address even more severe threats, including acid rain and climate change.


Using Treaties to Protect Habitat

Climate change is an environmental violation of treaty rights. Emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere alters the climate and so alters or eliminates habitat for species that tribes were guaranteed access to in the treaties. Since it may destroy habitat for tribal resources, climate change can be seen as a violation of treaty rights. Pacific Northwest tribes have used treaty rights to get a seat at the table to decide resource policy covering treaty resources such as salmon, shellfish, wild game, and medicinal plants. The Northwest Indian Fisheries CommissionColumbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and tribal resource departments use the treaty powers to protect habitat and in doing so are already dealing with issues affected by climate change. When melting glaciers and a reduced mountain snowpack reduce stream flow, salmon and other aquatic life may die. But the treaties only recognize tribal rights within ceded lands and waters, so what happens when the species shift outside the treaty boundaries?

In the Pacific Northwest, the Boldt II process opened up the possibility of tribes using treaty rights in federal court to force states and private interests to protect or restore fish habitat, and to force effective management of natural resources. The prospect would seem to hand tribes an unprecedented legal trump card to protect the environment. After the 1980 Orrick Decision, Northwest tribes used treaty rights as a political and legal wedge to defeat proposals that threatened fish habitats. Yet tribes have been reluctant to pull out their “treaty card” in federal environmental cases. Using the treaties can open tribal sovereignty to unfavorable rulings by federal courts, which have at times interpreted a tribal share in the resources to include a share in the diminishment of the resources.

Despite this tribal reluctance, resource companies were terrified by the implications of the Boldt II process and anticipated that the tribes would continue their string of federal court victories from harvest allocation issues to habitat issues. The industries’ fears in fact provided one more reason for the tribes to not pursue Boldt II in the courts; in short, the tribes did not have to. Industries and state agencies were willing to come to the negotiating table with the tribes, simply out of fear of the drawn-out, expensive, and economically paralyzing lawsuits that would result if they did not. The outcome in Washington state was the present system of tribal–state co-management. The main point is that tribes did not necessarily need a court victory to bring industry and governments to the table.

Yet the tribes are now beginning to win federal court victories to protect salmon habitat. In 2007, the U.S. District Court of Western Washington found in favor of treaty tribes who had sought restrictions on culverts that blocked salmon, and directed the state to repair or replace existing culverts and impose “fish-friendly” conditions on new culverts. The federal court declared “that the right of taking fish, secured to the Tribes in the Stevens Treaties, imposes a duty upon the State to refrain from building or operating culverts under State-maintained roads that hinder fish passage and thereby diminish the number of fish that would otherwise be available for Tribal harvest.” The Culvert Case may provide a precedent for other cases that affect treaty harvesting of natural resources, perhaps one day even resources diminished by climate change.

Protecting Coastal Communities

As mentioned in the previous section, rising sea levels are emerging as one of the main threats from climate change. An ocean level rise of one to four feet may seem gradual, but it can make a huge difference in coastal erosion and storm damage, andIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientific projections go higher—up to 20 feet by 2100—as Greenland’s ice cap melting increases. Tribal and local governments can shore up beaches against higher waves and protect their fresh water supplies from saltwater intrusion, but they can only do so much. Federal involvement is needed when entire villages are endangered. On the Washington coast, federal–tribal cooperation has been enhanced by the establishment of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, which is managed jointly by coastal tribes, the state, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Several Washington tribes have gained federal support to relocate their coastal housing out of floodplains to higher ground. The Quileute Reservation is moving tribal structures in La Push to higher ground, out of the path of tsunamis (like the ones that struck the West Coast in 1964 and 2011). The tribe closed a trail into a National Park Service beach to put pressure on the federal agencies. Congress finally passed a land transfer bill in February 2012. The Hoh tribe has also acquired higher land from neighboring governments to move housing and government offices, through a 2010 congressional bill. The Skokomish tribe plans to move housing out of a low, marshy area (created by the Cushman hydroelectric project), partly to help clean up the Hood Canal. The Makah, Quinault, and Lower Elwha Klallam tribes are similarly planning to shift new housing plans to higher ground. Though all these moves have not been taken specifically because of climate change, rising sea levels make the tribal goals far more urgent.


Affirming Trust Responsibility

As an ultimate goal, tribes could begin to pressure the federal government to curb carbon emissions as part of fulfilling the federal trust responsibility to protect reservation air and water. In 2006, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal permit for a geothermal plant on land sacred to California’s Pit River Tribe, saying that federal “agencies violated their duties . . . and their fiduciary duties to the Pit River Tribe by failing to complete an environmental impact statement.”

Many other similar cases in the United States have addressed federal trust responsibility to ensure the health and well-being of tribes, but generally on a local scale. A compelling exception is the Ninth Circuit ruling in 2006 (Pakootas v. Teck Cominco) that held the Teck Cominco mine in British Columbia responsible for violating U.S. laws by discharging mine wastes downstream in the Columbia River that eventually contaminated the Colville Reservation. The Colville Confederated Tribes had the backing of the EPA and the state of Washington against the Canadian mining company, and a 2004 district court ruling held that U.S. environmental laws apply to pollution regardless of where it originates. The case was put on the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket, and a ruling against cross-border, point-source pollution may provide a loose precedent for climate change litigation.

