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Just over a year ago, in July, 2011, the National Wildlife Federation issued a report, largely ignored by most of the rest of the country.  Even I didn't know about it at the time of release; like many other people, I was consumed with the immediate danger posed by the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and my focus was directed toward fighting that threat.

That was a mistake on my part - and on the part of every other environmental activist who didn't pay attention, but especially for those of us who belong to indigenous cultures.

Called FACING THE STORM:  Indian Tribes, Climate-Induced Weather Extremes, and the Future for Indian Country, the report is actually fairly brief:  a mere 28 pages, including covers and graphics.  But it packs a hell of a punch, and it complements a whole body of work being done by tribes and allied partners in recent years that goes too often unknown, unremarked, and unheeded.

One thing FACING THE STORM does really well - exceptionally so, considering that it's published by a non-Indian organization - is to refrain from telling Indians what they "must do," instead urging the rest of our society to listen to and heed the millennia worth of wisdom of our ancestors and elders.  It also places the deadly threats posed by climate change to the continent's indigenous peoples and lifeways squarely within the context of our nation's tortured and torturous treatment of tribal sovereignty issues.  And that's a topic that needs to be pursued, but it's far too complex for this diary.  Also, please note that while I'm painfully aware of this year's terrible heatwaves, drought, and storms that have affected much of the country as a whole, that is also beyond the scope of this diary.  Many other diaries in this week's series have addressed those issues, and addressed them well.  My focus today - in now way comprehensive; merely the briefest of snapshots - is on the myriad threats, direct and indirect, that climate change poses to Indian Country specifically, and to our peoples' cultural and physical survival.

We've been noticing the effects of climate change locally for several years now.  It's present in the temperature changes, in the prolonged drought, in the confusion of the wild animals and migratory birds who can't decide where they're supposed to be and when.  I've written briefly, mostly in comments, about some of those changes:  the rarity of the sandhill cranes and great blue herons; the near-complete disappearance of the blackbirds in summer, the bluebirds in late summer and early fall, the woodpeckers and chickadees in winter; the starlings' sartorial confusion, donning their winter plumage in August, or even July.

Then there are the weather weirdnesses.  It's not really all that unusual for us to get up into the 90s on occasion, or even, rarely, to hit 100.  But to have weeks in June and July where it passes the 90-degree mark every day is not the norm.  

It's also not unusual, in the wintertime, for our temperatures to drop well below -30.  That's more 30 degrees below zero, you understand, not two below "freezing."  At night, particularly in January and February, at an elevation of well over 7,000 feet, that's fairly common.  But in October and November?  And that's what happened last year.

Very little snow, though - the odd storm here and there, mostly with no real collection on the ground . . . until April, when we got more snowstorms than the rest of this winter combined. Don't get me wrong:  I'm not complaining about the April storms.  Those late snows were an indescribable blessing, without which we would not have the lush garden we have right now, or the hummingbirds and butterflies and honeybees that finally returned this year after far too many years away, and we certainly would not be getting three hay cuts this season to keep the horses well fed through the coming winter.

But the timing, the proportions . . . they're all wrong.  Those who live with the land - they know.

But don't take my word for it.  There's now a vast amount of hard data to show it.  Below, I discuss a variety of the extreme effects that climate change is already wreaking on our lands, with examples of the destruction it's currently visiting upon tribal cultures around the country.


The decade from 2000 to 2009 was the hottest recorded.  Last year, much was made of the fact that 2010 was tied for hottest year on record (the previous record was set just five years earlier).  It now appears that 2012 is on track to smash that record, and July, 2012, is already the hottest in the U.S. since the country first began tracking temperatures in 1895.

Tribes in Arizona have suffered greatly from the elevated temperatures, particularly over the last couple of summers.  In July, 2011, the USDA designated a number of Arizona counties and the San Carlos Apache Reservation disaster areas, due in part to the extreme heat.  Also last summer, with temperatures exceeding 90 degrees on a daily basis, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium began to take steps to prevent and treat heat stress among its clients after the organization discovered that the people crowding its waiting area were not sick, but merely searching for a place to cool off.

