The Devastation of Climate Change in Ecocentric Native American Communities

Native Americans march at the People’s Climate March in New York (2014)

It is no secret that indigenous groups across the United States have been the victims of brutal Western imperialism and land acquisition for centuries. The threat of unrestricted American capitalism has since manifested in a new way; climate change threatens the livelihood of every Native American tribe and land across the country. I attempt to highlight the dire nature of the environmental conditions that affect America’s indigenous peoples due to the colonial legacy of America and the consequences of climate change that influence tribal population health and access to natural resources. 

The indigenous peoples of the United States are disproportionately affected by the ravishes of climate change. The National Institute of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) classify Native Americans as a vulnerable population partly because of the extensive problems climate change presents to indigenous communities and their habitation in regions undergoing rapid change. The 565 federally recognized indigenous tribes inhabit about 95 million acres of land. With a notable 47 percent overall unemployment rate among Native American tribes, tribal members rely heavily on agricultural pursuits on native land for their source of income and sustainability. To many Native Americans, their economic practices and cultural sanctities value the preservation and cultivation of native land. 

The impacts of climate change differ between the regions and climates of indigenous tribes. Native tribes often surround their cultural practices with the natural landmarks within their land, making climate effects much more pervasive. For tribes in California and the Pacific Northwest, water temperature and streamflow changes will increase the severity of existing declines in salmon and other culturally important species. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) predicts that the next 40 to 80 years will see the loss of more than half of the salmon and trout habitats throughout the United States. Tribes in coastal areas are experiencing record-breaking rising sea levels and erosion that threaten essential community infrastructure and lead to the forced relocation and displacement of indigenous tribes. Tribes in the Southwestern United States face reductions in rainfall, which cause prolonged drought, affecting soil quality, ranching, and the agricultural practices of tribes. 

However, the problems haunting Native American tribal lands are not as distinct from each other as they appear. Tribes across the United States are subject to reductions in access to culturally significant habitats and species. In Alaska, permafrost melting, which thaws crucial ice environments, is a substantial issue, making access to traditional hunting grounds much more difficult for native hunters. The melting is also changing the migration patterns of certain essential species. In the Pacific Northwest, changes in the water flow patterns and temperature of the water are exacerbating existing stresses on salmon and other shellfish populations, which are central to communities’ economic, spiritual, and cultural health. In the Southwest, the influx of invasive species and prolonged drought create unfounded difficulties in tribal practices for sustenance and subsistence. Climate change in all of these regions impacts traditional knowledge, food security, water availability and sourcing, historical homelands, and territorial existence of Native American tribes–undermining thousands of years of rich histories and the indigenous way of life. 

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) stated that “native foods and fisheries are also declining, 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.”

The devastation of these environmental changes is brought on by the social, economic, and cultural dependence of native tribes on their local habitats and ecosystems. This dependence stems from the social and economic contexts of colonialism and forced relocation from American settlers. The legacy of generational trauma through indigenous erasure and exploitation of treaty agreements have caused significant setbacks in Native American economic growth and land development. As Emilie Cameron wrote in Science Direct in 2012, “Climate change itself…is thoroughly tied to colonial practices, both historically and in the present, insofar as greenhouse gas production over the last two centuries hinged on the dispossession of indigenous lands and resources.” Colonialism has created the conditions for such levels of indigenous vulnerability to climate change. 

The health implications of climate change within native populations create experiences of ongoing environmental health issues. The legacies of pollutants and contamination, inadequate access to clean water, and reductions in the quality and quantity of culturally essential species have caused severe indigenous health declines. Changes in access to subsistence foods are associated with reliance on modern diets, increasing rates of modern diseases such as type 2 diabetes and obesity. Climate-related phenomena such as decreased air quality, extreme weather events, wildfire, infectious disease, and temperature and precipitation extremes can lead to additional public health risks. Continuing changes in climate and ecosystems will likely exacerbate these existing environmental health issues. 

Indigenous Americans are working tirelessly to mitigate the harmful effects of climate change in their communities before it becomes irreversible. In my next article, I will document Native Americans’ efforts in their pursuit of climate justice and how indigenous people have rallied together in a show of resilience and to send a message to exploitative corporations and policies.

Photo from Shutterstock.