Green Horizon Magazine

Indigenous People in the Eye of Climate Disruption

April 14th, 2018  |  Published in Beyond the U.S., Native Americans

By Romi Elnagar

“What we are fighting to protect is the survival of this generation and the continuation of the human race,” fifteen-year-old climate activist Xiuhtezcatl Roske- Martinez told the United Nations General Assembly on June 29.

“My father raised me in the Mexica [Aztec] tradition. I learned from [him] is that …every living thing is connected because we all draw life from the same earth and we all drink from the same waters. What I learned from my cultural heritage is that this life is a gift and it is our responsibility to respect and protect that which gives us life.

“I stand before you representing the indigenous peoples of this earth, and those that will inherit the effects of our climate crisis that we face today as a global community.

“We are facing a crisis that affects every living system on our planet. What a lot of people fail to see or simply ignore is that climate change isn’t an issue that is far-off in the future; it isn’t solely affecting the icecaps and the poles or the sea level rise in our oceans. It’s affecting us right here, right now and will only continue to get worse.

“We are approaching twenty-one years of United Nation climate talks and in the last twenty years of negotiations, almost no agreements have been made on a binding climate recovery plan. Our window of opportunity to take action is shrinking as the problem exponentially increases. We need you to take action at COP 21 [2015 Paris Climate Conference] before it’s too late.

“We need to reconnect with the earth and end this mindset that we have that we can take whatever we want without ever giving back or understanding the harm that we are doing to the planet. It’s this mindset of destruction, of greed, that is tearing apart our planet. We need to change the fundamental beliefs of our entire society.

“We have to remember that we are all indigenous to this Earth and that we are all connected.” – Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez ‘s speech can be viewed at

The following are two of some 15 paragraphs dealing with indigenous rights to their lands, environment and the conservation of “their vital medicinal plants, animals and minerals.”

Article 25
Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive
spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used
lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their
responsibilities to future generations in this regard.

Article 29
Indigenous peoples have the right to the conservation and protection of the
environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources.
States shall establish and implement assistance programmes for indigenous peoples for such conservation and protection, without discrimination.

GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE IMPACTS NATIVE AMERICANS Global climate change will disproportionately affect the poorest and most vulnerable in human society; Native Americans will suffer from climate change, yet they are the least responsible for it.

The concerns of Indians are recognized by the Obama Administration, if only verbally. At the beginning of May, it released its Third National Climate Assessment, which warns that the consequences of climate change, both now and in the future, “will undermine indigenous ways of life that have persisted for thousands of years.” Among the “key vulnerabilities” of indigenous peoples, the Assessment’s Chapter 12, which deals exclusively with indigenous communities, identifies permafrost thaw and the loss of Arctic sea ice, as well as food insecurity and loss of traditional knowledge about ecosystems.

“Climate change poses particular threats to Indigenous Peoples’ health, well- being, and ways of life,” the report warns. “Chronic stresses such as extreme poverty are being exacerbated by climate change impacts such as reduced access to traditional foods, decreased water quality, and increasing exposure to health and safety hazards.”

The Assessment goes on to observe that erosion and flooding— the results of climate change—are forcing communities in some areas of Alaska, Louisiana, the Pacific Islands, and other coastal locations to move away from “historical homelands to which their traditions and cultural identities are tied.“

In Louisiana, the rising sea level threatens tribes like the Houma, the Pointe-au-Chien, the Atakapa-Ishak and the Biloxi-Chitimacha Choctaw, all of whom are recognized by the state but not by the federal government. They have hunted and fished in the marshes along the coast for hundreds of years, but were cheated out of their tribal lands by the oil companies and others, who told them they were signing leases, which were in fact quit-claim deeds. Since the 1930’s they have seen companies dredge the wetlands for thousands of miles for pipelines and navigation canals.

And they have watched as the wetlands disappear, a process that has been directly attributed to the activity of the oil and gas companies on which so many Louisianans –including tribal members—depend upon for their livelihoods. A study by the US Geological Survey claims that 36 percent of wetland loss is due to actions of these companies.

The study was commissioned by the oil and gas industry.

Because they lack federal recognition, tribes have not been compensated for the heavy losses caused by BP Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010; the oyster beds and shrimp fishing of the Point-au-Chien tribe were devastated, for example. The Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizers, a local group, says the oil companies petitioned the Bureau of Indian Affairs against recognition of the Houma tribe. Changes in procedures made by the Obama Administration at the end of June may ease the path to recognition for some tribes; at the time of this writing, it is unclear if this will be the case with the Louisiana tribes.

From Louisiana to the Pacific Northwest, climate change is stressing tribes as never before. The Sauk-Suiattle people on the northern Washington state coast are moving offices and homes upstream and away from rivers that increasing threaten to flood in the wake of glacial melt and global warming. “Because of the warming climate, [river migration] is much more likely and poses an unacceptable level of risk to the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe over the next several decades,” says a report by a private environmental planning company, Natural Systems Design, which warns of severe and irretrievable damages and possible loss of life will result if residents and facilities are not moved out of their current location. The EPA and the US Geological Survey have also warned that the river will reach the tribe’s housing in twenty-five years, or sooner if the rate of global warming speeds up.

Part of the tribe’s problem is that logging has disturbed the watershed farther upstream, and global warming has reduced nearby glaciers by more than half in the last century. The tribe’s fishing is also affected by global warming. The salmon which spawn on the Sauk River are affected by higher temperatures, which make it harder and harder for them to survive and grow.

The Quinault and the Quileute on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state also face relocation in the wake of rising sea levels.. There are fears of an earthquake like the Fukushima disaster in 2011 and the Quileute are moving an entire village to higher ground. Further north, rising sea levels have caused erosion, collapseing homes into the sea in Alaska.

