Two centuries of forced removal and relocation onto often-marginalized lands have left Native Americans uniquely vulnerable to climate change. From northern Arizona, where the Hopi are facing a megadrought that is withering crops and killing livestock, to southern Louisiana, where the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw are seeing their ancestral lands succumb to rising seas, Native American tribes are at the forefront of the climate crisis.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, discusses how Indigenous people in the United States are imperiled by the impacts of climate change – including megafires, floods, heat waves, and drought – and where they are making progress. Sharp’s own Quinault Indian Nation in Washington, where she serves as vice president, is planning to relocate two seaside villages to higher ground to escape worsening floods — a move funded by revenue from a statewide carbon tax that the Quinault and other tribes negotiated for.
Sharp is seeking greater support to help tribes across the U.S. cope with climate change. She is also pushing federal and state officials to seek the consent of tribes when building new mines, pipelines, highways, and other infrastructure that will impact tribal lands, sacred sites, and burial grounds, which she says is key to empowering tribes to tackle climate change.
With President Biden restarting the White House Council on Native American Affairs and appointing Deb Haaland to lead the Department of the Interior, the first Native American to do so, Sharp is optimistic that “we’re going to be able to ensure that tribal sovereignty is not only respected, but implemented in a way that will allow us to effectively adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change.”
Yale Environment 360: Research shows that tribal nations are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Where are you seeing that play out?
Fawn Sharp: I’ve certainly seen it play out in my homeland. I was initially elected as a tribal president for the Quinault Nation back in 2006. And at that time, I convened a gathering of our tribal citizens to try to identify the top priorities within our nation, including the survival of our sockeye salmon. We call it a “blueback” salmon, which is unique to the Quinault River and its tributaries, and it was in sharp decline.
I gathered our [tribal] scientists and our staff to try to determine what was causing the decline. And I learned about ocean acidification and about warming ocean temperatures. Our scientists did an overlay of the different spikes in the ocean temperature, and it perfectly aligned with the sharp declines in salmon that we were witnessing.
The University of Washington had been monitoring the Anderson Glacier, which feeds the Quinault River. And I saw pictures showing — just over the course of about a 60-year period — a visual stark contrast in how rapidly this glacier was receding and disappearing. I took a helicopter flight, probably in my second term of office, and as we came over the ridge in the helicopter, the Anderson Glacier was completely gone. I had seen visuals of a glacial sheen, and I was expecting to see a glacier, or a remnant of a glacier. But when we came over the ridge, there was just a large pool of murky water and not a shred of a glacial sheen. And I cannot explain what that felt like to come face-to-face with a mountain, expecting to see a glacier, and there was nothing but murky water.
This summer, we had extreme heat. Temperatures here, at Lake Quinault, were as high as 109 degrees. And I saw reports that in the same window of four days of that heat wave, Mount Rainier lost three feet of snowpack. I dread to think what some of the heat waves that we’ve had to undergo here in the Pacific Northwest are doing to the remaining glaciers.
“[Climate change] is widespread. It’s all across Indian country, and it’s becoming our top priority.”
There was another instance when I stood on our shores and saw two and a half miles, as far as the eye could see, of dead marine life along our coastline, due to the oxygen depletion and The Blob [a mass of warm water in the Pacific Ocean from 2013 to 2016], as they called it.
In just my 15 years as president of the Quinault Nation, I’ve had to declare multiple states of emergency due to just about every climate-related event one can imagine [including coastal floods, severe rainfall, and landslides]. And we’re just one tribal nation.
e360: And other tribes in the U.S. are facing similar threats?
Sharp: I’ve made several trips to Alaska, and I’ve met with Alaska tribal leaders. They’ve done an excellent job of providing very comprehensive and detailed reports that address all the various impacts of climate change on Alaska natives — whether it’s their food security, their [traditional] medicines, the plants that they gather, the animals that they hunt, their life ways, their villages that are needing to relocate.
The tribes in Louisiana have had to confront the severe impacts of hurricanes and, of course, tornadoes and rising seas. Tribes in California are confronting megafires. I remember explaining it to my kids when we experienced one of the first megafires here in the Northwest, and now it seems there’s no end to fire season, and a megafire isn’t a rare occurrence. It’s an every-year occurrence.
And this is happening all across Indian country. At the National Congress of American Indians, we have regular board meetings where our regional vice presidents report on the issues affecting their people. And at our last annual convention, every region raised issues of climate change.
The tribes in the Great Lakes area, for example, are seeing impacts to their rice fields [from rising temperatures and extreme rainfall]. Tribes in the Northeast are confronting the impacts of climate change to their traditional foods and medicines. So, it’s widespread. It’s all across Indian country, and it’s becoming our top priority.
“Time and time again, we get disappointed that, even over our objections, agencies will take unilateral action.”
e360: You’ve said that tribal sovereignty is critically important to tackling climate change. Can you explain why that is?
Sharp: It’s important for people to understand that one of the attributes of our inherent sovereignty is our ability to have a decisive say when it comes to our land, territory, resources, and people. But there’s still a level of paternalism and a level of political inequality. When it comes to protecting our resources, the United States still will take unilateral action affecting our land, territories, and sacred sites.
The classic example of that is the conflict at Standing Rock [Indian Reservation in South and North Dakota]. There, a tribal nation was attempting to protect their water source, their sacred sites, and they objected, along with tribes all across the country and allies globally, [to the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline]. Over those objections, over that science, over the legal objections, over the policy objections, the United States unilaterally permitted that activity.
When we get to the point where there’s not only an embracing of the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but we implement them in a way that respects tribal sovereignty, then tribes will be fully armed and able to adopt both adaptation and mitigation strategies to defend their people, their homelands, and their traditional ways of life against the imminent threat of climate change.
