Tribal communities have spiritually rich and complex connections with the natural environment, and their traditions, identities, and economies rely heavily on local natural resources. Because of this intimate connection with nature, tribes are especially vulnerable to climate changes that disrupt their surroundings. Surprisingly, however, few studies have delved deeply into Native thinking around climate change and its cultural impacts.
This project sought to understand the ways in which Native American culture and cultural practices in the northwestern U.S. have been affected by climate change. Researchers conducted in-depth interviews with tribal elders and cultural experts belonging to three Northwest tribes – the Confederated Tribes of Salish and Kootenai, the Qinault Indian Nation, and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.
Researchers found that, in addition to altering some specific cultural practices, climate change is profoundly disrupting tribal identities. For tribes, one of the most significant effects of climate change is disturbance to the timing of natural cycles and seasonal changes, which have historically served as cues for culturally important activities. Many of the interviewees described a sense of unease associated with the fact that traditional wisdom may no longer be a sound basis for decision making, because environmental situations no longer match the information that has been passed down through generations. These findings can provide a foundation for understanding the cultural effects of climate change on Northwest tribes and may serve as a resource for tribes to assess climate change impacts on their practices and identity.
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“Sockeye salmon - Credit: Katrina Mueller, USFWS”