Indigenous People

INDIGENOUS PEOPLE

Indigenous peoples’ general worldview is to live in harmony with nature, and to steward and preserve their land. Native Americans did just this — preserving their natural landscape for 14,000 years until the European settlers came and cleared much of the land.

The cultural legacy, wellbeing, and way of life of the 567 federally recognized tribal groups in the U.S., comprised mainly of American Indian peoples and Alaska Native peoples, are currently disproportionately threatened by a number of climate-related issues while leaving the lowest ecological imprint.

How does climate change affect their way of life?

In many indigenous households, anywhere from 60 to 80% of households depend on wildlife for food. As a result, when climate changes the land where they live, that becomes compromised.

  • In Alaska, for example – where 40% of American tribes live- “the distribution, quality, thickness, and timing of ice on the ocean, lakes, and rivers drive nearly every aspect” of their life, says a recent NOAA report, “from boating to whaling and seal hunting to the safety of fishing and foraging.” The report details a major loss of sea ice in Alaska’s Bering Sea — that has led to dying wildlife, food scarcity, and animal migration — profoundly affecting over 70 local indigenous communities.
  • In Louisiana, sea-level rise and coastal erosion are drowning burial sites and threatening their source of food.
  • In northern Arizona, the Hopi tribesmen have seen their traditional indigenous farming practices fail in the face of climate change disrupting their ageold weather forecasting. Dependent in many cases on millennia-old trial and error, their fields are now withering as the conditions on which the calendars are predicated change. Without that accumulated wisdom to fall back on—bird migrations, wind direction, stars, and more—farmers are feeling particularly defenseless just as other consequences of climate change complicate their lives.

Native Americans are doing battle on other fronts too, pipeline projects crossing their lands, for example and water rights. Some battles are lost. Some are won. Others are still in court.

  • Originally constructed in 1953 by the Canadian company Enbridge, The Line 5 Pipeline,  runs 645 miles from western Canada to eastern Canada, passing through northern Wisconsin and  Michigan under the Straits of Mackinac. On June 16, 2023, a federal judge gave Enbridge 3 years to close the section of the pipeline (12 miles)  that crosses reservation land in northern Wisconsin, in response to a lawsuit filed in 2019 by the Bad River Band tribe. The judge also ordered compensation to be paid.
  • First built in the 1960s, The Line 3 Pipeline starts in Alberta, Canada, and comes to a stop in Superior, Wisconsin. It runs through land (the 337-mile segment across Minnesota) which, in the 1800s, was ceded by Indigenous groups to the U.S. under the condition that they're guaranteed the right to hunt, fish, and gather wild rice. Activists say the pipeline infringes on those rights, worsens climate change and risks spills in waters where they harvest wild rice. After years of protests and legal battles, the pipeline turned on in October of 2021. Opponents have challenged the pipeline's permits in court to no avail so far. They've also unsuccessfully sought to persuade Biden to intervene.
  • The takedown of Keystone XL Pipeline will, however, go down as one of this generation’s most monumental environmental victories. After more than ten years of protests and legal battles, it was officially abandoned in the summer of 2021 after Biden denied a key permit on his first day in office.
  • The Dakota Access Pipeline is still provoking protracted protests from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, as they bring attention to the potential contamination of water supplies from oil spills and the vandalizing of sacred sites. The pipeline still , in July, 2023, lacks a key permit from the Corps to cross under Lake Oahe in South Dakota. The Corps is currently working to update the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.
  • The 303-mile-long fracked gas Mountain Valley Pipeline from West Virginia to Virginia was approved in the recently passed debt limit deal (Spring, 2023) but a federal court in Richmond halted construction on July 11, 2023, setting off a battle with Congress that ended up at the Supreme Court who agreed on July 27 that Congress had, indeed greenlighted the project as part of a behind-the-scenes deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.A separate but related pipeline, the proposed MVP Southgate Project, plans to extend to North Carolina cutting through the Jefferson National Forest and crossing hundreds of waterways and wetlands jeopardizing Indigenous communities, particularly the ancestral lands of the Occaneechi.
  • Leaders of tribes are pushing for more involvement in the negotiations taking place concerning the over-tapped Colorado River, saying they want to be at the table in the discussions among the federal government and the seven states that rely on the river. The 30 tribes in the Colorado River Basin have rights to use roughly one-fourth of the river’s average supply. The Interior Department on June 15 initiated the process of developing new long-term rules for operating reservoirs and apportioning water cuts during shortages. New rules will need to be in place by the end of 2026, when the current 2007 guidelines expire.

Native American tribes are developing and implementing climate adaptation plans. At least 50 tribes have created plans which are available in a database via the Tribal Climate Change Project. And, with tribes controlling over 50 million combined acres nationally, these climate plans could be a crucial resource for their uniquely deep ecological knowledge and community-based approach.

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