Native American Communities Suffer Most from Climate Change

Native lands from coast to coast will undergo profound changes in response to our warming world.

An Inupiat hunter takes in the setting sun near Kotzebue, Alaska. (Photo: Getty Images)
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

Extreme weather, water scarcity, coastal erosion, and other devastating effects of climate change will bring disproportionate harm to Native American populations, as many indigenous communities rely heavily on natural resources for their livelihoods and ways of life, a report by PBS Newshour shows.  

From indigenous communities in remote Alaskan villages, to those on the populous Florida coast, Native Americans are living on the frontlines of climate change.

At a recent panel at NewsHour, representatives from Native communities shed light on how the warming of the planet is affecting their sustenance and survival.

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Fishing has changed dramatically in Hawaii, says Kitty Simonds, a native Hawaiian and representative of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council. “We used to have much larger fish, different species…we used to eat fish three or four times a week…but now fishermen have to go further and further out to catch fish…in fact, outside the 200 mile zone,” she noted.

Melting ice and subsequent loss of animal life are posing a threat to Alaskan peoples, says Mike Williams, Vice Chairman of the Akiak tribe in western Alaska. “Our hunters are going out further…they have to go 90 miles out to find ice to get their walrus and their seals, and they’re having to risk more going out further at sea. When the weather hits, that’s when the loss of life occurs,” he told the panel.   

Traveling 90 or 200 miles to secure dinner sounds bad enough. But add those to a growing list of concerns for Native peoples from coast to coast. A 2009 report by the National Tribal Air Association and the Environmental Protection Agency detailed many more, including: 

Loss of Jobs and Agriculture

Invasive plant species, including a type of grass usually found in Southern New England, are overtaking the 5,000 acres that make up the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s Northeast Blueberry Company—one of the largest blueberry farms in the world—and hindering blueberry growth and harvesting. 

Extinction of Species

Increasingly hot temperatures in northern Minnesota have put local species like moose and lynx, important animals to Native culture in the American Midwest, at risk for local extinction. On the flipside, warmer winters have allowed deer to flourish in Minnesota, wreaking havoc on plants and forests, as hungry deer chomp on white pines and red oak. 

Damaging Drought

In the Rocky Mountains, the Washoe tribe is suffering the impacts of drought on tribal lands and waters. As off-reservation agriculture has siphoned more from the rivers, the Native community fears for their water supply. Extreme droughts can also weaken the ability of trees to prevent soil erosion.

Because Native communities live on reservations, they lack the freedom to uproot in response to extreme climate events, and will increasingly be forced to adapt to our planet’s most extreme shifts, a study by National Wildlife Federation shows.   

Many tribes are legally sovereign nations, which means that they can adopt policies that are more progressive than those that exist nationally, and their programs can be tailored to fit the unique needs of their residents.

But limited resources pose an added challenge for the communities facing increasing floods, power outages, droughts, and crippling snowstorms that are expected to ravage much of 95 million acres of ecologically diverse land that belongs to indigenous communities in the United States.

The National Wildlife Federation study calls for a repeal of the decision that excluded Tribes from federal environmental programs, and also asked Congress to increase funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in order to allocate greater resources for conservation and climate adaptation in the face of environmental upheavals.

But it seems the presidents has other plans.

Obama’s budget request for the 2013 fiscal year includes a 4.6 million cut in funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

How are you coping with this summer's extreme weather? Tell us in the comments.

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