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How Tribes Of The North Are Taking Climate Matters Into Their Own Hands

It can be difficult to understand the true impacts of climate change when you are not directly facing its harsh effects. We see that communities in different regions and terrains around the world are experiencing different rates of global warming with different consequences. We also know that the Arctic, in particular, is experiencing climate change more rapidly and more severely than other parts of the world. In order to understand the diverse impact climate change has on different communities, it is also important to understand what community-based solutions are in place for adaptation and mitigation of climate change. To exemplify the importance of considering how diverse landscapes, ancestral knowledge systems and practices, social statuses, levels of government engagement, and economic development strategies impact climate responses, this paper will examine two sub-Arctic Indigenous populations that are historically and culturally connected and are taking climate action steps from which we can all learn.

Alaska Native tribes of Southeast Alaska and First Nations tribes of the Yukon Territory are examples of closely related Indigenous communities who share historical and contemporary challenges with the United States and Canadian governments. This is important to note because although these communities share much in common culturally, their settler colonial governments pose different barriers and offer different resources for solutions when it comes to tribes’ self-determination and their climate action efforts.

Alaska is the Arctic region which allows the United States membership on the Arctic Council. Today, Southeast Alaska includes the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (Tlingit & Haida), numerous village tribes organized under the Indian Reorganization Act, and the Metlakatla Indian Community of Annette Island Reserve (Tsimshian), although the ancestral territory of the panhandle of Southeast Alaska belongs to the Tlingit. In this region, Native peoples rely heavily on fishing, hunting, and subsistence harvesting as a source of food security, economic industry, and as part of the cultural fabric. Southeast Alaska is home to one of the few temperate rainforests in the world, spanning across roughly 17 million acres, and although this region is experiencing climate change, there is very little information at hand that describes the magnitude of climate change effects there. In fact, much of the information currently available regarding climate change in Alaska is focused on the more Northern and interior parts of Alaska, which are seeing dangerous rates of permafrost melt, rising sea level, and erosion. An initial climate action step taken by Tlingit & Haida in 2015 was to push for more studies of climate change impacts in Southeast and as a result, the Tribe developed a Climate Change Adaptation Plan outlining key impacts and Resilience Strategies for addressing the issues. The plan identifies changing conditions of temperature, precipitation, ocean acidification, forest habitat, invasive species and human health as well as key areas of concern such as salmon, shellfish, cedar, forage fish, berries, and seal. The Tribe’s plan includes a ranking system to help prioritize areas of concern and is intended to serve as a prototype for all Southeast Alaska tribes and villages.

The Yukon Territory is one of three northern territories in Canada and is comprised of 14 self-governing First Nations including: Carcross/Tagish First Nation, Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, Ehdiitat Gwich’in Council, First Nation of Nacho Nyak Dun, Gwichya Gwich’in Council, Kluane First Nation, Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation, Nihtat Gwich’in Council, Selkirk First Nation, Ta’an Kwach’an Council, Teslin Tlingit Council, Tetlit Gwich’in Council, and Tr’ondek Hwech’in. As these tribes are historically nomadic, transboundary First Nations are considered part of the Yukon’s Indigenous groups while the Council for Yukon First Nations is representative only of the 14 nations with land claims who are listed above. This territory is mountainous with high plateaus, rivers, tundra in the north, forests in the south, and extends from the brim of British Columbia into the Arctic Circle reaching the Beaufort Sea. The region experiences primarily an Arctic climate and so is majorly impacted by permafrost melt. Permafrost thaw, being the most severe impact, causes sediment float released from the melt to contaminate water quality and release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Increasing average temperature also leads to melting glaciers and sea ice, more extreme weather and storms, unpredictable rain and snow patterns, and an increase in invasive species. These impacts seriously affect the livelihoods, food security, economic opportunity, and safety of Yukoners.

