Jun 02, 2016

As an Alaskan Athabascan native in Oregon, I am touched by both the effects of climate change in Oregon and in my native Alaska. Climate change has greatly impacted Native communities’ infrastructure, subsistence resources, and livelihoods, and the effects are happening more quickly than we can track them. Rising temperatures are changing the seasons in Alaska; the Athabascan caribou no longer return to the same places they used to each spring, affecting my people’s ability to hunt and prepare food stores for winter. The temperatures in the mountains are in the 80’s in early April, melting the permafrost, which drains our precious mountain lakes. Once these lakes are gone, they are not easily replenished.

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Alaska and Oregon have both seen mass fish die-offs due to climate change, and for Native peoples these die-offs impact whether we eat, if we can work, where we live, and threaten a key part of our entire culture.

Climate change is a top priority for us. In Oregon and Washington, some of our native coastal communities are being forced to relocate to higher ground due to rising sea levels and extreme storm surges. Flooding along the shoreline and ocean acidification threaten our way of life and impact our food. Oysters, shellfish and crab are part of our “first foods” that have great cultural significance, and to lose them would be to lose a part of who we are. We have many important ceremonies that we cannot continue if climate change kills off certain species of plants or animals.

These foods are especially important to Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, but everyone who calls Oregon home considers our first foods a great point of pride for our state. That’s just another reason we should all work together to tackle climate change from as many angles as possible.

Climate change does not just affect those who live closely off the land. Our elders living in cities have to increasingly deal with high heat and stagnant air days, as well as decreasing air quality. The threats to our traditions and culture, and to future generations also creates a sense of unease and fearfulness. There is nothing more that our elders want than to leave the world a better place than we found it. And nothing threatens that hope more than climate change.

Our organization, Wisdom of the Elders, holds a vision of Native American cultural sustainability, and that includes environmental sustainability. We’ve focused on this goal throughout our entire 25-year organizational history. We record the stories of our elders, produce climate change documentaries, host a monthly television show, and make sure that the wisdom of our elders is passed on to the native community and the community at large. Our elders have traditional knowledge and observations of the world of nature; we need to look to them for answers and expertise.

Our archeological sites have also become increasingly exposed to the elements. One 3,500 year old site I visited in Barrow, Alaska could be lost at any moment because the shelf ice that once protected it has melted. We are seeing Oregon’s coastal archaeological sites become increasingly threatened due to erosion and storm surges, both increasing because of climate change.

Climate change will be felt most severely by those who are closest to the earth. We believe it’s up to our tribal leaders to join coalitions like Renew Oregon so we can be part of the solution as vocally as possible. Supporting a fair transition to a clean energy economy will help preserve the lifestyle and traditional ways of our native people.

It’s not just our physical well-being that is threatened, but our entire culture and spiritual health too. We must work together to find solutions to these complex problems if we’re going to preserve our traditions and way of life. 

More from Rose High Bear and Wisdom of the Elders here:

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