First Stewards Witnesses: Hold on to Traditions

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

Editor’s Note: Today, Planet Change features the final post from the First Stewards symposium in Washington, D.C. that wrapped up on Friday, July 21. Bloggers attending the symposium, Debbie Preston of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, and Robin Stanton, Media Relations Manager for The Nature Conservancy in Washington state, share insights from the official witnesses for the symposium.

“I’ve seen, I’ve heard, I’ve felt, I can’t turn away,” said Kalei Nu`uhiwa, an official witness for the First Stewards climate symposium that wrapped up last Friday. The symposium held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) drew together indigenous people experiencing climate change first-hand, along with scientists.

Nu`uhiwa was one of four witnesses whose duty it was to listen to every panel, listen to all the questions and comments, and ensure that the learnings from the symposium will be carried forward. “We’re all here wanting to be heard, wanting to have a say,” she said. “To be able to tell our stories is spiritually uplifting.”

“Native people are the litmus paper for the world. We still subsist off our own lands. We’re still dependent on the health of our ecosystems. We heard that in every panel’s discussion. We still live by the seasonality of fish, sea mammals, birds, berries – it’s not a choice.”

The four witnesses, Clarita Lefthand Begay, Ted Herrera, Nelson Kanuk, and Nu’uhiwa, are creating a report that includes 65 recommendations for the future, she said.  “These are motivations for us to act,” witness Clarita Begay said. “If we’re going to survive, we have to do something, we have to do something now.”

“As indigenous people, we have to understand our own stories on a really deep level. They have instructions on how we’re supposed to be human. We have to listen to the fish and the plants—what they tell us is the keys for our survival. We have to use the United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.”

“As a youth, I’ve learned so much,” said Nelson Kanuk, 17, from Alaska. “I’ve learned more about how all indigenous people are related now, because of these problems we’re facing today.” “I heard from all the panels about unity, the need for us to unify, to be together to solve this issue. If we can’t slow or stop this big problem we’re facing, we’re going to have to find way to work together to adapt.“

He also spoke of the need for leadership, and to link that leadership with inter generational binding. “As youth, we have so much to learn from our elders, especially the traditional knowledge—we need the wisdom from our elders. We need the strength of empowerment from our ancestors. They survived so much, over so many millennia they adapted and survived. Now we have to survive big changes in just a few years. It’s important for us to remember our roots, where we came from, and who we are. That’s why we need our elders.”

International engagement with the native cultures of the world is important to make the voices of tribal people louder and harder to ignore, said Gina Cosentino, of the Nature Conservancy. Cosentino is responsible for integrating a human rights-based approach to conservation to achieve sustainable livelihoods and benefits to indigenous and tribal peoples and other communal problems.

The First Stewards symposium ended with a call to the U.S. government to ensure that indigenous rights, knowledge and practices are respected and incorporated into all aspects of adapting to climate change. For more information and to watch a webcast of the symposium sessions and panels go to

“Hold on to your traditions,” said Kalei Nu`uhiwa. “It’s going to be a big ride.”


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.

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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