Discover more from Talking Climate with Katharine Hayhoe
Climate and Indigenous peoples with James Rattling Leaf
Climate change and Indigenous peoples with guest editor James Rattling Leaf, Sr.
This month, James Rattling Leaf is my guest editor. He’s a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and Tribal Engagement Specialist for the North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center (NC CASC). I’ve been involved with the South Central CASC for many years, and that’s how we originally connected.
Through his work at the Wolakota Lab, James supports Indigenous peoples’ nation rebuilding efforts through the application of traditional ecological knowledge and Western science. He’s an expert on how to combine the strength of these two knowledge systems to tackle climate change. James is also a founding member of the Group on Earth Observations Indigenous Alliance, which seeks to protect Indigenous cultural heritage by using earth observation science, data, and technology. Take it away, James!
Indigenous peoples are uniquely suited to help find solutions to mitigate the climate crisis. They have lived in close relationships with their environments for thousands of years, developing sustainable ways of life through practices and traditions that have been passed down through generations. Today, Indigenous peoples manage more than a quarter of lands around the world, which contain an estimated 80 percent of Earth’s remaining biodiversity.
Across North America, many organizations are recognizing how the Indigenous practice of controlled burning— which also is of spiritual and cultural importance —makes forests more resilient to wildfires, and are incorporating this into their management plans. In the Arctic, Inuit hunters collaborate with geomatics engineering students to collect and map data on environmental changes and animal movements that document the effects of climate change. Young people in Morocco have begun restoring an ancient sustainable irrigation system known as khettaras. These systems were invented by the Amazigh people to maintain community water supplies through heatwaves and drought.
The Nature Conservancy, where I work, partners with the InterTribal Buffalo Council to transfer hundreds of new bison back to Native communities, including James’ Rosebud Sioux Tribe, each year. Managed grazing of grasslands by large animals like the bison restores the ecosystem and stores carbon in the soil, as well as generating economic opportunities and re-establishing cultural traditions for many tribes. That’s at least four wins!
James says that Indigenous youth in particular are crucial to finding climate solutions. They can help to combine indigenous knowledge with modern technology and western science. “Indigenous holistic practices to resource management hold the key to a more sustainable future in a changing climate,” James says. “We need to stand with our Indigenous youth so they can cast vision and lead us into the next seven generations.”
Indigenous peoples worldwide are grappling with the long-term impacts of climate change, and are often the most vulnerable to its effects.
The Sámi people, who live along the peninsulas of northern Scandinavian and northwestern Russia, have faced devastating losses in the reindeer herds they rely on for survival. Premature thawing and freezing can create a layer of ice under the snow, preventing the reindeer from accessing the lichen they eat.
As the seas have warmed in coastal Alaska, the Sitka tribe has had to partner with an environmental research lab to test the shellfish they traditionally harvest for toxins that caused paralytic shellfish poisoning after an uptick in cases. The toxins are produced by algae that thrive in warm waters.
In Northwestern Canada, the Wet’suwet’en have sued the Canadian government as they’ve experienced a surge in wildfires and pine-killing beetle infestations. Other First Nations also lost sacred places, including burial grounds and archaeological sites, in the British Columbia fires.
As James points out, these losses aren’t only about the physical structures, but the culture and traditions that go along with them.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
James introduced me to the concept of Ethical Space, a framework designed to support the reconciliation of indigenous and Western worldviews with the goal of helping to co-create a better future together.
“It embodies a shift from a transactional to a relational way of engagement to one where decision-making is more holistic, inclusive, and, ultimately, more effective and sustainable,” James says. “Ethical Space can serve as an effective, equitable, and harmonious approach to making complex decisions in the realm of environmental and climate justice.”
The Ethical Space website above has links to many ways you can engage and support Indigenous people’s rights to manage their own lands sustainably, starting with learning (and unlearning) about the value of Indigenous lands and conservation practices.
If you don’t know much about this topic and would like to learn more, check out Braiding Sweetgrass, Sand Talk, or An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. If you're looking for a deeper dive, the Strong Nations Indigenous book store has a much more comprehensive reading list here. Rather watch a video? Here's a list of documentaries, short and long, you can choose from. And as always – share what you learn!
Thank you, James, for your sharing your perspectives on this vital subject. Climate change has a disproportionate impact on Indigenous peoples around the world, and their knowledge and experience has much to offer in the fight against the climate and biodiversity crises. As this short Project Drawdown article explains, recognizing, respecting and supporting Indigenous peoples’ rights to have sovereignty over and manage their land is an important climate solution.
To learn more about James’ work on climate solutions with North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center, watch this talk he gave last year. And don’t forget to mark your calendar for Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Saturday, Sept. 30th and the US Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Monday, Oct. 9th.
In our last two guest-edited newsletters, climate scientist Jessica Moerman discussed faith-based climate action, while psychologist Renee Lertzman delved into climate anxiety. Coming up in October, Jennifer Morris from The Nature Conservancy will take the helm to explain why nature is our greatest ally when it comes to tackling the climate and biodiversity crises.
Thurs., Sept. 28th at 7pm EDT - "New England’s Climate Future: City, Land and Sea" with WGBH - in person in Boston, Massachusetts
Weds., Oct. 4th at 7:30pm EDT- "Fall for the Book: SAVING US" with George Mason University in Fairfax, VA - in person
Thurs., Oct. 12th at 4pm EDT - "Buffalo Homecoming," a special event by TNC and the InterTribal Buffalo Council - online
Sun., Oct. 29th at 4pm CDT - "If the Sky Were Orange: Art in the Time of Climate Change" a panel discussion at the exhibit at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, TX - in person