News & Views

Indigenous Voices on Climate Change Reach U.S. Capital

Living closer to the land than people in so-called developed societies, Indigenous peoples and local communities feel the effects of climate change more deeply. Yet, their voices and sophisticated knowledge systems have not been given much respect in the global dialogue on climate change. Now, their messages are being projected loud and clear, a stone’s throw from the U.S. Capitol Building.

“We are seeing detrimental changes happening to our land, to our water, to our ice, to our snow, to our people, to our culture, and our animals,” said Pamela Gross, a delegate to the recent symposium entitled ‘Seeking Balance: Indigenous Knowledge, Western Science and Climate Change’, which took place at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Gross, a representative from the Inuk community in Canada, was one of 28 Indigenous delegates to the symposium who came together to share their knowledge and experiences.

“These changes are happening very rapidly, and are echoed through the voice of our elders, of our hunters, and of our community members,” she added.

The symposium was a powerful component of the new Conversations with the Earth exhibit, a rich multi-media expression of what it means to be at the front lines of rapidly changing ecosystems.

“Climate change is a big issue in my place and everybody is concerned,” said Ngenge Sasa of Papua New Guinea’s Manus people, speaking to the assembled audience of Indigenous representatives, government officials, media and interested visitors during the symposium. Rising sea levels, unpredictable rains, and intensified storms are displacing the Manus from their homes and putting their safety and ways of living within the landscapes and seascapes at risk.

Sasa played a portion of the video he had made for the exhibit, showing images of the wooden houses by the beaches of the Manus Islands being overrun by water during the unprecedented “king tide” of 2008. “The sea is telling me: move,” a villager in the video says to the camera, gesturing to the waves surging onto his porch.

While native islanders around the planet struggle with rising sea levels and chaotic weather patterns, a wide range of other climate impacts are challenging Indigenous and local communities in a vast diversity of biocultural landscapes, from the Arctic to the Horn of Africa.

Shagre Shano Shale, a community elder of the Gamo people in Ethiopia’s southern highlands, shown in the photo above with Wondimu Utto Tanga, spoke about the transformations taking place in his community’s traditional lands. “We are losing a lot of things,” he said. “We are facing disease, droughts, famine because of climate change.”

“We lost our native trees,” added Wondimu Utto Tanga, another Gamo representative. “Now exotic, imported trees cover our area.” He was referring to widespread invasive eucalyptus trees that are depleting his region’s precious groundwater.

In a moment of high emotions, Diaguidili de Leon, a 16-year-old of Panama’s Kuna people, made an impassioned appeal to the adults in the room. “The young and children  . . . want to breathe clean air and admire the stars,” she said, tears welling. “Mother Earth is being damaged and she is suffering.”

Other native groups represented in the exhibit and the symposium included the Zanskari of Ladakh, India, who are impacted by receding snowfields, erratic precipitation, and drying waterways; the Guarani of Brazil and Kichwa of Ecuador, both of whom are struggling as carbon-offset schemes in local forests threaten their ability to live in their traditional ways; and the Gwich’in of Alaska, who face melting permafrost, inconsistent temperatures, forest fires and declining caribou herds.

The challenges these communities face are daunting, but in both the symposium and the exhibit the hope and resilience of the Indigenous peoples came through strongly, and the paramount importance of making traditional knowledge systems a central component in climate change mitigation was undeniable.

“Living in our territories and practicing traditional knowledge allows us to achieve what scientists call resilience to climate change,” said Alejandro Argumedo, coordinator of the Indigenous Peoples’ Biocultural Climate Change Assessment (IPCCA), an international initiative that works with indigenous communities to amass the native knowledge on conditions and trends in the critical ecosystems in which they live.

Sarah James, an elder of the Gwich’in people, offered an optimistic vision of the future in a quote included in the exhibit. “There is a solution,” she says. “It’s not the end of the world yet. One thing we have to do is gain back respect of the animals, for all nature. We pray and give thanks for everything we use. But if it’s going to work, it has to be both Western and traditional. We have to meet halfway—and we need to find balance.”