Indigenous Peoples Bear Witness to Climate Change at Smithsonian Symposium

Written by Guest Blogger on . Posted in Learn, Your Climate Stories

Editor’s Note: As native peoples gather in Washington, D.C. for a conference on climate change this week, Planet Change will share some of their stories from the front lines of a changing planet. Today’s post is by bloggers attending the symposium, Debbie Preston, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, and Robin Stanton, Media Relations Manager for The Nature Conservancy in Washington state.

The value of indigenous knowledge and observation in understanding the effects of climate change and creating adaptation strategies was underscored in the opening day of the First Stewards symposium on climate change in Washington, D.C.

Held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) this week, the symposium is drawing together indigenous people experiencing climate change first-hand, along with scientists. Invited guests include educators, relevant private, government and non-governmental agencies to talk about ways to move forward and create strategies to respond to climate change.

“We are not just the museum of pretty things,” said Kevin Gover (of the Pawnee nation), director of the NMAI. “We are here to bring these voices into the global discourse of climate change.”

Fawn Sharp, Quinault Indian Nation president, talked about the alarming changes in the ocean. Low oxygen that kills fish and water becoming too acidic to allow shellfish to form shells, are harming resources culturally important to Quinault people.

“We are standing on our ancestors’ shoulders and we must offer a plan for the future for our young people,” Sharp said.

Keynote speaker U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, (D-Wash.), spoke of the pace of climate-related changes such as ocean acidification that is occurring faster now than the previous 300 million years.

“Indian Country has been a partner in solving problems such as improving oil spill protection and prevention for the Strait of Juan de Fuca,” said Cantwell. “Climate change and adaptation is a big challenge, but think about the Makah and their persistence in getting improved oil spill protection.”

Micah McCarty, Makah tribal chair and First Stewards steering committee chairman, spoke of the importance of cultural identity even in the face of change. “We will always be who we are and from where we come from, no matter how we have to adapt…We must be good ancestors.”

Nelson Kanuk, 17, a young resident of the Alaskan village of Kipnuk, which is losing land to permafrost melting, is acting as one of four official “witnesses” to the symposium.  

In the opening ceremonies, these witnesses were each honored with the gift of a blanket, and also paid for taking the responsibility to bear witness, to listen, to learn and understand and share their learnings to ensure the work of the climate symposium doesn’t end here, but continues to go forward.

Other witnesses included Ted Herrera, a leader of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation on the Rio Grande; Clarita Lefthand Begay, a Navajo and doctoral student at University of Washington in Seattle; and Kalei Nu`uhiwa, a practitioner of papahulilani, the study of all aspects of the atmosphere—its phenology, energies, cycles and isochronisms—from a Hawaiian perspective.

Kanuk found promise in the gathering.“To see you, to see our leaders, taking action like this, gives me hope for the future,” Kanuk told the roughly 300 people gathered for opening day.

You can read more about the witnesses, and visit Planet Change to hear more stories from the First Stewards Symposium.

Debbie Preston is Coastal Information Officer for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission; Robin Stanton is Media Relations Manager for The Nature Conservancy in Washington state.

Featured photo by Debbie Preston (Micah McCarty, Makah tribal chair and First Stewards steering committee chairman, performs a “wolf dance” with women at the First Stewards symposium on climate change in Washington, D.C.)

Top photo by Debbie Preston: (Micah McCarty, Makah tribal chair, speaks at the First Stewards symposium at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.)

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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