3 Indigenous Leaders Offer Solutions to Climate Change in the Arctic
Indigenous Peoples in the north have been feeling the disastrous effects of climate change for far longer than the rest of the planet’s population. According to NASA record sets, the Arctic is warming up to four times faster than the rest of the planet, disturbing terrestrial and marine ecosystems, destroying villages, and disrupting healthy ways of life.
Innovative solutions to the climate crisis born from the ingenuity rooted in Native knowledge systems are emerging from the circumpolar north. In this conversation, leaders at the Native Conservancy, Indigenous Climate Action, and Native Movement share their strategies for addressing climate change in the policy, civil society, and economic sectors.
Featuring: Dune Lankard (Eyak), Native Conservancy; Eriel Deranger (Athabaska Chippeweyan First Nation), Indigenous Climate Action; Ruth Miller (Dena’ina Athabaskan/Russian Ashkenazi Jewish), Native Movement. Moderated by Alexis Bunten (Aleut/Yup’ik), Co-Director of the Bioneers Indigeneity Program.
The following is an edited transcript from a live panel discussion.
ALEXIS BUNTEN (BIONEERS): When I was a very young kid, my grandfather pointed out that the Earth was getting hotter. Some scientists in very small circles were talking about it, but lots of Natives were talking about it. Even non-Natives who lived in the North were observing changes in the glaciers over a 60-year time span. People who lived up there knew it.
As people who’ve grown up in the North, what have you observed in terms of climate change?
DUNE LANKARD (NATIVE CONSERVANCY): When I was 5 years old, the Good Friday 1964 earthquake happened in Prince William Sound in our backyard, and that turned our fisheries and our way of life upside down. Before that, we were the razor clam capital of the world. It was like climate change happened to us overnight.
Then on the 26th anniversary of the ’64 quake, we had the Good Friday 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Again, our ecosystem took a major hit, our fisheries were disrupted, and everything was turned upside down again.
Then 25 years later, we have climate change, we have ocean acidification, we have ocean warming and ocean rise. About five years ago, we only had 44,000 sockeye salmon return home to the Copper River Delta. The following year, only 85,000 sockeyes found their way home. The next year, the ocean heated up to 76 degrees for over three weeks down to 20 feet below the surface, 40 feet at low water. Millions of krill, wild mussels, wild kelp forests, salmon, and birds died.
The ecosystem is changing before our very eyes. Because Alaska is colder than most places, it’s melting faster than most places. The permafrost, the sea ice, the glaciers are melting at unprecedented rates. Even two-and-a-half years ago, you could walk right off the shoreline onto Sheridan Glacier, which is right near Cordova, and walk for miles. Now it’s a mile away.
RUTH MILLER (NATIVE MOVEMENT): It’s really difficult to answer a question about when I first got started in climate advocacy, because for an indigenous person, I would say I got started 30,000 years ago, when my ancestors began their deep relationship with our lands. Our traditional subsistence practices were first developed to honor and respect and live in reciprocity with the lands. That was the beginning of our environmental advocacy, when we first learned 30,000 years ago that our survival was interdependent with the survival and the well-being of our non-human relatives.
In this lifetime, I think that my advocacy was first initiated when I was about 14 or 15. My very first job was working for United Tribes of Bristol Bay against the proposed Pebble Mine, which would have been one of the largest copper and gold mines in the country: an open-pit mine that would have devastated one of the last great salmon fisheries in the world.
We were meant to be supporting fishermen to testify to the EPA proceedings about why we didn’t want the mine. But as I sat there starting to talk with people about what their stories might say, how they might articulate why they didn’t want the mine, I got nowhere. And at 14 years old, I was frustrated. I was like, “What do you mean you don’t know what to say? Doesn’t this sound scary enough?” But I realized, very early on, that I was asking for the wrong story. Instead of asking, “Why are you against the proposed Pebble Mine?” I began asking, “What do our salmon mean to you?” Suddenly the stories began to flow like the fish through our streams.
Coming back to Anchorage, I slowly came to an understanding that the environmental justice issues we’re fighting aren’t far out in these rural places. Just last summer, almost 10 years since that first experience in Bristol Bay, I learned that the creek that runs right near my house carries a Dena’ina name that means King Salmon Creek. In this tiny little stream that I blindly walked past almost every day of my life, king salmon used to run. In fact, we have stories of our biggest city, our gathering place, being home to thousands upon thousands of traditional fish camps lining the shores. Now we have the Port of Anchorage. We have 50,000 people, settlers mostly, guests on our homelands that have polluted our lands beyond recognition. There are no king salmon that flow in that river anymore.
So when I think about climate change, it’s not just a matter of the thawing permafrost, and the melting sea ice, and the threat to our infrastructure, and the increasing threat from shipping and militarization throughout the Arctic. It’s an intertwining dialogue that has to address both the roots of our people and our lifeways, the ways that our livelihoods continue to reflect our subsistence and cultural need for interdependency with the other species that will also be impacted by climate change. It is also a question of where we want to go from here as we face this existential threat that we are feeling in Alaska and in the north more than any other place in the world. What kind of future will we choose? What kind of Anchorage will we choose? What kind of pathway will leave us any future at all?