The White House Council on Native American Affairs has restarted under the Biden administration. They added an international committee. We’ve also had direct engagement with the United States State Department. And we think, with this administration, with this Secretary of the Interior [a member of the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico], we’re going to be able to ensure that tribal sovereignty is not only respected, but exercised in a way that will allow us to effectively adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
e360: The federal government currently has a responsibility to consult with tribes in making decisions that affect their lands, but you’re pushing for the government to have to seek tribal nations’ consent. Can you explain the distinction, and why you think it’s important?
Sharp: Consultation is the mechanism by which the United States has related to tribal nations up to this point. And that’s just a matter of checking an administrative box that says, “Yes, we did consult with a tribal nation.” But over our objections, agencies will then take unilateral action and say, “We consulted, but this is our decision,” as they did with Standing Rock. And oftentimes it appears to be a predetermined course of action. We come to the table in good faith. We consult. We put our best science forward, our best legal arguments, but oftentimes we will walk away with a sense that we don’t have political equality. We have faith and we have hope, but time and time again, we get disappointed that, even over our objections, agencies will take unilateral action.
The idea of consent, in contrast, is one in which we would have a level of political equality. And just as the United States would never engage with the government of Canada or Mexico, sit down, and talk, and then proceed with unilateral action, we hope that at some point the United States will begin to implement the idea of having consent with us.
e360: Besides Standing Rock, where else do you see consent as being a tool for protecting tribal lands and sacred sites?
Sharp: Oak Flat [where a copper mine is being proposed on land sacred to the San Carlos Apache tribe in Arizona] is another area that highlights the level of objection to development activities directly on sacred sites. And if a tribe does not have decisive say over something as central and as sacred and as important as these places where our ancestors have engaged in cultural and religious activities from time immemorial, under what circumstances will we?
“Because the scale of the climate crisis far exceeds the public treasury, we’ve been aggressively going after those directly responsible.”
[The San Carlos Apache people] have absolutely no say, and they’ve had to litigate and go to court and try to defend those rights that were gifted to their ancestors when time began. Those rights are inherent. Those are rights that nearly every other country around the world, in signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples have recognized. So, we’re left asking ourselves, if we cannot have a decisive say over something as sacred as Oak Flat, under what circumstances can we?
e360: You’ve argued that the funds that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and FEMA currently provide for tribal climate resilience and to protect communities from disasters are insufficient. Why is that?
Sharp: The scale of the climate crisis far exceeds the public treasury. When you consider all of the dollars that are spent in dealing with megafires, hurricanes, flooding — those are mere symptoms of climate change. And as apocalyptic as they may seem, we aren’t even getting to the actions that are minimally necessary to contend with the impacts of climate change: restoring our salmon habitat, restoring balance to our ecosystems.
In the beginning of August, President Biden announced a deployment of $3.4 billion through FEMA to address climate change. And as those dollars are being implemented at an agency level, at FEMA, 50 states will be eligible for funding, six territories, and only three tribal nations. Which means 99 percent of Indian country is excluded from that significant deployment of those new dollars.
Because the scale of the climate crisis far exceeds the public treasury, we’ve been aggressively going after those who are directly responsible. In Washington state, the policy points that we tribal nations negotiated in [the state’s recent climate bill] were ultimately legislated into law with the passage of the Climate Commitment Act this year through the Washington State Legislature and, of those statewide dollars that will now result from pricing carbon, 10 percent are going to go to tribal nations.
“Our ancestors foretold of a time where there will be a day of reckoning. Humanity cannot continue to live the way it’s been living and survive.”
We secured $50 million to relocate our villages to higher ground. We secured dollars for tribal nations to address megafires and forest fires. So, we did not wait for the state or the United States Congress to hold industry accountable. We’re well aware that the scale of the crisis is exceeding the public treasury, and the only way we are going to secure the necessary resources to defend our lands, our territory, and people is by holding those who are directly responsible accountable.
In the absence of leadership and against an overwhelming lobby from the fossil fuel industry, tribal nations have been able to succeed. And we’re going to continue on that course.
e360: Why do you think that Indigenous people are well positioned to tackle climate change?
Sharp: We stand on the shoulders of so many of our ancestors and generations that have gone before us. And while we have multi-generational trauma, multi-generational poverty, multi-generational political, economic, and social marginalization, we also have multi-generational strength and resilience, and wisdom, and teachings.
Our ancestors have foretold of a time where there will be a day of reckoning. Humanity cannot continue to live the way it’s been living and survive. And we’ve known that when that day of reckoning comes, tribal nations will be positioned to share with the world, as full participants, our knowledge and our standing and moral authority to bring life back into balance. And not just for humanity, but for all things living and the spiritual connection that we have.
Our ancestors have taught us the salmon cannot get out of the rivers and march to the halls of Congress and lobby for legislation. So, we are the champions, and have been the champions, for the natural world when others have been so willing and so arrogantly able to exploit the natural world for shortsighted, short-term, very narrow interest, profits, and gain. While we’ve relinquished millions of acres of land across the United States, we’ve never relinquished our spiritual connection. And this new generation, this generation of young people, are being born into that.
I’m witnessing not only native youth, but youth across the planet rise to the level of being that generation of leaders that is going to take decisive action. They are going to respect inclusivity. They are very active in wanting to ensure that any climate strategy that this generation will undertake will be aggressive. It will be inclusive. It will respect the rights of all.
I recognize that as a tribal leader, as do many tribal leaders across the country. And we facilitate that. While our generation may develop the strategies to address climate change, it’s going to be that next generation and those that follow that will implement and execute much of the work that we are doing today.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.