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Originally published Monday, July 16, 2012 at 9:17 PM

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NW tribes examine climate change as threat to Native Americans

Four Washington coastal Indian tribes are hosting a climate-change conference in Washington, D.C., beginning Tuesday. Native Americans may be among those most affected by changes in temperature and weather, they say.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Members of four Washington coastal Indian tribes will host a conference in Washington, D.C., this week on how climate change is threatening coastal Native-American populations from Maine to Guam.

The conference, which will be held at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, aims to cover the variety of ways in which climate change is affecting Native Americans, from rising sea levels to melting glaciers, from vanishing permafrost in Alaska to the increasingly acidic Pacific Ocean.

Along the Washington coast, the four tribes hosting the symposium — the Hoh, the Makah, the Quileute and the Quinault — say they are feeling the effects of climate change.

The Anderson Glacier, which feeds the Quinault River, has shrunk to a fraction of its former size, making it harder for salmon to spawn. Ocean acidification is hurting shellfish that many of the tribes' members depend on for food.

The conference, which starts Tuesday and will include tribal representatives from all over the country, also attempts to bridge the gap between scientists who work on climate change and Native Americans, who may be disproportionately affected by such changes.

"Tribal perspectives on climate are really valuable to understand," said Jan Newton, an oceanographer at the University of Washington who has worked with Indian tribes studying climate change for a decade.

Because Washington's coastal tribes have lived in the same place for generations, she said, they are often well positioned to notice minute changes to the environment that could be caused by a warming climate.

The Quinault tribe, for instance, has seen massive fish kills on Grenville Bay, said Ed Johnstone, who helped organize the conference. He suspects the "dead zone" could be linked to ocean acidification.

"We have no history, oral or written, that talks about dead zones," said Johnstone, fisheries-policy spokesman for the Quinaults.

Native Americans are especially likely to be affected by climate change, said Garrit Voggesser, national director of tribal partnerships at the National Wildlife Federation, which issued a report on the topic last year.

Native people often depend on animal populations for food, he said, and such populations have been disrupted around the U.S., "whether it's moose in Minnesota, salmon in the Northwest, or trout in the West."

Washington's coastal tribes have noticed such disruptions.

"When you look into the sky and see all these pelicans and look into the sea and see all these Humboldt squid — that's not normal," said Micah McCarty, chairman of the Makah Tribal Council, who will lead a panel discussion at the conference.

Climate change is having an impact on people and animals. The Quileute, Johnstone said, are moving part of their coastal village to higher ground to protect it from increased ocean storm surges.

The tribes have provided more than just anecdotal evidence, said Newton, the UW oceanographer. "They were on the ground making some of the measurements the university scientists couldn't get out to do."

Newton, who is attending the conference, said she hopes it will encourage further cooperation in the future: "I'm hoping it really is a steppingstone."

Theodoric Meyer: 206-464-2985 or tmeyer@seattletimes.com. Twitter: @theodoricmeyer.

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