Sustainability Climate Change

How tribal wisdom can help climate science

indigenous groups and climate change
Berber shepherds in Tunisia FETHI BELAID/Getty Images

Story at a glance

  • There is often tension between Western climate scientists and indigenous communities.
  • Native peoples often have deep knowledge that can help inform science, but they must be treated as respected partners in the process for it to work.
  • “If it’s an indigenous or another vulnerable community, spending time is essential,” says one researcher.

When Shanondora Billiot, a member of the United Houma Nation, decided to study the impacts of climate change on her own tribe, she knew that any mistakes would get back to her family.

“I absolutely knew that I could not be disrespectful while working with the tribe,” says Billiot, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois. “Everyone knows who my family is, so if I were to do something wrong, somebody would let me know.”

Most climate scientists researching indigenous communities won’t have to deal with the ire of their uncles or grandparents if they cause offense during their fieldwork. This lack of personal investment or accountability to indigenous communities can form tense relationships, particularly given oppression that tribes have faced from federal agencies and affiliated institutions over generations.

The Houma Nation has been inundated with research requests over the years. The coastline along Louisiana’s Gulf Coast is rapidly eroding due to climate change and the networks of canals cut for the oil and gas industry. But tribal members are used to being forgotten, as scientists carried out their research and never returned. The Houma people are not alone in this: A 2018 study by Dominique M. David-Chavez, at the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona, found that 87 percent of climate studies used an “extractive model,” where researchers used global indigenous knowledge systems with minimal participation from the communities that had developed them.

Critics say that approach is unhelpful for climate science and unfair to indigenous people, who can end up feeling exploited for the knowledge that they have been gathering for generations. So Billiot carried out her research slowly and deliberately, sitting at marinas where the boats docked, attending powwows and having lunch with anyone who asked. She kept a journal, maintaining separate records of her own feelings and her scientific observations and shared her analysis with the tribe as she went along.

Taking the time

Integrating herself into the community meant that her project took a while — she stayed with the tribe for six months and interviewed 160 people — but she viewed this as an essential component of her research, particularly given its sensitive subject matter: the impacts of repeated environmental disasters on tribal mental health.






“If it’s an indigenous or another vulnerable community, spending time is essential. The knowledge generation has to be co-produced and co-generated. It takes longer, so it’s not something you can fly into and publish a whole bunch of manuscripts off of. It’s a commitment,” Billiot reflects.

But climate scientists need to go further than simply adopting a respectful approach to the communities they study, says Kyle Whyte, a professor and environmental activist at Michigan State University as well as a member of the Potawatomi Nation. He believes that climate scientists should also help rebuild the institutions and knowledge systems that indigenous people built up over generations and stop perpetuating the notion that they are secondary to western science.

Indeed, the knowledge that tribes in the U.S. and beyond have accumulated through generations is now recognized as vital in tackling climate change.

Indigenous peoples’ observations about trends and patterns in the natural world, as well as their insights on the connections between humans, animals and ecosystems, can help to illuminate the changes that the planet is undergoing today and can complement the data gathered by western scientists. In native Alaskan communities, for instance, hunters and elders have described changes in the movement and behavior of animals in recent years: instances of unusually abundant jellyfish, seals with sores and bald spots and smelly walrus meat.

In particular, Whyte would like to see tribal partners paid the same salary as climate scientists when they partner on projects and share their knowledge, “which may seem like a stretch, but it’s actually tremendously problematic,” he says.

“As indigenous people, way before the United States, or Canada or European invasions, we had our own knowledge systems. A lot of them were very scientific in terms of how they related to issues of the environment, sustainability, resilience and climate change,” says Whyte. “We want climate scientists, before they even ask about particular research projects, to be in dialogue with us about how we can rebuild our own institutions so we can be independent and do our own climate science.”

Common ground

Education will be central to improving relationships between climate scientists and indigenous people. Whyte has already trained hundreds of scientists on how better to work with tribes. There are also initiatives like Rising Voices, which aims to advance collaborations between western and indigenous knowledge; the Menominee Tribe runs its own Sustainable Development Institute, which carries out research and projects in line with Menominee beliefs and culture.

“We shouldn’t start off with the idea that climate science begins with some experiments that were done in Europe in the 19th century,” says Whyte. “Instead we should talk about how many societies historically were studying the climate and talk about the wisdom from those traditions and how that occurred for generations. And then show how, later on, what’s currently called climate science emerges as a relatively new approach to studying the climate.”

In her study, David-Chavez suggests 10 questions that climate scientists should ask themselves when planning projects with indigenous communities. These include whether communities were included in the decision to initiate the study and if findings are accessible to community members.

A more respectful and inclusive approach to indigenous knowledge is not only ethical; it is also good for science. Billiot ultimately felt that her research was improved by the extra time she took to knit crab traps and sort shells alongside other members of her fishing community. “I was able to get deeper information, because I was there and people trusted me,” she says. “They trusted I wouldn’t try to profit off of or exploit the information they shared with me.”