New Report Shows How Indigenous Nations Respond To Climate Change

Sep 23, 2021

Indigenous nations are at the frontlines of climate change, but they’re also leaders in how to adapt to changing weather conditions and transition to renewable energy. That’s the conclusion of a new report published by the Institute of Tribal Environmental Professionals at Northern Arizona University. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with two of the report’s authors, Nikki Cooley and Kelsey Morales.


Melissa Sevigny: This report talks about the science of climate change but it also weaves in a lot of personal stories from tribal members. Why did you feel that was important, to have that personal side?

Nikki Cooley: These personal narratives from tribal nations were very important, because we at ITEP don’t like to speak for tribes, we like to be inclusive of tribal voices and perspectives and try to include them firsthand as much as possible.

Kelsey Morales: Yeah, and just to build off what Nikki’s talking about, these personal narratives are also so important because a lot of them emphasize Traditional Ecological Knowledges, TEK. This report is that combination of a Western science perspective complemented with TEK. And I think that’s really what ITEP is all about…just emphasizing and highlighting the power within those stories, passing knowledge along, and also that there are many ways of knowing and living and all of those should be seen as important, legitimate, and valued.  

Melissa Sevigny: Tell me about some of the ways that tribes here in the Southwest are experiencing climate change right now?

Nikki Cooley: I myself am a resident, a citizen of the Navajo Nation…. In my 41 years I have seen water level decreases in our local wells, our native plants deteriorating or not growing back as much as they used to. In short, we’re experiencing a significant drought, long term drought or megadrought. That is impacting our cultural ways of life. Our cornfields are smaller, our livestock are smaller, or they’re nonexistent, because we’ve had to sell them off, because we can’t afford to feed them and water them.  

Melissa Sevigny: So the report talks a lot about solutions, will you tell me a little bit about what are some of the solutions and specifically how tribes are being leaders in ways to address climate change?

Nikki Cooley: That is a great question. That lies in traditional knowledges, the solutions. We look to the past on how they used to take care of the land and what kind of methods they used…. One of the most notable examples is probably cultural burning, just because wildfire is such a huge topic, and it’s a big impact especially for those of us on the west coast. Cultural burning is becoming even more accepted, even within our partnerships in federal and state agencies. Kelsey, do you have anything to add to that?

Kelsey Morales: I would also say in addition to cultural burning, the “just transitions” conversation … Some of the largest renewable energy capacities for wind and solar are on tribal lands, and so really, I think that’s a huge area where we’re seeing tribes as big players in that conversation and building that capacity not only for themselves, but to contribute back to the larger grid… I think climate can often focus on Indigenous and tribes being some of the frontline communities that are being impacting the most, which is definitely true, but I think this report really shows tribes as leaders to provide solutions.

Kelsey Morales, Nikki Cooley, thank you so much for speaking with me.