Last month, the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota declared a state of emergency because of the extreme heat.  With temperatures reaching 104 degrees and a poverty rate of more than 97% guaranteeing that few air conditioners and fans are accessible, residents (especially elders) have been at grave risk of heat stroke.  The heatwave has also contributed to severe drought conditions there, and many tribal members have lost their entire hay crop, desperately needed both for their own livestock and for their livelihoods.

Here in New Mexico, the Navajo Nation's wild horse population is facing a heat-induced crisis. The extreme temperatures are drying up the animals' customary water sources; what little remains is riddled with salt.  The horses drink the salt water, become increasingly dehydrated, and then when they finally gain access to fresh water, suffer seizures and colic.  Tribal rangers report finding "hundreds of carcasses at dirt reservoirs."


More than a decade ago, scientists were warning that our part of the country, here in the Southwest, was suffering its worst extended drought in more than 500 years.  That's since before European contact.  And while we've had occasional years with relatively high levels of precipitation - usually arriving in the form of cloudbursts leading to flash floods, or blizzards that drop two or three feet of snow at a time - these are all, statistically, one-offs.  They don't even qualify as the proverbial drop in the bucket in terms of drought amelioration.

Snowpack levels are way below the average.  Hell, last year's levels were way below the average, and the 2011-2012 winter numbers are far lower yet.  This year, snowpack accumulations also peaked four weeks earlier than usual; if this is the new normal, this extended drought is going to worsen drastically.

And there are already indications that that's exactly what's happening.  There are some newly-visible, very deep scars on our land:  New Mexico's rivers are drying up.  South of Albuquerque, two separate sections of the Rio Grande, the state's largest river - a total of some 50 miles - have gone dry.  Likewise, some 35 miles' worth of the Pecos River is now completely dry, in a part of the state where little other water exists to supplement it.  This portion of the Pecos serves Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, home to many endangered species.  In recent years, the viability of the Refuge itself has become endangered.  Both Bitter Lake and the Pecos River serve as home to a rare species of fish, the Pecos Bluenose Shiner, whose status is listed as "threatened."  Federal wildlife biologists are currently planning "salvage" operations in hopes of saving the fish.

Over in Dinetah (Navajoland), the scars are growing rapidly.  Dr. Margaret Hiza Redsteer, of the Crow Nation, is a research scientist with the USGS, and project chief of the agency's Navajo Land Use Planning Project.  For more than a decade, she's studied the Dinetah landscape, and her work shows rapidly-escalating changes in the soil's surface there.  Up to one-third of the area's soil topography consists of sand dunes, some at least partially covered with plant life, others bare.  Dr. Redsteer has monitored these dunes for years with everything from ground measurements to satellite imaging, all supplemented by consistent interviews of, and records from, area elders regarding land use, topographical changes, and other data.  She attributes the drastic alterations to climate change:

"Measurements show dunes in the Grand Falls area have grown by 70 percent since 1995. The dunes are moving northeast at 115 feet per year."
Dinetah Dunes Migration Map Over the state border in Ft. Defiance is the Navajo Nation's Navajo Water Management Branch.  Its director, John Leeper, worries about the tribal nation's ability to remain in its homeland in the future:
If the current trends she identifies continue, "much of the Navajo Nation will be severely impacted, and much of the Navajo Nation will become uninhabitable,” Leeper said.

"The Navajo Nation is intended to be a permanent homeland for the Navajo people," he said. "However, much of that homeland may be in jeopardy if these trends can not be successfully mitigated. Not only has Margaret's work identified and documented the current trends, her work also gives us perspective on the steps that can, and must, be taken to reverse many of the most damaging of these trends. Her work will help to ensure that the Navajo people will be able to find their livelihoods here long into the future."