Historical cultural roots between Southeast Alaska and the Yukon strengthen the regions’ ability to work together when upholding self-determination and carrying out climate action efforts. Today, issues affecting British Columbia, Southeast Alaska, and the Yukon such as transboundary mining have brought ongoing collaboration of the Indigenous governements intended to protect and preserve the natural resourcesof their homelands. In 2016, Tlingit & Haida President Richard Peterson drafted a treaty proposal for the Indigenous nations, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation with First Nations, to formally establish their intent to work together to address concerns related to transboundary mining activities. Further, congregations of tribal leadership across Canada and the United States have formally declared unity, which strengthens the responsibility of tribes to support one another when called upon.

The “Declaration of Kinship and Cooperation among Indigenous Peoples and Nations of North America,” signed by National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations and President of the National Congress of American Indians in July, 1999, estimably states:

Others’ hands have drawn boundaries between the Canada and the United States. These arbitrary lines have not severed, and never will, the ties of kinship among our peoples. We are hereby resolved to affirm and to strengthen those bonds of mutual respect, cooperation and affection. As friends and allies, we Indigenous Peoples and Nations will go forward with greater strength and wisdom as we interact with other governments in our region, our hemisphere and our world.

As members of the Assembly of First Nations and National Congress of American Indians, the tribes and nations of Southeast Alaska and the Yukon are largely supported by and work in collaboration with tribes and nations across Canada and the United States in implementing their own climate action policies.

The Yukon is an international leader in climate response. In combination with the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), the Yukon set a precedence for declaring a global state of climate emergency. Concluding the February 16-18, 2020, Yukon First Nations Climate Action Gathering held in Whitehorse, Yukon, regional Chief Kluane Adamek, Yukon regional climate change coordinator Emily McDougall, and Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm signed off on a climate change emergency declaration intended to spark immediate action. Several months before, Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm passed a resolution through AFN calling for:

… the federal, provincial, and territorial governments to take urgent and transformative climate action that meets the requirements outlined in the reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Canada in a Changing Climate to reduce emissions in Canada by 60% below 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

The resolution even further stated that:

AFN regions, First Nations Elders, Knowledge Keepers, women, youth and leadership, develop a First Nations-led climate strategy, within six months, to achieve the objectives above and simultaneously address income inequality within First Nations as part of the mobilization for a just transition, and to host a National Gathering to advance local, domestic and international climate advocacy.

The Yukon First Nations Climate Action Gathering was the result of Tizya-Tramm’s call to action.

In addition to calling on regional, national, and international climate action plans, communities within the Yukon are proactive in attaining renewable energy opportunities. Through the Indigenous Clean Energy Social Enterprise, First Nations communities across Canada are engaged in training for the development, ownership, and operation of clean energy projects based on unique community needs. Nationwide projects consist of hydro, wind, solar, and biomass power. The Teslin Tlingit Council is an innovator of biomass energy production within its community. Operation of ten woodchip boilers, used to replace diesel fuel burning, will heat the TTC buildings first, the Yukon government buildings to follow, and finally the residential homes. The Teslin Biomass Project reports that the impacts from this transition include an annual offset of 110,000 liters of diesel fuel, $85,000 of spending that will now remain in the community, and a reduction of 7,470 tons of greenhouse gases, which has a long term reduction of about 2.5 million liters of heating fuel over the next 30 years.

Another prime example of renewable energy innovation in the Yukon is the Old Crow solar power project. Old Crow is the northernmost village of the Yukon Territory, located north of the Arctic Circle, having outside accessibility only via airplane. The village is highly feasible for solar energy as it sees sunlight twenty-four hours a day during the summer time, and high refraction from snow and ice during the wintertime. The Old Crow Solar Project reports that the community will see a reduction of diesel fuel consumption of 17% or 90,333 liters per year, will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 276 tons per year, and returns in revenue that will be allocated to further community based economic development opportunities.

It is critical to understand that Arctic communities are predominantly rural and highly dependent on diesel fuel in order to heat, power, and transport goods into their communities. The significance of small communities replacing outdated energy infrastructure and becoming self-sufficient in renewable energy is revolutionary. Not only are these communities forging sustainable pathways for the future, they are carrying on traditional cultural value systems and ways of being that will ensure the resilience of their nations for future generations.

