Wisdom of the Elders
The People of the Caribou explain how climate change has altered the rhythms of life.

Wisdom of the Elders in Alaska Talk Climate Change, Culture, Resilience

Terri Hansen

News about climate change appears almost daily, it seems. Yet for many readers, it’s abstract science they don’t connect to their busy lives. But Native peoples have our indigenous elders living with its disruptions who can bridge that divide, if we would just reach out to them.

That’s what Wisdom of the Elders, a Portland-based nonprofit organization, did. They produced two films and a radio series that offer listeners and viewers a wealth of stories, songs and fascinating details of traditional lifeways in programs framed by culture, traditional knowledge, and climate science.

Wisdom’s project was motivated by five decades of unprecedented environmental and climate issues that Alaska Native peoples have been experiencing, said executive director Rose High Bear (Deg Hit’an Dine, or Alaskan Athabascan).

In the fall of 2012 Mrs. High Bear traveled with her crew to Alaska, a state where climatic changes are clearly evident. Inupiat and Athabascan elders were recorded at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage for the Wisdom of the Elders Radio Series, Indigenous Response to Environmental and Climate Issues.

“We want to help them tell their story of changes they are experiencing, especially in their subsistence lifestyle,” Mrs. High Bear said.

Additional funding allowed Wisdom to return to Alaska in the fall of 2013 to record more stories for a two film project, “Climate Issues from the Perspective of Alaska Native Peoples.” The films run nearly 30 minutes each.

“We want to share the oral history and cultural arts of these peoples so the peoples of the world are aware of the rich cultural heritage being impacted and becoming jeopardized due to today's changing climate,” Mrs. High Bear said. The stories also reveal the indefatigable resilience of Alaska Native peoples.

“We are strong, resilient and highly adaptable people,” Mrs. High Bear said. “Archaeology shows that Alaska Native peoples have been here for 14,500 years and more. Our ancestors lived through climate issues of the past. So we know that we will survive the hardships coming our way, but it will not be easy.”

Today's impacts upon our Alaska Native people are directly related to the world's energy production, she said. “We are asking world citizens to do their part to mitigate today's climate issues.”

The film series has been screened for the Native community and general public in Portland, Oregon, at the 2014 National Indian Education Association Convention, and is included in Wisdom’s curriculum for it’s environmental and climate program, Discovering YidongXinag for middle schools. Mrs. High Bear plans to enter the films in film festivals, continue holding Film Screenings and Community Consultations, and seek funding for future climate films featuring Pacific Northwest tribes.

See a clip from one of the films at The Cutting Edge: Climate and the People of the Caribou.

ICTMN contributor Terri Hansen serves on the board of Wisdom of the Elders.

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