Bridging divides at climate change symposium

Carol Berry
3/31/08

BOULDER, Colo. - Scientists and American Indian tribal leaders met March 20 to bridge cultural and technical divides in an effort to combat global warming and to forge a Western/indigenous approach to other hazards facing planet Earth and its inhabitants.

;'Planning for Seven Generations: Indigenous & Scientific Approaches to Climate Change'' was a symposium sponsored by the American Indian & Alaska Native Climate Change Working Group, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Glaciers disappearing on Tanganyika's Mount Kilimanjaro; large ships sailing the Northwest Passage nearly year-round; eagle migrations shrinking in numbers on Blackfoot lands in Canada; fish populations dwindling in Puget Sound; sea levels rising and permafrost shrinking elsewhere - these were among the signs that confronted the more than 150 people from the United States and abroad who attended the conference.

It has been 40 million years since Earth experienced a warming at the pace found today and, accordingly, it has not been experienced by humans, NCAR senior scientist Jeff Kiehl told conferees.

''We're slowly going down, but I don't see anybody telling us we're slowly going down,'' said Billy Frank Jr., 77, Nisqually and a keynote speaker. He is known internationally as an early fishing rights activist and later as a prominent advocate for the preservation of salmon and other natural resources.

The cultural context of the symposium was established at the beginning with the formal entry of an eagle staff and a traditional invocation in the Kiowa language by John Emhoolah, head of the Native American Resource Group for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Welcoming remarks were given by Richard Anthes, president of UCAR, and Timothy Killeen, NCAR director, who addressed the ''first generation of this fledgling knowledge'' about

the biosphere.

Climate change perspectives rooted in indigenous experience and quantified in current scientific results alternated in the symposium, whose goal was to blend traditional knowledge with experimental science techniques.

Elisabeth Holland, NCAR scientist and a lead author on reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a keynote speaker, described the intergovernmental group as led by elders of the scientific community.

She described a climate that has gotten warmer since 1860 - 0.75 Celsius on average - and, while initial queries were whether warming was from human activity or natural change, ''warming is unequivocal.''

The rise in greenhouse gases is ''unprecedented'' and clearly due to the burning of fossil fuels. In 2007, warming was believed very likely to be from increases in those gases. And because the natural world consumes 50 percent of carbon dioxide, the natural world is important, she said.

Although some uncertainties remain, precipitation changes currently exceed what was estimated 10 - 15 years ago, she said. A warmer atmosphere carries more water; as the sea level rises, there are more extremes, so that it is wet in some places and dry in others.

During a question-and-answer period, she agreed with a Native student that global warming could represent the earth ''fighting back'' against human influence.

Frank said indigenous people ''have been left out - when they want to use us, they use us; when they want to abuse us, they abuse us.''

Frank referred to changes in the sun, moon, weather, tides and temperature as he said that salmon runs ''depend on what the Creator has built in.''

''Like the buffalo on the Plains, Indians see the salmon disappearing.''

He said Indian people have historically been stewards of the land, plants and animals, and they have never left it. ''Indian tribes are where they are - you don't move - that's you, that's who you are.''

Although other people may move according to changed circumstances, ''we don't move,'' Frank said. ''We're on watersheds. We're on prairies. We're on mountains. We know everything that's there.''

State and federal governments have not been good land managers because it is documented that ''everything is poisoned.'' The food chain is slowly disappearing and the ''forest under the sea is dying,'' he said.

Indian nations are ''barely surviving,'' Frank said. Treaties in Washington state allowed Seattle and Tacoma to be built, but ''what have they done for us? They have never done a damn thing except poison our animals, our medicines.''

Once, Native people knew they could survive off the land; but today, due to environmental degradation, it is doubtful. ''Our animals are moving further and further away and our salmon are not showing up.''

Asserting that the attitudes of science must change, he observed that ''You can't just walk into our villages and say, 'We know what's best for you.' If you want success, include our tribes.

''We've got to teach our children that responsibility [for positive change].''

The importance of personal accountability was also voiced by symposium panelist Albert White Hat, Lakota, from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, a community leader and 25-year Lakota language teacher.

''One way we can address this [global issues] is that we all have a responsibility.

''Every tribe has their own way and they need to return to spiritual ways to save the earth, the air and the water,'' he said.

Western culture ''needs to learn humility, to learn to share and to take responsibility,'' White Hat continued. ''Western culture is killing all of us.''

Moderator of one of the first-day panels was Daniel Wildcat, a Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma, a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University, Lawrence, Kan., and author of the upcoming ''Red Alert: Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge'' (May 2008).

Panelist Leroy LittleBear, a member of the Blood Tribe of the Blackfoot Confederacy, is a former director of the American Indian Program at Harvard University and professor emeritus of Native studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta.

He said the church was initially regarded as the knowledge-keeper, then the scientist; and now, after 300 years, society is saying, ''We really don't have the answers - we think that the answers are in you [indigenous peoples].''

The Native paradigm holds that everything is in constant flux, moving, changing and transforming; that everything is about energy waves, not particles; that everything is animate and interrelated; and that renewal occurs through repetition, a method used to teach children and embodied in ceremonies and songs, he said.

Of the aphorism ''It's hard to be an Indian,'' he said, ''I always have to walk around in a web of relationships - I have to look at everything, not things in isolation.''

Other American Indian/Alaska Native participants included Craig Fleener, Vuntut Gwitchen from Fort Yukon, Alaska, regional wildlife biologist with the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments in Fort Yukon. He said of Western science, ''We need tools that help us to adapt to changes that are coming.''

James Rattling Leaf, of the Sicangu Policy Institute, Sinte Gleska University, Mission, S.D., said he works with the interface between science and culture. He said the first step is to define how NCAR and the Native working group can address climate change together - the way in which ''Natives work with science organizations.''

Although many attendees stressed the need for collaboration, others questioned the degree to which Indian people were consulted or included at the highest level of planning in scientific or policy-making circles.

Suzanne Benally, Navajo, associate vice president for academic affairs in the Naropa University environmental studies department, spoke to issues of environmental racism and environmental justice. Speaking during a question-and-answer session, she noted a ''huge chasm'' between different worldviews and a ''history of power, privilege and racism in this country.''

It is important for individuals to explore their own unacknowledged racism when framing the discourse about indigenous knowledge and scientific theory, she said.

Noting the dominant society's appropriation of Native lands, culture and spirituality, she questioned why Native people are being asked to participate at this time.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page