We are living this reality now. But we also have 30,000 years of experience of what right relationship can look like.
ERIEL DERANGER (INDIGENOUS CLIMATE ACTION): My people come from the Peace Athabaska Delta, which is in the Subarctic and the Arctic. It straddles both, and it is a really precarious place to be when we talk about Arctic impacts and northern impacts, because there’s this imaginary line. Are we Arctic, are we not Arctic? Do we get Arctic subsidies and supports like folks from the Arctic or do we not? We experience the same level of impacts that folks 80 kilometers north of us do, and some of those impacts are food.
Food is the first place where we see deep impacts to our culture due to climate change. We’re river people. We relied on fish and caribou and muskrats and birds and waterfowl. These keystone species weren’t just about food for us, but also clothing. The biggest change that our people have seen is in the cultural ceremony of harvesting these species. It was about bringing the community together. For a lot of elders, when they talk about climate change, they talk about the loss of community.
For us, climate change started with colonization. That’s when the climate changed for us, not just politically and culturally, but there were massive changes to the lands from ripping out those resources and treating them as something to be dominated and taken, and replacing them with consumerism and capitalism and hyper-individuality, and disconnecting us from those places. That led to this disconnected relationship with those keystone species. That led to this destabilization of our environments.
With the imposition of colonial extractivism and the largest industrial project on planet Earth, the Alberta tar sands, which lies about 200 kilometers south of my community, we saw massive changes to the river system, from the dewatering of that river system to support the extraction of the Alberta tar sands to the contamination of those very same rivers. These are the rivers that fed into our community. These rivers not only fed the muskrat and the caribou and the bison and the waterfowl, but they fed our community. And as that river got lower, it got hotter, it got contaminated, and the muskrat stopped going into our river systems.
Caribou used to migrate in the hundreds of thousands through my territory. We are down to less than 20,000 caribou that migrate through our territory today.
It’s not just climate change. Climate change is exacerbating the impacts that we’re feeling from extractivism, from the imposition of capitalistic values that have put a dollar amount on our species, that put a dollar amount on how we live.
ALEXIS: All of you are working with organizations and constellations of networks and incredible people to address climate change. What are some of the initiatives and projects that you’re working on?
ERIEL: I think first and foremost is bringing visibility to the fact that Indigenous Peoples at large globally are experiencing the impacts of climate change first and most intensely, and that’s because of the intimate relationships that we have with the land. Our community is already experiencing in some places more than two degrees in changes in temperatures.
But beyond that, our knowledge is so critical to building solutions that aren’t just going to help our communities combat the crisis by building regional solutions, but that can be replicated at large to support regional solutions that are aligned with relationships with the lands and territories. Indigenous Climate Action is an organization based out of so-called Canada, and we’re really looking to skill up, empower, inspire, and inform indigenous leaders in our country to recognize that they have the knowledge and the power and the moral and legal frameworks to lead climate solutions – not just in Canada, but the world over.
We have legal rights, as dictated under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, that allow us to self-govern, to decide how our lands and territories are managed, to give free prior and informed consent to projects that happen on our land, and to form our own systems of governance and education, and we need to start flexing those rights. We need to start advocating for them, and we need to understand the importance that they hold in advancing solutions.
We do that through amplifying the beautiful solutions that we’re already seeing, whether that’s the cultural revitalization in our communities through language, artisan work, or indigenized economies.
At Indigenous Climate Action, we are doing indigenous climate leadership training; we are building an indigenous just transition guide; we are working on having indigenous-led divestment movements; and we are also working toward looking at the suite of climate policies and what it means to decolonize them.
This is the work that we see as critical, not just to ensure that folks in the Arctic can continue to thrive for this generation and the seven generations beyond us, but so all Indigenous Peoples can be recognized in the communities and for the values that our knowledge holds in driving solutions for tomorrow.
RUTH: In Native Movement, yes, we’re a nonprofit, but we work in a variety of ways to undermine the kinds of systemic rules that have been fed us. We have a variety of programs in addition to the climate justice work that I support. We have an environmental justice program that works at community invitation to intervene toward environmental justice and against extractive development across our state. But we also have a gender justice and healing department, where we work towards LGBTQ and two-spirit rights, where we work against police brutality, where we work toward the protection of our indigenous women and girls and two-spirit peoples, because we know that all of these issues are intertwining. They all create the fabric of what a healthy indigenous society can look like.
We also fiscally sponsor several community initiatives so that community members can bring their localized, home-grown solutions to us and be incubated to get strategic support, campaign support, and fiscal support to then grow and take on a life of their own.
One of our primary tactics is truth-telling. We do a lot of training and capacity building, working with our own community members to talk about the harms and the hurts that we’ve been through; what have we gone through to arrive at this moment of intertwining crises? Then we work to heal, because we deserve to be whole, we deserve to be healed and healthy as we advocate for our own dignity and our own human rights. When we build capacity, we are also elevating our local leaders into positions of power and supporting them to be able to articulate their expertise so that we are ever-growing, constantly replaceable, and our movement is sustainable.
