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January 22, 2024 HUMAN RIGHTS

Indigenous Science and Climate Responses

by Heather Tanana

The effects of climate change are increasingly being experienced around the world. From record-high temperatures and rising sea levels to aridification and wildfires—no one is immune. And, Indigenous people are often living on the frontlines, experiencing the first and worst consequences of climate change. Early in his administration, President Joe Biden recognized the urgency to respond: “The scientific community has made clear that the scale and speed of necessary action are greater than previously believed. There is little time left to avoid setting the world on a dangerous, potentially catastrophic, climate trajectory.” (Executive Order 14008, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad (Jan. 27, 2021).)

In the United States, attention historically has focused on state responses to climate change. But they are not the only sovereigns addressing climate impacts. Tribal governments are increasingly stepping up with innovative solutions grounded in Indigenous science. Also referred to as Indigenous knowledge or Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), Indigenous science reflects the strong connection many Indigenous communities have to their land and the environment. Native Americans have been stewards of this land since time immemorial. They have observed nature and the changes to it over centuries. As a result, they have a deep understanding of the environment, including the relationships between humans and nature. Indigenous science considers not only the physical aspects of the environment but the cultural, social, and spiritual components as well. The observations, oral and written knowledge, innovations, practices, and beliefs developed by Indigenous people have been passed down through generations. (Executive Office of the President, Guidance for Federal Departments and Agencies on Indigenous Knowledge (2022).)

Despite its value, Indigenous science has a long history of being ignored, marginalized, or otherwise not acknowledged by Western science. However, in the face of global climate change, more people are turning to tribes and finding that Indigenous and Western science can reinforce and complement one another. As several Indigenous scientists proclaimed, “While Western Science is a powerful approach, it is not the only one. We need to engage the power of both Western and Indigenous Science on behalf of the living Earth.” (Indigenous Science Declaration for the March for Science (2017).)

Indigenous communities have been at the forefront of climate initiatives. They not only have recognized the evidence of climate impacts more readily, but they have been among the first to respond as well. Exercising their inherent sovereignty, tribes have established laws and regulations that incorporate Indigenous science and traditional worldviews. I have seen this with my own tribe, the Navajo Nation. Navajo fundamental law holds that “Life is the foundation of wisdom.” (1 Navajo Nation Code § 201.)

In the Navajo culture, we must live in harmony to achieve hozhó, or balance. Our way of life is part of our identity. The effects of climate change do not only extend to our natural resources, but the impact of climate change can also be observed in the deterioration of our cultural heritage and traditional way of life. (Testimony of Jonathan Nez Before U.S. House of Rep. Committee on Energy and Commerce, Addressing the Urgent Needs of Our Tribal Communities (2020).)

Based on a duty and responsibility “to protect and preserve the beauty of the natural world for future generations,” the Navajo Nation developed a climate adaptation plan. (1 Navajo Nation Code § 205.) Tribal adaptation plans, including the Navajo Nation’s, often emphasize the preservation of culture and value of Indigenous knowledge. TEK can provide valuable insight into resource availability and sustainable resource management because Tribal practices often focus on conserving biodiversity and maintaining the balance of ecosystems. These practices can inform sustainable agriculture, forestry, and fish and wildlife management, which are essential for combating climate change and ensuring the availability of resources for future generations.

By living in Hózhó (balance) with all living things, including water, hope grows and feeds positivity in every aspect of life. That is why we must live in Hózhó with constant self-awareness of our impact on Mother Earth to protect the knowledge, wisdom, and values of Navajo teachings. (Kirena Tsosie, Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment of Navajo Nation Water Resources in the San Juan River Basin, NM: Utilizing Traditional Navajo Ecological Knowledge (2020).)

Not surprisingly, Tribal climate plans frequently call for the incorporation of Indigenous science in order to find appropriate solutions and to assist in making difficult management decisions in the face of climate change.

Aside from protecting their own communities, Tribal action on climate change may prove helpful to other sovereigns in developing effective climate adaptation measures. Indigenous science can be integrated into comprehensive climate adaptation and response strategies. It can help extend the environmental record in data-sparse regions and improve monitoring design. (Helen Fillmore and Loretta Singletary, Climate Data and Information Needs of Indigenous Communities on Reservation Lands: Insights from Stakeholders in the Southwestern United States, 169 Climatic Change 37 (2021).)

In addition to adaptation efforts, many tribes are engaged in mitigation practices to slow the rate of climate change and reduce related impacts. This is another opportunity to learn from Indigenous science. One of the most notable examples has been wildfires. In the past, state and federal strategies for handling wildfires primarily focused on suppressing them. While prescribed burning has become more widely used, the Karuk Tribe and Yurok Tribe engaged in cultural burning practices as part of their Indigenous knowledge to achieve ecological balance and restore landscape resilience. Tribal burnings in the Klamath Mountains “promoted long-term stability of the forest structure and composition for at least one millennium.” (Clarke A. Knight, et al., Land Management Explains Major Trends in Forest Structure and Composition of the Last Millennium in California’s Klamath Mountains, 119 Proceedings of the Nat’l Academy of Sciences 12 (2022).) While challenges still exist, the re-introduction of traditional fire techniques has seen encouraging successes.

Acknowledging the existence of Indigenous science and recognizing its value can help pull us out of the current climate crisis and create a more resilient future. Indigenous science offers adaptation strategies, sustainable resource management practices, and resilience-building measures rooted in centuries of experience. Furthermore, it can promote collaboration between the federal government, states, and tribes. The effects of climate change do not stop at jurisdictional borders. It is incumbent on us all to take action and utilize all the tools available to us. 

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Heather Tanana

Visiting Professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Law.

Heather Tanana is a citizen of the Navajo Nation and a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Law.