One of the greatest threats to Indian Country produced by climate change, particularly in Western states, is wildfire.  Here in New Mexico, wildfires are regrettably common this time of year, too many of them caused by human negligence.  But their frequency is growing, as are both the heightened temperatures and near-constant drought conditions that make them possible and their dangerous effects.  The NWF's report summary notes:

Because springs are warmer and summers drier, wildfires have increased four-fold since the mid-1980s, the fire season is 78 days longer and individual fires are 30 days longer, studies show.
This time of year, there's an added threat, which comes wrapped in the blessing of rain.  It's monsoon season here, where most days see at least a small shower; many days, it's a cloudburst capable of causing flash floods.  Such storms are often accompanied by thunder, lightning, and high winds.  It's part of the cycle of life here, but in recent years, the ravages of climate change have turned the lightning and winds into independent dangers that are not always ameliorated by the rains.  And, of course, sometimes they arrive without rain.

In the summer of 2001, Wings was at the gallery - sitting outside talking to another shop owner, as a matter of fact.  They heard a loud crack and looked up to see smoke pouring from the base of the peak:  a mid-day lightning strike, sans storm.  He ran inside to get his camera, and took the following shot.  

2001 Fire

Photo copyright Wings, 2001, 2012; all rights reserved.

Eleven years later, much of the ridge line remains visibly bare.  The fire itself did a great deal of damage; complicating the land's recovery in recent years has been the infestation of bark beetles, which have destroyed huge stands of piñon and other forest land some 20-40 miles south, toward Picuris Pueblo.  You can see just how close the blaze came to Taos Pueblo's ancient structures in a photo on page 8 of the NWF report.  Wings's photo now hangs in the gallery as a reminder.

Since then, multiple fires across the state have inflicted major damage upon tribal lands.  Just this morning, NPR is reporting about New Mexico in its feature piece, In Southwest, Worst-Case Fire Scenario Plays Out (installment #3 in a five-part series on "megafires" in the Southwestern U.S.).

The NPR piece refers to last year's Las Conchas fire, one of the worst in state history.  Most of the country focused its concern on the fact that it edged close to Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is a  nuclear research installation.  In this household, our attention was held by something simultaneously much more ancient and much more far-reaching:  its utter devastation of ancient, historically and culturally significant tribal lands.  The fire, which burned well over 150,00 acres, swept over a national forest across three counties, two national park areas, and four separate Indian Pueblos (Cochiti; Jemez; Kewa - until recently, largely known as Santo Domingo; and Santa Clara).

The destruction wrought by the fire didn't end with last year's containment weeks after the first spark.  It's ongoing . . . today, even.  Wildfires like the Las Conchas fire leave behind some of the deadliest scars of all:  Burn scars.  The burn scars create enormous flood risks, and we're now right in the middle of the annual monsoon season.  Of course, last year's monsoons already did great additional damage - so much so that Santa Clara Pueblo is put in the untenable position of fearing the rain its lands and resources otherwise so desperately need.  [For a look at some of the lands burned by the Las Conchas fire, view NPR's slide show and other photos here.  I do not, however, recommend wasting time with the articles comments about 'New World Order" conspiracies, AGW denialism, and the like.]

Las Conchas was hardly the only wildfire to threaten Indian Country last year.  A little south of us, the Pacheco wildfire, though much smaller, did plenty of damage.  On the west side of the state, the so-called Wallow Fire (from "Bear Wallow") wreaked havoc on the Navajo Nation and Zuni Pueblo, and the smoke from that fire choked us for weeks here at Taos Pueblo and at least as far northeast as Nebraska.  The Wallow Fire left enormous scars of all kinds on Arizona's side of the border, particularly at Fort Apache and the San Carlos Apache Reservation.  It's classified as the second-worst fire in their history, after the enormously destructive (and human-caused) Rodeo-Chediski fire in 2002.