We do a ton of trainings, one of which is a decolonization training. (As if that can be achieved in a training, right?) But it is a very intensive, long training that we offer that tells the truth about the history of Alaska and the history of the US. Through these trainings, we’re doing that healing work, we’re doing that truth-telling work, and we’re also creating space for imagination and creativity to show us a path forward that is visionary and brighter than what we have been given.
We also work on a lot of policy, but it’s not just bringing policy to our communities. It is a two-way reciprocal relationship of translating complex English policy on climate into language that we recognize and that resonates with us. Then we apply our values-based framework to see if that policy reflects us.
We also engage with a lot of storytelling and narrative work. When most people think of the climate crisis, they still see a polar bear stranded on an ice flow. Our story of climate crisis is emotional. It describes deep interdependency that goes back 30,000 years. Our climate crisis is my moment of heartbreak when I realize that the knowledge I was guided in by an elder about the time to harvest fiddleheads is wrong for the first time. That elder is wrong because the seasons have changed so drastically. By empowering greater narrative sovereignty from our community members, we are able to shift what the climate crisis looks like and what the story of climate solutions looks like.
DUNE: My mother decided that when I was 10, I was “the one.” I said, “The one what?” And she said, “You’re the one who’s going to save our salmon and our people and our language and our way of life.” And I said, “I’m 10, Mama, what about Debbie, Linda, Don, Pam, Bruce and Joe?” And she said, “No, you’re more stubborn and you have more will power, and I know that you will never sell us out.” And I said, “So you’ve cursed me.” And she said, “I’ve gifted you.”
She and grandma started teaching me about the seasons of animals and berries. I remember we were out blueberry picking one time, and grandma said, “The pink salmon run is coming to a close.” We weren’t anywhere near a stream, so I said, “Grandma, did that just come out of the blue?” She said, “No, the fireweed is almost flowering at the top. When it’s close to the top, the run is over.” I was like, “Oh my god, from this flower you can tell that the run is dwindling?”
Then I grew up with hatchery fish, “computer fish.” They’re remote release, so they have nothing to do with those flowers. They have nothing to do with reality. So whenever I see those fireweeds now, I know that things are not the same because I can’t tell time by the flowers anymore.
We need to change our relationship with our traditional food sources and at the same time practice our subsistence way of life. In Alaska, 90% of the people who live in rural communities still practice a subsistence lifestyle. They’re still connected to the land and the sea and those seasons of animals. But already we can see huge changes happening.
But here’s the thing: It’s not just a matter of climate change; it’s a matter of law and policy and the extermination of our resources and our way of life. And I’m not in the mood for this anymore. We’ve put up with this nonsense for way too long.
We have to fight back. And how that happens isn’t by luck because we want it to, it happens because we file lawsuits, we block roads, we jump off of buildings with banners, we get CDQs for mariculture for the service of the ocean for Indigenous Peoples around the world. The people who are getting permitted are Indigenous Peoples on their ancestral land, in front of their ancestral waters, where they’ve lived for thousands and thousands of years. We’re the original stewards, the original guardians, so we should be leading the way, not following somebody else who doesn’t have a plan.
This is an opportunity to change the way that not only we live on the ocean but to change our relationship with our food source. We scale up by scaling down. We build local processing facilities, so we can process our own foods. We take care of our own people. We figure out how to sell our excess. We put ourselves in a position so we’re able to lead this industry by example. Because the fishermen are going to get their share, industry is going to get their share, the bigs, as we call them – the processors, the canneries, the hatcheries, the big seafood corporations – everybody’s going to get their share. But I’ll tell you what, if Indigenous Peoples don’t organize and don’t figure out how to overcome these barriers to entry, then they’re not going to be a part of this “emerging industry” that happens to be thousands of years old.
Our Native Conservancy is addressing the dozen or so barriers to entry. We’re starting an indigenous ocean farmer’s loan and grant fund. We’re starting the Native Kelp Cooperative. We’re starting the Native Kelp Alliance. We’re starting to build our own boats. We just bought our own boat company and we’re about ready to buy another. We’re going to try to figure out how to drive this economy that is about sustainability and being regenerative. We can do it ourselves by leading the way.
I feel like we’re at one of those pivotal times in history. With these modern-day land claims, if the Indigenous Peoples organize and lead, they’re going to be able to feed their people, they’re going to be able to be a part of a regenerative economy that’s actually good for the ocean.
Our goal is to put our Indigenous Peoples in a position to take things back into their own control. To be able to live in their villages and know that they’re a part of something greater than just themselves.
ERIEL: This is why listening to the people from the North is so important, because Northern people, we don’t take food for granted. We’re so far north we don’t have the luxury of just picking and choosing at the grocery store. Our people are connected to where our foods come from. It’s part of our identities. My people are called caribou people because of the vast caribou that existed there. We know what it means to build sustainable food systems, and we know that it requires stable ecosystems.
It’s critical to listen to those who have those connections and understandings and relationships about what we can do to pave a better future. It’s all dependent on ecosystem health.