Jeni and I just returned from Anchorage, Alaska, the host of the Alaska Forum on the Environment, an annual conference examining issues important to the environment and peoples of Alaska. On Monday afternoon, we attended a panel session titled “Tribal Perspectives on Planning for Climate Change.” To introduce the session, an elder offered a prayer. Then, our Iñupiaq host and friend, Victoria Hykes Steere, told the audience: “You’re the experts because you’re living in it.” I looked around the room. Most were tribal villagers from all across Alaska.
Villagers came to Anchorage to represent their villages from places as far northeast as the Yukon Flats, where rivers like the Porcupine are growing so shallow that villagers can walk across parts of it now and see trails of fishermen’s outboard boat motors etched along the sandy bottom. In the Flats, wild fire is melting the permafrost even though James Callup, a middle-aged man, remembers when temperatures of 80 degrees Fahrenheit below zero in January for weeks at a time were completely normal. They came from as far southeast as Juna, where the harbor seal population is in serious decline. From as far northwest as Golovin, where a buckling airport runway was initially deemed an “optical illusion” before blame was properly assigned to melting permafrost. (There is a new airport now, built higher up on a hill above the village. However, a new school sits in a floodplain and now its foundation is eroding. Elders worry that schoolchildren risk additional health problems—such as asthma and mold—simply by attending school. Golovin has since passed a city ordinance prohibiting any more structures from being built on floodplains. But the school may need to join the airport on the hill.)
Villagers also came from the upper reaches of the Arctic region, where permits to explore Arctic shipping routes and other lawful actions are regulating the people “out of existence,” because they depend on the same waters for their sustenance. Ida Hildebrand spoke quite powerfully that her peoples are “being regulated out of our cultures. Our fish. Our waters. Our land.”
Villagers came from villages as far west as the coastal village of Newtok. Newtok is one of thirty-one villages that the US Army Corp of Engineers declared must relocate due to severe erosion hazard. Furthermore, Newtok is among one of six Native villages that is in such an immediate threat of danger that it must be completely moved within six to nine years, despite the absence of any federal or state lead agency dedicated to coordinating climate relocation efforts and the complete lack of federal relocation funding available. Stanley Tom, the Tribal Administrator for Newtok’s Council, lobbies for relocation funding in DC every year. But Congress still does not hear him or his people.
The US Army Corps of Engineers estimates that it will cost approximately $300,000 to move a single home in Newtok. Yet Stanley Tom estimates that if the tribes received relocation funding directly, rather than indirectly through a state or federal agency, the tribes could move the same house for $30,000, or 90 percent of the total cost estimated by the US government. Colleen Swan, former Tribal Administrator for the Native Village of Kivalina, another village that must be relocated immediately, said that of the federal funding that has been granted much of it does not go to the tribes directly. Instead, it goes to pay expensive consultants who conduct subsistence studies on behalf of the tribes as part of the permitting process under NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act). (NEPA applies to any major federally funded project, such as relocation efforts for the tribes.)
Colleen said that the consultants’ studies focused too narrowly on species inventories and not on why the species were important to the tribes. The tribes’ traditional knowledge of subsistence is much broader than a species list—it’s the study of an entire way of life. “Other people have defined traditional ecological knowledge for us,” she said. She pleaded for tribal governments to conduct their own subsistence studies. And to do it “our way—not their way.” It’s within the power and the wisdom of the tribal peoples to do so. “The knowledge that we want you to put into a document, you live. It’s everything about you,” she said.
In the end, Colleen and many other village representatives spoke about the need to adapt. Many repeated recommendations focused on ensuring short-term adaptation solutions while the climate debate continues stalling progress on mitigation efforts. “For Kivalina,” Colleen said, “and many other village communities, the debate is over. We’re dealing with it. We can’t stop it. The only thing we can do is to get out of the way.” Tribal members’ recommendations emphasized the importance of strengthening tribal governments and Native voices.
A few days after Vickie’s first panel, she spoke again as part of a different but related session titled “Native Voices: Traditional Knowledge and Climate Change.” She told the audience that she couldn’t stop thinking about her parents and grandparents. “My father,” she said, “told me when I was seventeen years old that everything that he taught me about the weather wouldn’t work anymore. I was devastated.”
Vickie’s community describes her as a lawyer advocate. For her, the issue of climate change is incredibly important. Later in the day, at lunch, she and I brainstormed legal strategies for resolving conflicts between tribal customary law and federal and state law that work to delay critical progress on climate change for Native peoples in Alaska. I asked her whether climate change has taken from her a right that belongs to her—the right to possess traditional knowledge? She immediately said no. Without traditional knowledge, she said, she could not survive. It is her heartbeat. She said that without traditional knowledge, “I would be dead.” It’s not that her knowledge is no longer relevant as the weather changes, or that she is no longer in possession of it. It’s just that, as Vickie put it, “it’s no longer safe.”