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Indigenous Identity & Climate Change

Native foods and fisheries are on the decline, and tribal access to traditional foods and medicines is often limited by reservation boundaries. The large role of climate change in separating tribal people from their natural resources poses a threat to Indigenous identity.



“With their deep ties to the land and reliance on fishing, hunting, and gathering, indigenous tribes are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Now, native communities across North America are stepping up to adopt climate action plans to protect their way of life.”

NICOLA JONES


For thousands of years, the indigenous peoples of the West Coast would stake out the ground and hunch down, digging up the top two inches of mud, silt, and gravel looking for baby clams which they would place behind rock walls they had built at the low tide line, allowing sand to pile up behind them, making the slope of the beach gentler, and expanding the area of the intertidal zone that clams like to call home. These simple clam gardens were and are effective at boosting shellfish numbers, and have for centuries been used to improve food security for native peoples.

The West Coast was home to peoples speaking Athabaskan, Tshimshianic, Salishan, and other languages. Well-known tribes included the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, Bella Coola, Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), Coast Salish, and Chinook.


The Swinomish are reviving the old idea to build the first modern clam garden in the United States. This is part of the tribe’s plan to ensure the food security of their people in the face of climate change. They were the first native community to make climate adaptation a priority! Native food systems nourished communities and cultures. From farming to fishing to harvesting wild rice, these food traditions are diverse and rich, molded and shaped by the geographies on which Tribal people live. Federal policies promoted settler-colonialism, land theft, and forced removal of Native nations, which disrupted these food systems and lifeways, contributing to present-day food insecurity and poor health outcomes.


The General Allotment Act of 1887, also called the Dawes Act, further deepened land loss for Native nations. The Act parceled communally held Native lands into allotments to be held by individual Tribal members. From 1887 until 1934’s Indian Reorganization Act, federal policy encouraged colonizers to steal an additional 90 million acres of Native land, roughly the size of Montana, significantly decreasing the land base of Indian Country and creating negative, lasting impacts the economic impacts are still felt today as the US rarely kept any treaty signed with Natives and continues to steal land from natives or oppose their economic upward mobility especially when wealthy communities or corporations push local legislatures to do so.


Tribes signed nearly 400 such treaties between 1778 and 1871. However, the federal government consistently broke treaties with Tribes and continues to do so. These broken promises pushed eastern Tribes further and further west. Reservations usually low subsistence lands settlers found too difficult to farm constricted Tribal communities’ ability to hunt, fish, farm, and gather as they had for centuries.


Many treaties stipulated that the U.S. government supply Native nations with food, guaranteed them access to traditional agricultural lands, and/or provided agricultural implements or livestock. In the 1791 treaty with the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the U.S. government agreed to furnish gratuitously the said nation with useful implements of husbandry. An 1789 treaty between the U.S. government and the Wyandot, Delaware, Ottawa, and Chippewa Tribes guaranteed that the Tribes could still hunt in their ancestral lands, stating that Tribal members were “at liberty to hunt within the territory ceded to the United States, without hindrance or molestation. In an 1832 treaty between the Sauk and Fox Tribes the U.S. government gratuitously praised its own generosity in its promised rations:



“The United States, besides the presents, delivered at the signing of this treaty, wishing to give a striking evidence of their mercy and liberality, will immediately cause to be issued to the said confederated tribes, principally for the use of the Sauk and Fox women and children, who's husbands, fathers and brothers, have been (we)killed in the late war, and generally for the use of the whole confederated tribes, articles of subsistence as follows: — thirty-five beef cattle; twelve bushels of salt; thirty barrels of pork; and fifty barrels of flour, and cause to be delivered for the same purposes, in the month of April next, at the mouth of the lower Loway, six thousand bushels of maize or Indian corn."


To nominally maintain the appearance of honoring these treaty obligations, the federal government has distributed rations to Tribal communities since the 1800s. As the Sauk and Fox treaty reflects, the federal government emphasized “articles of subsistence,” not foods with cultural relevance or real nutritional value. Rations consisted of foods such as lard and wheat flour that were foreign to the diets of Tribal communities and many arrived “rancid and rotten.” In effect food they could not give away or sell to anyone else. Ration foods were usually unhealthy; given to prevent starvation rather than provide adequate nutrition, with a focus on “low-cost and shelf-life. ”Ironically natives have 5,000 years of farmers who have expert knowledge from trying out different strategies for dealing with heat, drought and water scarcity. Considering how they have been historically treated the question is why should they share that knowledge? But they do it is about the land and the care that it deserves more than the ignoble treatment historically by the invaders who have been poor shepherds of that land.


Indigenous peoples in Arizona have known for millennia to plant under the shade of the mesquite and palo verde trees that mark the Sonoran Desert, shielding their crops from the intense sun and reducing the amount of water needed. The modern-day version of this can be seen in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, where a canopy of elevated solar panels helps to protect rows of squash, tomatoes and onions. Even on a November afternoon, with the temperature climbing into the 80s, the air under the panels stays comfortably cool. Native communities across the country were some of the first to embrace passive rainwater harvesting and solar power.


Southern Arizona is an epicenter of the Resilience Gardening Movement not just because of the intense environmental pressures that the region faces but because of the presence of the Tohono O’odham Nation southwest of Tucson. Tohono O’odham farmer Sterling Johnson has long worked to spread knowledge of the Nation's farming practices and ancestral values. The San Xavier Cooperative Farm is run by members of the Tohono O’odham Nation in the Tucson area. Additionally, hundreds of years of government policies have left reservations with limited economic opportunities. As a result, First People have the highest poverty rate (one-in-four) and among the lowest labor force rate (61.1%) of any major racial group in the United States. Many tribes see climate change and the knowledge they have to survive it as a way to counter the disadvantages that have been forced on them now they can demand equity by writing their own books and teaching about their culture on their own terms. Because when people get hungry the color of the skin of the person feeding you tends to become irrelevant.


Editor's Note: American Indian and Alaska Native tribes are uniquely affected by climate change. Indigenous peoples have depended on a wide variety of native fungi, plant and animal species for food, medicine, ceremonies, community and economic health for countless generations. Climate change stands to impact the species and ecosystems that constitute tribal traditional foods that are vital to tribal culture, economy and traditional ways of life. Intelligent people should recognize that tribal access to traditional food resources is strongly influenced by the legal and regulatory relationship with the federal government that until now has been adversarial, The effect of climate on food security of the nation should garner support for the multi-faceted relationship that tribes have with places, ecological processes and species. Tribal participation in local, regional and national climate change adaptation strategies is key to building food-based resources, it can inform and strengthen the ability of both tribes and others to address and adapt to climate change impacts.


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