Indigenous traditional knowledge to be included in US efforts against climate change for first time

By: - November 16, 2021 6:45 pm

A panel on climate change Nov. 16, 2021, at the White House Tribal Nations Summit. L to R: Brenda Mallory, Council on Environmental Quality; Morgan Rodman, executive director of the White House Council on Native American Affairs; White House Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy; Kawerak, Inc. President and CEO Melanie Bahnke; Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis; and Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman. Screenshot via WhiteHouse.gov

For the first time in history, a Presidential administration has committed to incorporating traditional Indigenous knowledge into the scientific, technical, social, and economic advancement of the United States.

President Joe Biden pledged on Monday during the opening of the White House Tribal Nations Summit to be the first president to work with the tribes to comprehensively incorporate Tribal Ecological Knowledge into the federal government’s scientific approach to fight climate change. 

“With Tribal consultation and input from knowledge holders and practitioners, the Administration will develop a guidance document for federal agencies on how the collection and application of such knowledge can be mutually beneficial to Tribes, Native communities, and federal agencies and can strengthen evidence-based analysis and informed decision-making across the federal government,” the White House said in a statement.

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The initiative will be led by the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Council on Environmental Quality. A joint memorandum was released by both offices on Monday officially recognizing Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge as one of the important bodies of knowledge, as well as providing background on how they plan on implementing Biden’s request.

The memo describes Indigenous knowledge as “a body of observations, oral and written knowledge, practices, and beliefs that promote environmental sustainability and the responsible stewardship of natural resources through relationships between humans and environmental systems.” This knowledge can be applied to biological, physical, cultural and spiritual systems.

“Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge is owned by Indigenous people — including, but not limited to, Tribal Nations, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians,” the memo states.

Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis shared his thoughts on the new memorandum during a climate change panel discussion at the White House Tribal Nations Summit on Tuesday. He said the memorandum is fundamentally important, not only because it brings traditional ecological knowledge into the discussion, but because it also recognizes how important the tribal voice is in these forms of discussions.

Lewis went on to share the success the Gila River Indian Community has had using traditional knowledge or what he said their tribe calls O’odham Himdage, meaning “a way of life” in the O’odham language.

“Our traditional values that we call our O’odham Himdage, our way of life, has led to innovation in water conservation that has fundamentally changed the dynamic for drought response in the Southwest,” Lewis said.

The project Lewis talked about is a managed aquifer recharge site that is called the MAR 5 Interpretive Trail site, Lewis said. 

“The Gila River had been mostly dry for so many years due to the theft of our water upstream, but this project helped to bring it back,” Lewis said.

The site came together as part of the tribe’s drought response efforts between 2015 and 2018. Lewis said the tribe sees the site as a return of their sacred Gila River rather than a drought response structure — but nonetheless, it stands at the center of their drought response efforts.

“The land is healing itself, all of our traditional plants are blooming now. This has helped in revitalizing our traditional culture and arts,” Lewis said. “Our elders are now using the plants.

“Our river is truly back.” 

Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis spoke via video conference as part of a panel discussing climate change at the White House Tribal Nations Summit. Screenshot via WhiteHouse.gov

Lewis said that, by rejuvenating the Gila River aquifer, the tribe is now able to rely on pumping groundwater for community needs, which in turn allows the tribe to leave much of its Colorado River entitlement in Lake Mead for times of shortage.

“Since 2016, we have now stored over 500,000-acre feet in Lake Mead, raising the level of the lake by almost 8 feet above where it would’ve been,” Lewis said. “This is an enormous amount of water and it is only possible because of our return of the river program.”

“This is how traditional tribal knowledge and values can be brought to bear on climate change issues,” he added. 

The Office of Science and Technology and the Council on Environmental Quality will begin developing pathways for input from Indigenous communities, this including creating an interagency working group.

“Where appropriate, Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge can and should inform Federal decision making along with scientific inquiry,” the memo states.

“For generations, Indigenous people and Indigenous knowledge has been an important part of how the lands have been restored and protected,” Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory said, and Biden’s announcement is putting forward a formal policy on how governments can work with tribes in factoring that into our decision making.

“Working together with knowledge holders to address climate change, pollution and other environmental problems will lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the challenges we face and to solutions,” Mallory said.

The Interagency Working Group on Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge will include representatives from agencies across the federal government and it will work to enhance the interagency collaboration and coordination, draw on agency experience, and address significant issues as they arise. 

