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Climate Change Compounds Native Americans’ Historic Hardships



Climate change harms not only land, agriculture, and wildlife but also humans – particularly minority groups. Deeply tied to the US’s historic abuses toward Native Americans, climate change touches all aspects of life, exacerbating many hardships tied to natural resources and heritage preservation.


According to a study conducted by Yale School of the Environment Professor Justin Farrell, Native Americans have lost roughly 99% of their land from before European colonization. Throughout the mid-1800s, Native Americans faced brutal relocations and genocide, such as the Trail of Tears, to lands with fewer resources, harsh conditions, and more vulnerabilities to climate change – a groundbreaking finding by the study. These vulnerabilities in present-day lands, which are only 2.6% the size of historical lands, include more extreme heat, less precipitation, and less mineral value. “When we think about how to address climate change, we sometimes forget that past US policies and actions have led to conditions in which some groups are burdened more by climate change than others,” Farrell said to the NPR. “There’s less attention [than there should be on questions of] how is this an ongoing story about current climate risk? How is this an ongoing story about future climate risk?”


Government policies and neglect largely exacerbate threats from climate change. According to the Guardian, one in 10 Native Americans lack access to safe tap water or basic sanitation, worsening crises like the coronavirus pandemic. In the Navajo Nation, residents are 67 times more likely than other average Americans to live without running water, and an estimated $4.5 billion is needed to improve sanitation and install water pipes in Navajo Nation territory.


However, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in March 2020 under the Trump administration only included roughly $5 million to install temporary water stations, and even today residents face water shortages and harsh living conditions. Tribal consultation has also been lacking, such as with the Dakota Access Pipeline that was approved despite resistance from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe whose land the pipeline passes through.


As climate change gets harsher and wildfires, drought, and floods become more extreme, many Native American groups have been forced to relocate, a heavy decision to make due to many Indigenous groups’ deep historical and cultural ties to nature and the environment. The Quileute Indian Nation’s territory in the Olympic Peninsula, Washington, for example, is only 10-15 feet above sea level, making homes extremely vulnerable to flooding. Due to land dispossession from the Quinault Treaty of 1856, the group’s shrunken territory has made it more difficult to adapt and respond to extreme weather, raising relocation as a potential solution to destroyed homes and food sources. “Climate change has forced us to make the heart-wrenching decision to leave the village,” Quileute Tribal Council Chairman Doug Woodruff said with The New York Times. “Without a cohesive national and international strategy to address climate change, there is little we can do to combat these impacts.” Lack of federal support has further hindered progress.


With dire lack of resources and the need to relocate comes a risk of losing heritage and ancient traditions. Fishing and hunting, for example, become much more difficult with changing and unpredictable climate, and floods and wildfires place sacred sites at risk, with relocation seeing the complete loss of those sites. Balancing the need to address both climate change and social hardships with the need to preserve traditions and values has become increasingly difficult. “What choice does a tribal leader have but to search for any and all ways to care for his people?” Former National Congress of American Indians Policy Advisor said. “The resource curse visits the indigenous people, and they’re forced into the most profound conflict: do I extract coal, uranium, and oil and gas inconsistent with my values, yet knowing my people are unemployed? That’s the cosmic choice that so many tribes have tragically had to encounter.”


In order to overcome these hardships, many Native American groups have shifted toward renewable energy. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, for example, began building solar energy farms in 2019 after the Winnebago Tribe in 2008 and the Moapa band of Paiutes in 2017. Research efforts have also helped policy makers better understand the experiences of Native Americans. The University of Colorado Law School and Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Studies began a joint project titled Native Communities and Climate Change to guide natural resource planning and climate change adaptation.


Climate action is crucial in alleviating the disproportionate effects of climate change on Native Americans. Advocating toward climate justice, getting involved in environmental or human rights organizations, and remaining open-minded and aware of this ongoing issue can all help.


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