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Bearing Witness: Voices Of Climate Change Part VII: Adapting Tribal Ceremonies To A Changing Climate

KNAU/Ryan Heinsius

This week, we're airing a series of interviews called Bearing Witness: Voices of Climate Change. They're stories told by longtime Arizonans about changes they've seen in the familiar landscapes of their lives. While personal experience, in and of itself, is not scientific conclusion, many researchers believe long-term observation is a critical component to understanding how climate change affects humanity and the planet. Those changes are altering the way Native American tribes conduct ceremonies. Some of the plants harvested for these rituals aren't growing at the same time of year as they have historically, and that's upending ceremonial calendars. Nikki Cooley is a member of the Navajo Nation and is co-manager of the Tribes and Climate Change Program at Northern Arizona University. She advises Indigenous communities across the country on how to adapt to a changing climate. 

I am of the Towering House Clan and I’m born for the Reed People Clan, my father’s clan, and then my maternal grandparents are of the Water That Flows Together, paternal are of the Many Goats Clan. And I come from two small communities called Blue Gap and Shonto, Arizona. 

The long-term effects of these changes are most, I think, concerning in terms of how tribal members are going to be able to conduct their ceremonies and their prayers and their offerings during the four different seasons. We don’t really recognize the four seasons now because sometimes we recognize four seasons in one month instead of one year.

And so, tribal members have said to me that some plants that they gather that they use for their ceremonies are not growing at the time they should be harvested so that throws off their ceremonial calendar. So if they can’t harvest fish because they’re not spawning and they’re not regenerating they can’t hold their annual celebration in honor of the fish. So that throws off that calendar and that just doesn’t feel right to them and that’s very concerning. That has these ripple effects of the mental and spiritual impacts, not just the physical impacts that they’re seeing.

My friend from Tohono O’odham said, “Tribes have always adapted. We’ve always learned and known that we’ve had to adapt to the different changes. Now we just have to act quicker.”

Now they have science, and all these numbers and data behind what they’re saying. So the quantitative and the qualitative data are coming together.

They have to adapt by including probably nurseries or greenhouses or relying on partners at academic institutions or federal agencies who may have these seed banks or these greenhouses where they can grow some of their plants and then also have that available at the time that they need.

They’re also seeing if they can shift slightly their ceremonial calendar, but that comes with responsibilities at a certain time that you weren’t expecting it. And it also has to go through the approval of the knowledge holders, traditional knowledge holders, the medicine men and women within the tribe too. So there’s a ripple effect of consequences and actions that need to be taken.

We as tribes have always had this science, Indigenous science. But in the past the western world has seen it as anecdotal or hearsay because it’s words not numbers. But they have slowly realized with the insistence of tribal people of their observations—their long-term observations coincide with the scientific data that has been collected since Aldo Leopold’s time and beyond.

We’re just now realizing really and fully in the western world that the traditional knowledge is just as valuable. Now we are being heard and we’re demanding to be heard, because we know how important scientific information is to backing up what we have to say and vice-versa.

Tribal communities, Indigenous communities all over the world are great examples of not giving up. They have been through some of the worst genocidal, environmental events, but yet we’re still here.

Ryan Heinsius joined the KNAU newsroom as executive producer in 2013 and was named news director and managing editor in 2024. As a reporter, he has covered a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.