Evergreen Magazine

Indigenous Nations Include Climate Change in Historic Treaty

indigenous nations headline

Indigenous Nations Include Climate Change in Historic Treaty

by Char Simons


Strong winds are not just periodic any more, but tend to be constant. Storms are wiping out intertidal shellfish and causing erosion. Salmon runs are declining; more fish are deformed. Fewer birds and frogs populate rivers. As oceans are predicted to rise up to three feet, salt water will contaminate ever more fresh water sources. The lifespan of Native Americans has decreased significantly with the unavailability of traditional foods, making indigenous peoples the miner’s canary of climate change.

“For indigenous people who live on the land and the water, climate change is already a disaster,” says Alan Parker, Evergreen faculty member and director of the Northwest Indian Applied Research Institute (NIARI) housed at the college.

Parker was instrumental in the development of the Treaty of Indigenous Nations, a compact on climate change among Pacific Rim tribes. Representatives from 11 indigenous nations in the U.S., Canada, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Australia signed the treaty in August at the Lummi Nation near Bellingham. Students from Evergreen’s Master in Public Administration Tribal Governance program also witnessed the negotiations. Evergreen’s involvement with the treaty came about through ties with Native American tribes, Canadian first nations, and Maori tribes in Aotearoa.

signing the treaty
Representatives of indigenous nations from the U.S., Canada, and Aotearoa (New Zealand), gathered in August to sign a compact on climate change among Pacific Rim tribes. Photo by Evergreen faculty member Dr. Zoltán Grossman.

The treaty calls for the establishment of a United League of Indigenous Nations that will facilitate international tribal political and economic alliances to mitigate climate change on tribal homelands, promote trade and commerce among indigenous nations, bring tribal cultural properties under their protection and assert traditional rights to cross international borders. The treaty is to be ratified in November, when indigenous nations in other parts of the globe will be invited to join the body.

“Indigenous nations throughout the Pacific Rim are in a very precarious position in relation to the impacts of climate change. Their survival has depended upon their ability to remain connected to the land. These connections have served as a wellspring of spiritual energy and have linked them to their ancestors,” says Parker, United League of Indigenous Nations acting secretary. “These links provide a body of knowledge that defines who they are in the cosmos and how they must structure their lives in order to survive. If future generations of indigenous people are to continue the traditional practices that make culture a source of spiritual nourishment, these vital connections must be maintained.”

The treaty can help tribes in vastly different parts of the globe share information regarding climate change. Plant, animal and marine species will shift into new areas where tribal harvesters may not be familiar with them and they may not fit into local indigenous cultural and spiritual systems. Indigenous communities are already thinking about the implications of traditional resources moving out of their historic territories. Some fish runs, for example, may disappear, and other fisheries may be replaced partially or entirely by new species coming from the south. Whether or not indigenous harvesters can adapt to these new species may determine whether tribal economies survive. New pests and diseases may also threaten tribal health and economies.

In either case, indigenous nations that choose to adapt to the new species can draw on the expertise of neighbors further south, says Zoltán Grossman, Evergreen faculty member in geography and Native studies who is assisting with a climate change protocol to the treaty. Grossman and Parker collaborated on an Evergreen graduate project last summer on climate change and Pacific Rim indigenous nations, which resulted in a full report and a community organizing booklet available from NIARI.

“Tribes can share information with each other about the effects of global warming, as well as share different responses, such as harvesting different species, renewable energy and land-use planning,” Grossman says. “But the first priority is to share information within each community, train youth and prepare for changes in species and habitat.”

For more information, check out United League of Indigenous Nations, www.indigenousnationstreaty.org, Evergreen’s Northwest Indian Applied Research Institute (NIARI),
www.evergreen.edu/nwindian, and Climate Change and Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations, http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz/climate.html