While global climate change means that coastal communities suffer from a surfeit of water, elsewhere climate change means drought, affecting Indian communities and non-natives alike throughout the southwestern US. Researchers from NASA as well as Cornell and Columbia universities predict that global climate change will lead to increasingly several droughts in the coming decades. In the past, tribes could simply pull up stakes when local conditions became untenable, but when land is divided and owned by individuals, and Mother Earth no longer belongs to all her children, that’s not possible. Water, too, is now being commercialized and privatized, and that bodes ill for the future for Native Americans and non-natives alike.

In California, severe drought has led to water restrictions throughout the state, with the Sierra snowpack this year on the order of 10-15% of normal. Tribes such as the Hoopa Valley Tribe on the Klamath and Trinity Rivers, and the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation in Yolo County have suffered. The Hoopa Valley Reservation has had mandatory water restrictions, and this summer has been completely without water when tanks ran dry. The high number of arson fires, and problems at the water treatment plant have compounded the problems, and low water levels in Trinity Lake promote bacterial growth, which affects the migratory fish population.


Drilling offshore in the Arctic by Shell Oil is bitterly opposed by Native Americans and environmentalists. In June, Earthjustice, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Council and the Iñupiat (an Inuit, native Alaskan people) were among 12 groups that announced their intention to challenge the Interior Department’s renewal of the lease in the Chukchi Sea, where Shell plans to drill for oil. The groups criticized the rushed decision, made in time to suit the oil company’s schedule, as mistaken and unlawful. They say that such a decision will cause global warming to increase above the 2 degrees Celsius limit agreed upon by nations around the world, which many now say is too high a limit.

In spite of this opposition, and in spite of its lip service to environmentalism such as its recommendations about the Arctic in its 2014 National Climate Assessment, in July the Obama Administration granted Royal Dutch Shell the final permits to drill.

The Arctic Ocean is a complex ecosystem say native people, and climate change is seriously affecting coastal communities there, melting the ice needed for whaling activities and to support hunters. The amount of ice each year is unpredictable and fluctuates because global warming is just beginning its impact, say Native Alaskans Colleen Swan and Shearer in Conductive Chronicle. They say the Arctic is not yet well understood by scientists, such as those from NOAA, and there still is not enough information for government to be issuing permits for oil development offshore.

Environmentalists and Native Alaskans fear that there is a 3-to- 1 chance that oil drilling will result in a spill, and there is no way to clean that up given conditions in the Arctic. They point out that drilling activities in the leased area threaten crucial habitat for endangered Pacific walrus, including mothers and calves in an area rich in food, the Hanna Shoal. Drilling could cause herds to move away from foraging areas, which are not easy for them to find.

“The oil companies and the government who issues … permits will continue with business as usual and the oil companies will recover. They have reserves to fall back on. We don’t. Once we lose our livelihood, our subsistence way of life, it’s gone for a long, long time.” This is the predicament in which hunter-gatherers and marginal communities around the world are finding themselves.


Not only in the US and Canada, but in Latin America, too, Native Americans have suffered the encroachments of corporations like Shell Oil on their lands. In the Amazon, indigenes led by Alberto Pizango and his organization, AIDESEP [“Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest” in English], gained international attention when their nonviolent resistance to oil companies was met by force from the Peruvian government. In 2008, the US and Peru concluded a free trade agreement, under which Peru was to change its laws to allow foreign companies to exploit resources.

Indigenous tribes insisted that some of the new government regulations threatened the safety of their natural resources, and began protests in August 2008. The Peruvian Congress repealed two of the laws required under the agreement, and promised to examine and vote on others. When that didn’t happen, protests and blockades resumed in April 2009.

That summer, clashes with the government turned violent. During a confrontation in the jungle near the town of Bagua on June 5, 2009, forty-one Indians were killed and more than 200 injured when hundreds of nonviolent protesters were attacked by the Peruvian police, The government came under international criticism, particularly from human rights groups, for its brutality in the incident and for undermining press freedom. The Prime Minister later resigned and apologized for failing to consult with the Indians, but Pizango was forced to seek asylum in Nicaragua, and upon his return was arrested on charges of sedition. He and other defendants in the case are currently awaiting the outcome of their trial and are facing life imprisonment.

Other oil companies besides Shell have also been accused of exploiting natural resources and polluting indigenous lands in the Amazon. Occidental Petroleum recently settled a ten-yearlong lawsuit against it by EarthRights Interational and Amazon Watch, who litigated on behalf of the Achuar people on the Corientes River in northern Peru. The suit alleged pollution from oil drilling and was settled out of court. The attorney for EarthRights said that the case could set a precedent because American courts agreed that a company could be sued in the US for damages that company caused overseas.

The company had been pumping wastewater from its wells directly into rivers and streams, a practice outlawed in the US. Children had sickened and died from drinking the water. Under the settlement, the Achuar people were awarded money for education, health care, and community development, including activities to raise money and food, such as a fish farm. Their lands are far from cleaned up, though, with high levels of heavy metals, volatile organic compounds and hydrocarbons remaining, and the Indians are asking the Peruvian government why the cleanup is being terminated.

The Achuar are not alone in their struggle against government and big corporations. “Climate change is affecting the whole planet… and everything is out of balance,” Shoshone-Bannock Tribes Vice-Chairman Lee Juan Tyler, told leaders of Northwest tribes at a conference last March. “We need to sit together for our future. Men are going to destroy our own mystical place if we don’t.”

RomiRomi Elnagar is a retired teacher-librarian. She has written for Green Horizon on Native Americans, and on nuclear power. She can be contacted at

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