This year, wildfires are destroying tribal lands in areas of the country more commonly known for their rainfall.  The Yakama Nation in south-central Washington State is currently battling the Diamond Butte wildfire.  As of this morning, crews are reporting 20% containment.  A little further south, on Oregon's Warm Springs Reservation, the Waterfalls 2 wildfire has destroyed 8,500 acres so far and is reportedly at only 7% containment.  On Sunday, the fire jumped the containment line and began burning the stand of commercial timber that supplies the lumber mill belonging to the Confederated Tribes (Wasco and Paiute).  Officials say containment will be determined bu the winds, which have been gusting 20-30 miles per hour.

Further east, a wildfire sparked over the weekend is threatening structures on the Crow Reservation in Montana.  Wildfire has also threatened the Flathead Reservation in Montana.

In South Dakota, both the Rosebud and Cheyenne River Reservations, have been battling multiple wildfires:  two in Cheyenne River and six at Rosebud.  Pine Ridge has also been hit by wildfire this summer.  Residents of these three Lakota reservations face some of the worst poverty rates in the country.

NPR has a useful interactive map, updated daily, that allows users to see a more or less real-time fire forecast on a national scale.  You can check threats in your own area by searching your zip code.


Another side effect of climate changes is increasing frequency and severity of major weather events.  In warmer seasons, they may manifest as severe thunderstorms, windstorms, tornadoes, derechoes, haboobs, and hailstorms.  In the winter, blizzards, ice storms, and ground blizzards can be equally deadly.  

In this area, we usually get at least a couple of winter storms per year that qualify as blizzards.  As noted above, sub-zero temperatures are also common.  What's not common is for the temperature to dip below zero in October (as happened last year), or for three feet of snow in December to be followed by weeks of sub-zero temperatures followed immediately by two weeks of 60-degree weather in January (2008-2009).  Last year, corporate negligence compounded the misery of thousands of people in this area who were without heat for days during a period when the nights reached 40 below.  We were fortunate in that our heat is propane, and while it was inordinately expensive, we had already refilled our tanks.  We were not, however, so lucky with the pipes (and, in our case, hoses):  Several froze and burst, despite our best efforts at insulation.  Over the last two winters, we've gone without hot water for extended periods, and periodically, without any running water at all.

But that's nothing compared to what reservations in places like the Dakotas now face every winter.

I've written before about conditions at some of the South Dakota reservations, particularly Pine Ridge:

At Pine Ridge (like many other reservations), it is not unusual to find women as heads of household. Moreover, they're often housing and caring for multiple generations: children, grandchildren, sometimes great-grandchildren, as well as elderly parents or grandparents. Frequently, they take in uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, and distant cousins who are in need. Large numbers of women are de facto guardians of and primary caregivers for their grandchildren. None of this is particularly surprising, given that the average household income is less than $3,800 a year.

Yes, you read that right: The average household income on the Pine Ridge Reservation is less than three thousand, eight hundred dollars annually.

Further complicating the situation are the inhumane living conditions on many reservations. I've seen statistics estimating the life expectancy of the average man at Pine Ridge between age 43 and age 48 - equivalent to that of the average Somali male. At a life expectancy of 52, Pine Ridge women don't fare much better. The reservation's unemployment rate exceeds 80%; its poverty rate is one of the worst in the nation; both chronic illness, such as diabetes, and acute illnesses, such as certain forms of cancer, appear at rates between 100% and 800% higher than in the nation as a whole; and the adolescent suicide rate is 150% higher than in the general U.S. population. Alcoholism and methamphetamine addiction long ago reached epidemic proportions.

None of that has changed, except for the worse.  Three years ago, following a series of deadly early-winter ice storms, navajo launched an effort to save elders and others at risk of freezing to death on three reservations in South Dakota:  Cheyenne River, Pine Ridge, and Rosebud.  The conditions were nearly indescribable to those who've never experienced this kind of storm (I have; they weren't all that uncommon in my childhood at home, in an area that is now warming too much).  Everything was coated in ice several inches think.  It downed power lines and telephone poles across the rez, froze and ruptured water and sewage pipes, and left hundreds of people stranded in back country without heat, water, or access to any resources for weeks.  It destroyed a number of the homes virtually entirely.  Others are now filled with toxic black mold, as a result of the ensuing moisture, that can never be eradicated, and people already disproportionately at risk for severe health problems now face even greater jeopardy.

