Climate change perspectives from Indian Country

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I was on a research trip to Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation in North and South Dakota this December to learn from Lakota and Dakota community members how climate change was affecting their environment, and to begin a dialogue about building resilience to this challenge. While there, my group was also keeping track of events at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, where the Indigenous Environmental Network was organizing events to raise awareness of indigenous peoples' vulnerability to climate change and longstanding concerns about human impacts on the Earth.

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As an ecologist, I was struck by how the complex and cascading effects of a changing climate were real-life issues for members of the Lakota and Dakota community, giving them an understanding far beyond those who do not interact with the environment in the same way. They could see how seasonal cycles of the living world — like spring bloom, bird migrations or the thickening of the winter coat of the buffalo — were becoming out of sync with the sun and moon cycles on which our Gregorian calendar is based. They were concerned with declining fish and game, negative impacts on farm and ranching, and the shifting timing and abundance of traditional foods gathered from the grasslands and forests: prairie turnips in June, chokecherries in July, buffalo berries and wild mushrooms in September.

After more than 20 years working on climate change, those four days at Standing Rock Indian Reservation opened my eyes to a deeper sense of what we stand to lose. I was exposed to completely different "ways of knowing" beyond my conventional scientific perspective. It was impossible not to be moved by the heartfelt stories and cultural memories shared by elders and youth alike, and their spiritual connection with the land, water, plants, animals, the sky and stars.

If only congressional leaders — even those who do not think climate change is an immediate threat — would follow the lead of President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, who visited this reservation in 2014. Hearing the stories of Americans with a deeply rooted relationship to the environment can give us a bigger sense of what we stand to lose as well as the human capacity for resilience in the face of immense challenges. For this community, climate change is just the latest example in a long history of loss and threats to their sense of place, lifestyle and culture.

The ghost of Sitting Bull looms large at Standing Rock. The site of his tragic death in a botched arrest attempt in 1890 was just a few miles from our meeting place. While the elders with whom we met were not alive then, many have painful memories of a more recent betrayal: being forced from their homes when the Army Corps of Engineers completed the Oahe Dam on the Missouri River in 1959. Almost 56,000 acres of their reservation was submerged to build the dam, requiring the relocation of several villages. The land lost included much of the reservation's cottonwood forests and some of the best soil for farming. These issues were brought up not to seek our sympathies, but to point out their resilience to change, concerns and determination not to lose more than they already have.

While we discussed the past, our focus was primarily on the future. The community was enthusiastic about sharing and documenting collective knowledge about seasonal biological events to help create an "ecological calendar" that could prove very useful for planning and decision-making in a changing climate. This tone was set by the opening remarks of Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II, who emphasized pride in the community and its traditions, relationship with the land, and the importance of relationships outside the community to address climate change and other challenges. He talked positively about meeting with the Obamas in their historic visit to Standing Rock in 2014 (one of just a handful of presidential visits to Indian Country in U.S. history).

The future also came into focus during our visit to nearby Sitting Bull Tribal College, where we met with bright students — most of them residents of the reservation — and dedicated professors. Their pride, optimism and excitement about their curriculum and environmental science research were palpable. I look forward to future collaboration with them and to learning more about resilience from this community.

In the wake of the Paris climate talks, there was attention on climate change for a few days, and President Obama talked about it during his State of the Union. But since then, near silence. Media and politicians need to bring this most important challenge of the 21st century into the campaign dialogue. They are certainly talking about it at Standing Rock. Washington should hear their stories.

Wolfe is professor of plant and soil ecology in the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University and chair of the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future's Climate Change Consortium. Views expressed in his column are his alone and do not represent those of these institutions.

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