Prior to this month's Copenhagen summit on climate change, hundreds of American Indian and Alaska Native leaders gathered near Minneapolis for the second Native Peoples Native Homelands Climate Change Workshop. The workshop culminated in the development of the Mystic Lake Declaration, a landmark document about climate change that native leaders delivered to the Copenhagen summit. Among those at the November workshop was James Treat, a faculty member in the department of religion at Illinois, whose current research and writing focuses on American Indian environmental issues in the context of global climate change. Treat also explores those topics in a monthly column for the Muscogee Nation News. Treat spoke recently with News Bureau arts editor Sharita Forrest.
How was the Native Peoples Native Homelands climate conferences initiated?
The workshops began so that Native people could play active roles in the development of national and international policy on climate change.
In the early 1990s, legislation established what is now the U.S. Global Change Research program, a group comprising 13 different federal agencies that was directed to come up with the first national assessment on climate change. Around 1996-1997, they conducted town-hall meetings in about 10 U.S. regions for people to voice their concerns, but did not specifically include Native peoples.
Conversations between Nancy Maynard, a scientist/administrator at NASA, and various tribal leaders and Native environmentalists led to a separate meeting to take input from Native peoples. That meeting was the first Native Peoples Native Homelands workshop, held in Albuquerque (N.M.) in 1998. It produced a declaration that got incorporated into the first national assessment. The workshop in Minneapolis last month was held so that Native peoples could provide input at Copenhagen.
Indigenous communities worldwide were concerned that the powerful nations would be calling the shots at the Copenhagen summit and that the small nations - especially indigenous nations - would be excluded from the process.
How might Native peoples' perspectives on climate change differ from other communities' perspectives?
Indigenous religious traditions worldwide are very grounded in the natural world and subsistence lifestyles in ways that some so-called world religions have forgotten.
Many Native people think of themselves as active agents, not as victims, who have long histories of residence on the land and can draw on tribal traditions to help with environmental issues.
How are Native communities being affected by climate change?
The indigenous communities in the Arctic are being most affected. Some Native villages in Alaska are now making relocation plans because the sea ice is changing dramatically, and the storm cycles are becoming more violent. Coastal or just-offshore island villages on the North Slope are facing submersion because the water levels are rising.
Remote, rural Native communities in the western U.S. have long been impacted by the environmental destruction caused by mining and are really struggling to maintain safe water supplies and provide water for irrigation.
What are Native communities doing in response to climate change?
More than one speaker at the Mystic Lake workshop said that federal and state resource managers and scientists are coming to the tribes and asking for help.
One of the ironies of modern America is that much of the electricity for Los Angeles and Las Vegas comes from coal-fired power plants on the Navajo reservations. The northwest corner of New Mexico is horribly polluted because there are several of these plants there.
One project presented at the workshop was setting up these units that have a small windmill, a solar bank and batteries in a storage shed about the size of a garage next to hogans or other modest dwellings to supply power.
If the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, they're storing energy. It's a pretty economical, off-the-grid system for powering those homes. A lot of the reservations are located in high-wind corridors that are prime places for wind farms.