Numerous additional winter storms followed; predictably, the Republican governor refused to issue the required emergency declaration to permit federal disaster assistance until winter was nearly over - and even then, he did so only because of mounting national pressure sparked by our efforts on this site.  In the meantime, navajo worked with tirelessly with propane companies on the rez and private donors to provide propane deliveries to those most in need.  One of those propane company owners is now a Kossack, and every year, she works with navajo and those of us on the Native American Netroots team to ensure that at-risk tribal members at Rosebud, at least, will not freeze to death.  

It shouldn't be this way.  But it's only going to get worse.

And of course the Dakotas are not the only place where winter life is a daily fight for survival.  On the sprawling Navajo Nation reservation, which straddles four states, there are deaths by freezing virtually every year.  Hopi, in northern Arizona, faces similar battles.  Meanwhile, warming trends are reducing snows to unprecedented lows for Great Lakes-area tribes; winter storms now often bring rain, and with it, increased flooding.  The increased winter temperatures are decimating the area population of moose and other animals essential to the tribal nations' ways of life.  The NWF report notes that, in northern Minnesota, the moose population may not survive the next 60 years [see p. 21].  Its research also estimates that, over the next 90 years, 14 states will lose anywhere from 50% to 100% of their trout and salmon habitats (with another 12 states losing up to 49%) [see chart on p. 21 for details].  Here in New Mexico, trout provide a significant food source for a number of tribes, including Taos Pueblo.  My home state of Michigan is on the 50-100% list, as well.


Finally, climate change is contributing to significant elevations in Arctic ice melt and  rise in sea level, both coastal and inland flooding, and coastal and soil erosion.  At particular risk are tribal nations in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center released a statement two days ago, predicting "a record-breaking melt session following a summer of unstable conditions."  With two weeks of melt season remaining, assuming that it follows the current trajectory, the center's scientists are expecting to be able to attribute that expected record conclusively to climate change:

Rather than blaming one-off dramatic atmospheric conditions, such as the summer cyclone, Serrez says if the levels reach an all-time low, global warming is to blame.

"The ice now is so thin in the spring, just because of the general pattern of warming, that large parts of the pack ice just can't survive the summer melt season anymore," he said.

This has serious, potentially deadly implications for Northwest coastal tribes.  According to the NWF's research:
In Alaska, flooding can be caused by early snowmelt, melting permafrost, heavy rain and snowfall, melting sea ice, and rising sea levels.  Studies in 2003 and 2009 by the U.S. General Accountability Office found that more than 200 Native Villages were affected to some degree by flooding and erosion and 31 villages face imminent threats that are compelling them to consider permanent relocation.
Now, stop for a moment.  Think about that.  More than 200 Native villages  - 86% of them - affected.  And 31 Native villages affected so badly that they're considering relocating - permanently.

No, don't continue on just yet.  Stop and think about what that means for the members of those 31 villages.  A way of life, a complete culture, in which their spiritual and other traditions have inextricably intertwined with their natural environment for thousands of years . . . and they may be forced to abandon it just to survive.

On page 16, the NWF report summarizes the brutal choices facing the Inupiaq town of Shishmaref, Alaska.  It's a tiny village on a barrier island north of the Bering Strait; its residents practice a traditional subsistence culture.  Over the past 11 years, as sea temperatures and Arctic ice melts increase, coastal erosion has skyrocketed; storms are now whittling away an average of 23 feet of shoreline each year.  Ringed and spotted seals are dying at heightened rates, starving, stranded, abandoned.  The polar bear population has decreased, as the animals seek higher ground.

And it's not just Alaska.  Pacific Northwest tribes, like the Hoh, the Quileute, and the Quinault, are facing similar challenges.  Rising sea levels have now virtually guaranteed that some tribal villages will be forced to relocate entirely [see p. 17].  Meanwhile, climate change effects continue to damage traditional fisheries and other food sources.