The group will prepare a guidance document that will be released at the 2022 White House Tribal Nations Summit.

Tribal leaders talk more on climate change at the summit

Tribal leaders and federal officials sat down to talk about climate change impacts and solutions on Tuesday during a panel discussion at the White House Tribal Nations Summit.

“Because climate change disproportionately affects Native communities, it is now more important than ever to ensure that the federal government collaborates with tribal nations and Native communities to better understand the impacts of climate changes on ecosystems, landscapes, and subsistence resources and to identity durable and sustainable measures to respond to those impacts,” Mallory said.

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The panel featured Lewis; Mallory; Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman; Kawerak, Inc. President and CEO Melanie Bahnke; and White House Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy.

“The dialogue will help inform the administration’s policy direction and development,” said Morgan Rodman, executive director of the White House Council on Native American Affairs, who moderated the discussion. “The administration seeks to partner with tribal nations in responding to the critical threat of climate change.” 

To kick off the panel, Rodman asked the panelists how the Biden-Harris administration can best support Indigenous communities in the fight against climate change.

Bahnke from Kawerak, a tribal consortium of 20 federally recognized tribes in the Bering Straits of Alaska, mentioned how the current administration can take the steps making current policies that exist today stronger so tribal nations are not caught in the political back and forth of incoming and outgoing administrations.

She used the Northern Bering Sea Climate Change Resilience executive order as an example, saying that it was signed during the Obama administration and provided some protections for the Bering Sea.

But the order was undone during the Trump administration and had to be reinstated by the Biden administration. But the best solution is legislation, she said.

“My concern is that tribal nations, citizens and our members are going to end up becoming climate change refugees,” Bahnke said. “This will result in the loss of entire cultures and people if we all have to move to urban areas.”

“There is going to be a significant part of the nation’s cultural knowledge and wealth that would be lost,” she added.

Lewis said that “climate change is an existential threat to us as Indigenous peoples.” Experiences from his tribal community in Arizona include impacts from harsh drought conditions, wildfires, and the fierce storms that hit their communities.

“We must take action now and we are committed to doing so,” Lewis said. 

His best advice to the Biden administration is that it continues to recognize that tribes can and will lead on climate change efforts.

“Keep bringing us to the table, early, and pay attention to what we say,” he said. “Together we can cooperatively help produce solutions that we are all seeking now in this critical hour of climate change that is affecting Indian Country, this nation and the world.”

Forsman, the tribal chairman of Washington’s Suquamish tribe, wanted to remind the administration that Indigenous people have been engaged in the fight against climate change for generations.

“It’s important to remember that we’ve been engaged in this, often by ourselves, to go out and protect our homeland from past development and future development,” he said. “The Northwest tribes have been engaged in the restoration of our ecosystems for decades.”

Forsman said it’s important for the Biden administration to encourage tribal, state and federal agencies to be proactive when it comes to dealing with climate change.

Often, tribal leaders and state and federal agencies are all engaged in the same commitment to protecting natural resources, Forsman said.

Tribal leaders on the panel also praised the new Infrastructure and Jobs Act for providing some much-needed funding for their communities. 

Bahnke mentioned that the administration’s passing of the infrastructure spending will meet some of the immediate needs. But she added that each administration is just looking at the next four years, while tribal communities are always taking the long view, thinking seven generations ahead.

“When it comes to infrastructure, I think for all 500-plus tribes, the U.S. could initiate a long-range infrastructure planning process, identifying the infrastructure needs of each of those communities to make sure they’re sustainable for the next hundred years,” she said.

Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland said the infrastructure plan will help Indigenous communities bolster their resilience efforts, replace aging infrastructure and provide the support needed for climate-related relocation and adaptation.

The act includes a $466 million investment for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which includes funding for infrastructure projects and climate resiliency initiatives, according to the Department of Interior.

The act also provides $2.5 billion in funding to the Department of Interior to help fulfill settlements of Indian water rights claims.

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Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues. Her digital, print and audio stories have been published by USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic, Navajo Times, The GroundTruth Project and PRX's "The World." Silversmith earned her master's degree in journalism and mass communication in Boston before moving back to Arizona to continue reporting stories on Indigenous communities. She is a member of the Native American Journalist Association and has made it a priority in her career to advocate, pitch and develop stories surrounding Indigenous communities in the newsrooms she works in.

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