In February 2008, the Alaskan Iñupiat community of Kivalina sued Exxon Mobil Corporation, eight other oil companies, 14 power utilities, and one coal company in a federal lawsuit, claiming that the greenhouse gases they emit threaten the community’s existence. The lawsuit estimates the cost of the community’s relocation at $400 million. It sought to recover “monetary damages for defendants’ past and ongoing contributions to global warming” and “damages caused by certain defendants’ acts in furthering a conspiracy to suppress the awareness of the link between these emissions and global warming.” The lawsuit was dismissed by the Northern California district court in September 2009, and an appeal was filed (Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp. et al., 2009).

The Winters Doctrine (from the U.S. v. Winters case) recognizes tribal rights to sufficient water for a reservation; but it is not clear if these laws can be used to seek relief when climate change dries up the rivers and streams. The jury is still out on the question of whether Native treaty rights can be used to protect natural resource habitat from a threat as global and pervasive as climate change. Sovereign tribal governments could make appeals to the federal government to cooperate with international agencies in curbing greenhouse gases, but the effectiveness of this appeal is also unclear.

Coordinated International Strategies

At the very least, U.S. tribal governments, First Nations in Canada, Maori tribal nations, and other Indigenous nations could consider a joint, coordinated strategy, to have a voice and presence at the international level. A united Indigenous nations delegation to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is one appropriate vehicle for such advocacy, but certainly not the only one.

Indigenous governments could also consider putting pressure on Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum states to reduce carbon emissions. APEC has brought together states around the Pacific Rim to improve economic and political ties. APEC members include some of the national governments that have been most resistant both to Indigenous sovereignty and to carbon emission reductions. We can often see how federal Indian policies in the United States and Canada are first “tested” in Australia or New Zealand, and vice versa. These former British colonies are coordinating their efforts against both Native rights and greenhouse gas reductions; the responses of Indigenous nations should also become more coordinated.

Because climate change is perhaps the most urgent challenge facing Native peoples today, it is critical that Indigenous nations’ leaders do not wait for a certain critical mass of nations to sign the United League of Indigenous Nations treaty. The most effective climate change cooperation among the nations will not come bureaucratically from above but organically from below, in the direct cross-border relationships among tribal nations themselves. This kind of bilateral and multilateral cooperation has begun to develop across the colonial boundaries in the Salish Sea and the Great Lakes, and it can develop climate change responses to serve as models for other nations.



The most promising avenues for Indigenous climate change advocacy appear to bypass the established global system of sovereign states, by asserting Native sovereignty in other areas. By not including the settler states, the Treaty of Indigenous Nations recognizes that the sovereignty of First Nations does not stem from their relationship with a federal government but is rather inherent, and stems from their existence before the arrival of the colonial powers.

The treaty also recognizes that the powers of Indigenous nations are not simply legally confined within the Western system of laws, but are also social, economic, cultural, and spiritual. Even if the United States, Canada, and other countries are not responsive to Indigenous concerns, tribal leadership has a responsibility to safeguard the health and well-being of the tribal community by working with other Indigenous peoples, allies, and neighbors.

Indigenous nations can begin to exercise the sovereign right to survive climate change by getting engaged with all levels of government—sharing information within their own communities (especially youth and elders), training and assisting each other to meet the challenges of shifting species, working with neighboring governments to coordinate local responses and planning, challenging industries and governments that contribute to global warming, getting involved directly in the international regulatory process, and much more. U.S. tribes, in particular, have an important role in the middle of the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Only if U.S. policy shifts dramatically will the possibility exist of coordinated international action.

The development of renewable energy systems in Indigenous communities can not only protect the environment from fossil fuel burning but also develop tribal economies and build a new web of economic relationships with non-Native local governments and communities. These innovative and creative approaches may be initially reliant on national funding but can help build a de facto sovereign reality on the ground for Indigenous nations. At the same time, they can provide a model to non-Native communities that they do not have to be reliant on centralized, corporate control of the energy economy—the status quo that generated the climate change crisis.

The most important Indigenous responses to climate change will not be in tribal government offices or negotiations over political rights with other governments, but in the ability of tribal members to pass on cultures that respect the land. Tribes have survived conquest, wars, epidemics, poverty, and resource shortages before but have persevered through keeping the cultures strong. The late Ojibwe environmental leader Walter Bresette proposed a Seventh Generation Principle as language for state, tribal, and national constitutions: “The right of the people to use and enjoy air, water, sunlight, and other natural resources determined to be common property, shall not be impaired, nor shall such use impair their availability for future generations.”

The United League of Indigenous Nations is one vehicle for tribal nations to help each other survive the changes ahead and exercise their sovereignty to meet the challenge of global warming, instead of simply asking the colonial system to take action. As Haudenosaunee leader Oren Lyons told the historic 2007 treaty gathering at the Lummi Nation: “Sovereignty is the Act Thereof.



Alaska Youth for Environmental Action

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Native Wind

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Zoltán Grossman is a member of the faculty in geography and Native American and World Indigenous peoples studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He has been a senior research associate at the Northwest Indian Applied Research Institute and its Climate Change and Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Project. He was co-chair of the Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group of the American Association of Geographers in 2008–2010 and an International Geographical Union observer at the 2008 climate change session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. He was a co-founder of the Midwest Treaty Network during the Wisconsin Ojibwe spearfishing conflict and later helped bring together Native nations with their former adversaries in sport fishing groups to protect the fish from metallic mining projects.

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