Similar to the symbolic transition of energy resources seen in the Yukon, Southeast Alaska is paving its own unique path toward sustainability. Preceding Tlingit & Haida’s demand for research of climate change impacts in Southeast Alaska, the Tlingit & Haida Climate Change Adaptation Plan was formed, highlighting ocean acidification, sea level shift, and carbon ratios as primary concerns. A key organization in Southeast Alaska conducting research is the Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research lab based in Sitka, which is testing for shellfish and water toxins called Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning, which can be lethal if consumed by humans. Additionally, SEATOR’s findings show that rising sea level due to glacial melt causes millions of tons of broken-off ice to force the seabed closer to the surface, if not above the water. The devastation of shellfish beds and coral reefs substantially impacts Southeast economies and tribal food security. SEATOR’s research has also been able to reveal a major contributor to this dramatic change in the ocean’s health by looking at carbon isotopes. The lab uncovered new data showing history of the accelerating presence of 12C isotopes in plants, that is the kind most often produced by human industry.

Strangely, in 2018, the state of Alaska actually removed its plan to address climate change from its website, a gesture to all Alaskans of what the administration cares to prioritize. Raymond Paddock, Tlingit & Haida environmental coordinator, told KTOO news, “As administrations change, priorities change as well, and we see that on national level as well as here on the state level – So it always comes back to our communities being those leaders.” Paddock further noted, “Data is power. And that’s what we’re trying to build our tribes to have, is to have that power in their back pocket when needed.” The SEATOR program, originally started in 2013 by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, a tribe organized under the Indian Reorganization Act, has heavily informed the Tlingit & Haida climate action plan. Tlingit & Haida has furthermore made templates available for other tribes to use.

Southeast Alaskan tribes and tribal corporations alike are embracing their responsibility to act on data collection and adaptation plans. The Sealaska Corporation, one of thirteen regional tribal corporations resulting from the largest Native American land claims settlements in the United States, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, retains roughly 360,000 acres of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian ancestral homelands. The corporation’s primary economic drivers include natural resources, forest stewardship and land management, environmental services and sustainably harvested seafood. As mentioned, Southeast Alaska is home to the largest temperate rainforest in the United States and Sealaska is currently preserving nearly half of their share of that land for carbon sequestration. With this carbon offset project the corporation will earn income from preserving and protecting the 165,000 acres of forest for the next one hundred years. Preserving the forest as a carbon bank will protect animals from habitat destruction resulting from human development and ensures long term ability for Alaska Natives to engage in cultural subsistence and hunting.

Time has proven the resilience of Indigenous people and further highlights the paramount need for their guidance and respect for their knowledge in the face of climate change. Federal and state governments must acknowledge the worldwide climate change crisis and they must work in meaningful collaboration with Indigenous nations to put climate change adaptation and mitigation plans to action.

I would like to see the state of Alaska, rather than abdicating its responsibility to implement climate change adaptation planning, form a new plan working in direct collaboration with Alaska Native tribes to reinforce their community-based procedures for addressing climate change.  Furthemore, I believe there should be legislation  to require the State of Alaska to consider Indigenous ecological knowledge in all environmental assessments and climate action strategies and in so doing, respects tribal sovereignty by treating tribes as equal partners in all environmental resource decision making. Finally, such legislation should include funding for tribal programs that support training in traditional ecological practices.

As an Indigenous youth, I have come to realize that I have an absolute obligation to serve my community’s needs by engaging in climate action through my studies, personal involvement in activism, and future career. I am truly impressed and hopeful in learning what action steps tribes are taking in the United States and Canada to be proactive in understanding and fighting climate change. I am proud to see how tribes are protecting the environment for future generations while still exercising their own sovereignty in economic development and policy. The United States and Canada, as well as the state and provincial governments, would be wise to learn from the examples set by the tribes. Although some of our national leaders, at least in the U.S., are reluctant to admit the impacts of climate change, it is vital that our two nations listen to their own Indigenous peoples. My research so far has encouraged me to continue my pathway in Arctic studies with the hope of learning more about climate change policy, sustainable economic development, renewable resources, and strengthening the implementation of traditional ecological practices.

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