As climate and weather patterns change, inland flooding is becoming a problem for tribes all over the country.  But other coastal tribes are suffering, too.  More than two years ago, I wrote about the situation facing three coastal Louisiana tribes, the Houma, the Chitimacha, and the Pointe-au-Chien.  Their shorelines already decimated by climate change, decades of industrial overdevelopment, and the ravages of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, the tribes are now in the fight of their very lives in the aftermath of the BP oil spill.  One Houma tribal member lamented at the time, "This oil is just going to finish us."


At this time last year, we were fighting to block the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  What I saidthen bears repeating, with minor revisions for today's topic:

I opened the first in my diary series, Scars Upon Sacred Land, this way:
There is a reason why we refer to the earth as our mother.

The land lives;  it is animated by Spirit.  It sustains us:  physically, spiritually. We are the land, and it is us - and any injury to it injures us all.

Many - perhaps most - of our traditional stories and lessons are tied inextricably to the land. Historical, humorous, educational, cautionary; stories of earth and air, fire and water, plants and animals and every living thing; our history, our languages, our cultural and political and spiritual traditions all are bound up with Akii, our Mother Earth, and her children.

And so is our future.

If, that is, we actually have a future.

If we don't do everything possible to rein in the ravages of climate change, the possibility of any future - for the entire planet - is gravely in doubt.

But for the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, it is genocide.  

When I was a child, my father used to tell me the old stories and lessons of the Anishinaabeg. No matter how far I wandered from my roots, one that remained with me is found in various versions among Native peoples the continent over, expressed as our responsibility to the future, "even unto the seventh generation."

Nowhere is this more true than with regard to our stewardship of Akii.

Ironically, the colonizers brought their own version of a seventh generation prophecy - flipped, inverted, a mirror image of ours.  Where ours focused on doing good for those who come after us, the colonizers' version, predictably, obsessed over the bad:  "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation"

Looking at the arc of North American history over the last 500 years, the colonizers clearly won that contest.  Granted, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy on their part, but now, half a millennium later, no less true for all that.  Whatever good the modern inhabitants of Turtle Island may have done with regard to our environment is, at the moment, far outweighed by the damage inflicted, and we're well past the tipping point.  It's no longer a prevention operation, but emergency rescue, recovery, and rehabilitation.

But if we permit climate change to continue and expand, we adopt the colonial vision of the prophecy:  We curse the future, unto the seventh generation and far beyond, and we are accursed ourselves, for enabling such wanton destruction of Akii, of her sand and soil and waters, of her plants and medicines, or her finned and winged and four-, six-, and eight-legged children - and of her two-legged ones, those who come after us, and who will surely suffer and die for our lack of action now.

They call us the first line of defense.  The first responders.  The canaries in the coal mine of climate change.

We're all of those things.  And right now, we're also facing ethnic and cultural annihilation on a scale not seen in more than a century.  

But this time, it's different.  This time, the forces of annihilation threaten to take everyone else along, too.

So you can stand by and watch our lifeways and our very peoples disappear, one by one, the victims of a slow industrial genocide . . . or you can join us in action.  The future you help save may be your own.


FACING THE STORM:  Indian Tribes, Climate-Induced Weather Extremes, and the Future for Indian Country.

Tribes & Climate Change.  Indexes an enormous list of resources by subject matter and by tribal region, complete with links.

Native Communities and Climate Change.  Includes .pdf files and presentations by various tribal nations on environmental issues and solutions.

First Stewards.  Includes symposia and resources for activists, including examples of affirmative steps some tribal nations are taking for themselves.

HHS Environmental Justice Strategy.  Addresses a broad array of environmental justice topics, including those involving tribal nations.

Originally posted to Aji on Fri Aug 24, 2012 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Climate Change SOS, J Town, Barriers and Bridges, SFKossacks, Native American Netroots, Invisible People, and Pink Clubhouse.

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