In order to understand the role indigenous nations have in addressing climate change in the United States, one must first understand the history of the removal and subjugation that all nations have faced at the hands of the government and the implementation of genocide over the course of the last several hundred years.
In the late 1400s when the first waves of white settlers arrived in America, there were estimated to be more than ten million indigenous people in what is now the United States. By 1900 there were less than 300,000. The American government signed some 368 treaties with indigenous people from 1778-1871, almost all of which were broken by settlers and the American government. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson; a deeply flawed human, signed the Indian Removal act, empowering the federal government to forcibly relocate native people east of the Mississippi to what is now Oklahoma culminating in what is now known as the trail of tears.
An estimated 10-25% of Cherokee would die during this 1,200-mile death march. Further, in 1871 the House of Representatives passed a bill ceasing recognition of individual nations and creating treaties. For most of the 19th century, the U.S. government pursued a policy known as ‘allotment and assimilation’ forcing treaties on various tribes. This led to further tribal land loss, resource exploitation, fraud and corruption. A petition from the chiefs and headman of the Pillager Band of Ojibwe in Leech Lake, MN in 1898 stated, “We now have only the pine lands of our reservation for our future subsistence and support, but the manner in which we are being defrauded out of these have alarmed us.” In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt, through the Indian Reorganization act returned some lands to tribes. However, after World War II, a number of reservations were terminated and the land was again sold to the highest bidder. Broken promises and the subjugation of native peoples have continued to this day.
According to the International Association for indigenous aging, in 2021 there were 9.7 million Native Alaskan and Native American people, of which 989,000 are aged 65+. Among social, health and economic indicators, native peoples rank at or near the bottom of every metric. Inadequate education, disproportionate poverty, and discrimination in health services have continually led to a lower life expectancy among Native peoples. The federal government recognizes 574 native American nations and the collective geographical area of reservations constitutes 2.3% of the United States; 3.79 million square miles. According to the United States Census Bureau, approximately 22% of Alaskan native and native American populations live on tribal lands. In 2019, the overall unemployment rate was 6.1% compared to 3.7% nationwide. According to the bureau of labor statistics, 17% of native peoples had a bachelor’s degree or higher, just under half of the national average.
In recent years, there have been calls to recognize the value and importance of indigenous knowledge and perspectives. In 2019, the United Nations Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services stated that the indigenous worldview is a vital consideration to rebalance our life system. A recent book, Restoring the Kinship Worldview by Wahinkpe Topa and Darcia Narvaez, seeks to bring awareness to this worldview in order to build a better future. The land and natural resources on which these nations depend are inextricably linked to their livelihoods, cultures, and identities. The kinship worldview is about a connected partnership with the earth, collaborating and unifying across human groups, animal and plant species, waterways, and everything alive. This view in approaching how humans think, act and grow is much more of a systematic approach to addressing communities and climate change compared to the dominant western worldview of individuality.
Climate change continues to affect indigenous communities in a number of ways. In 2019, a statewide threat assessment from the University of Alaska and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a report on threats to native communities due to erosion, flooding, and permafrost melting. In 2020, the spring thaw brought record flooding to the Missouri River basin, affecting about 10,000 residents on the Pine Ridge reservation who had their water delivery disrupted or had to evacuate due to flooding. Additionally, in the spring of 2020, South Dakota raised roads to protect from floodwaters, inadvertently creating a dam that flooded tribal housing development. In December of the same year, the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation secured $5 million of the needed $120 million to fix the infrastructure caused by the floods. Forcing indigenous nations on some of the worst lands has obviously exacerbated the issues. According to a study published in the journal Science found on average, the land is more exposed to climate change risks and hazards, more heat and less precipitation, wildfire exposure, and flooding, while agriculture suitability was mixed. According to Kyle Whyte, one of the study’s co-authors, “The reason why tribal nations are located in places they are is that the U.S. tried to remove them and get them out of the way…” Whyte, who serves as a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, has encouraged the public to advocate for the importance of the federal government engaging in a nation-to-nation consultation with tribes.
Indigenous communities have fought back against the impacts of climate change and mining, industry, and capitalism. In recent years, the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is a prime example. In the mid-2010s the DAPL was rerouted near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation after the proposed route through Bismark, ND was rejected for being deemed too risky for the water supplies of the city. An injunction was filed to stop building the pipeline, which was later denied on September 7th, 2016. DAPL then brought in a private security firm to use force against protesters. Using pepper spray, guard dogs and military hardware, the security firm claimed that the protesters crossed onto private property and were not peaceful. In September, Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II addressed the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, testifying about the U.S. violation of treaties with regard to this specific project. Since 2017, there have been 5 leaks from the DAPL. While these leaks were under 200 gallons, they contaminated soil which required remediation.
The federal government’s legacy towards native peoples and communities continues to be a national embarrassment – both historically and presently. The lack of transparency, consultation, and relocation to degraded land further erodes trust between the parties. For the past 26 years, since the first Conference of Parties (COP), international climate policies have ignored or violated the cultural and territorial integrity of indigenous nations and people. Indigenous voices were missing or outright ignored in the most recent COP26. Climate hazards will continue to affect these nations that have been forced to move into areas that are already considered limiting to how they can manage the use of the land. That, coupled with increasing negative effects due to climate change, will continue to degrade the health and well-being of indigenous nations throughout the United States.
It is obvious that something needs to be done. At this point, anything would seemingly be an improvement. Listening to indigenous climate activists and addressing the historical subjugation of nations throughout the U.S. would be an improvement. While in recent years, growing awareness and interest in indigenous knowledge have been called on to be included in the development stages to address these challenges, Honoring sovereignty, keeping promises, investing for energy independence, agriculture, healthcare, and social support could help to address some of the negative impacts of climate change now and into the future to improve the livelihoods of current and future generations of these marginalized communities.
This Post was submitted by Clinate Scorecard US Country Manager Dave Schroeder