Native Nations respond to climate change threats


Nearly 400 Native leaders, scholars, elders and Tribal College students from across the country, joined by scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), came together at a watershed gathering, the Native Peoples Native Homelands Climate Change Workshop II, to formulate a collective response to the far-reaching impacts of climate change on Native lands and communities.

The Climate Change Workshop, held November 18-21 at the Mystic Lake Casino & Hotel in Prior Lake, Minnesota, was designed to build on and enrich the recently released 2009 U.S. National Climate Change Assessment. The first Native Peoples Native Homelands Climate Change Workshop was held in 1998 in Albuquerque, NM, and the report from that workshop, Circles of Wisdom, was later included in the first National Climate Change Assessment issued that year.

“Climate change impacts Native peoples first and foremost,” said workshop Co-Chair, Winona LaDuke (White Earth Ojibwe), Executive Director of Honor the Earth. “In Alaska, some villages are literally falling into the ocean, while severe drought in the Southwest is scorching scarce grasslands and forests. In the Pacific Northwest, salmon runs have been decimated. Vector borne diseases are spreading, and traditional foods and medicines are disappearing in Native territories across the country.” 

Dr. Daniel R. Wildcat, workshop Co-Chair and Director of Haskell Indian Nations University’s Environmental Research Studies Center said, “Global warming scenarios point to disproportionate and increased impacts on Native peoples due to their unique relationship to land, the prevalence of subsistence land-based economies, and the deep cultural and spiritual significance of their ties to the land.”

As a follow-up to the White House Tribal Summit convened in November, the White House sent three representatives from the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to the Workshop. The CEQ held a “listening session” to hear the direct experiences of Native peoples disproportionately suffering the adverse effects of climate change.

Others offered solutions, including the development of reservation-based renewable energy, efficient and sustainable housing, and Indigenous food production, and urged a federal response through the creation of adaptation policies.

At its conclusion, participants issued a milestone document, the Mystic Lake Declaration, to offer solutions that can help Tribal communities and policy makers form plans to address climate change impacts that threaten the traditional cultures and life ways of Indigenous peoples. The Declaration will be taken to Copenhagen for presentation at the United Nations Climate Change Conference.   

Sponsored by NASA’s Tribal College and University Program, the workshop was held in collaboration with the nation’s 36 tribally-controlled colleges and universities and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. Because the median age in Indian Country is 18, there is an urgent need to provide curriculum and green jobs training to restore Native economies.Workshop partners included Honor the Earth, Haskell Indian Nations University, Indigenous Environmental Network, Intertribal Council On Utility Policy, the National Indian Gaming Association, and NOAA.

Presenters included an impressive cross-section of Native experts and leaders from across the nation including Lakota spiritual leader Chief Arvol Looking Horse; Tom Goldtooth, among many others. Mystic Lake Declaration Tribal governments, Indigenous organizations, individuals, and others may read and sign on to the Declaration by going to the website: