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Forced relocation of Native Americans has made them more vulnerable to climate change, study finds

A dried out lake stands near the Navajo Nation town of Thoreau on June 06, 2019, in Thoreau, New Mexico. Due to disputed water rights and other factors, up to 40% of Navajo Nation households don’t have clean running water and are forced to rely on weekly and daily visits to water pumps. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A dried out lake stands near the Navajo Nation town of Thoreau on June 06, 2019, in Thoreau, New Mexico. Due to disputed water rights and other factors, up to 40% of Navajo Nation households don’t have clean running water and are forced to rely on weekly and daily visits to water pumps. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A study published in the journal Science last month shows how forced relocation of Native Americans in the U.S. has moved them to lands more susceptible to climate change.

These findings come as Indigenous activists across the world are making their voices heard at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

The first-of-its-kind study from Yale University, Colorado State University and the University of Michigan took seven years to complete. Researchers looked at data on the long-term environmental impacts of forced land dispossession by European settlers and the U.S. government.

“This study is very true,” says Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians. “It’s very consistent with our traditional knowledge, wisdom and teachings throughout the ages.”

Ancestors have long warned that “in the absence of the outside world being able to work in a sustained way, they are coming after the lands that we have occupied and possessed from the beginning of time,” she says.

Indigenous nations have lost 98.9% of their historical land base, the study found.

Through forced relocation, Indigenous peoples were moved to new areas that were more exposed to climate change hazards such as extreme heat and less rain, the study found. Additionally, the study said new areas were less in quantity and less than quality: They lacked valuable resources like oil and gas and weren’t usually able to be expanded upon because of proximity to federal land.

Because of Indigenous peoples’ deep connection to the environment landscape both physically and spiritually, Sharp says the toll was massive, spanning generations since the first removals.

While tribal nations are witnessing the costs of climate change, they have been able to redefine their way of life, she says.

“We’re going to continue to survive and we’re going to continue to be resilient,” Sharp says. “But it certainly has taken a toll on all of us.”

Interview Highlights

On Native communities facing forced moves by climate change

“My tribe, the Quinault Nation, is currently under a state of national emergency due to sea level rise and the threat of taking out the only access road into our village. We’re having to relocate two main villages to higher ground because of sea level rise at a high tide. The ocean will encroach into our village and it’ll go to our jail facility, our community center, the only store in town. So my tribe is being forced to relocate to higher ground.”

On negotiating with Washington state to pay for the Quinault Nation’s move through a carbon tax

“We’ve long recognized that the scale of the climate crisis is far exceeding the public treasury and resources. We’re simply paying for the symptoms of climate change — the hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, megafires. And so we set out to hold those who are directly responsible accountable — the fossil fuel industry and pricing carbon and all those who emit carbon emissions.

“We tried to secure legislation at a state level, certainly at a congressional level. We took our initiative out to the citizens in [initiative] 1631. The fossil fuel industry spent over $30 million to kill that campaign in Washington state. We came back and we’re able to successfully legislate carbon pricing in the Climate Commitment Act in the state of Washington. And now here at COP26, we are addressing the vulnerable impacts of climate change to Indigenous communities and are vying for direct access to global resources and funding so that we can prepare. We are the most vulnerable. We are disproportionately impacted and we are left without resources.”

On a melting glacier that provides water for a local river in Washington state

“About a decade ago, I had the opportunity to take a helicopter flight over the glaciers that feed the mighty Quinault. There are four glaciers, and we were fully expecting to see a glacier in that initial trip, and we just saw a pool of murky water. It looked like a large mud puddle. The glacier was completely gone. There was no remnant of a glacial sheen. Three years ago, I went back to the ridge and I could see that a second glacier, the White Glacier, had rapidly retreated just within that 10 year period from my first visit. And I really was worried this summer when we had 111-degree temperature at Lake Quinault. We’ve never had heat to that degree, and I saw a report that Mt. Rainier lost nearly 4 feet of snowpack in a three-day window. So I can’t imagine this current state of our glaciers following extreme heat and temperatures and actually blew out our grid. We lost power. We weren’t able to operate our air conditioning systems just because of the extreme heat. Fish had heat lesions due to the warm temperature in the Columbia [River].”

On taking resources from Native American religious sites

“It’s wrong to think that any other sovereign can freely take unilateral action affecting sacred sites of Native people. A tribal nation has that inherent authority not given to us by a state or a federal government. It’s an attribute of our existence as Native people. If we are going to heal as a country, we must honor and respect the basic human and civil rights of the people that have been here long before the United States was here.”

On being at COP26 as an Indigenous activist

“… There’s this preliminary thought of how do we substantively engage Indigenous peoples? I think that the critical point that we are taking away from COP26 is that the rest of the world and world leaders understand that the future health of the planet and humanity is inextricably tied to Indigenous knowledge and wisdom. And there’s this perception that we are weak and vulnerable, but to the contrary, we are strong. We have values. We have teachings that are centuries old and they are proven.

“As this world is trying to seek solutions, they’re finding you simply can’t legislate your way out of this. You can’t negotiate your way out of this. You can’t buy your way out of this crisis. You have to reconcile a way of life that’s consistent with the values that Indigenous peoples hold, the values and the science of place-based people and the knowledge it’s been handed down. That’s our takeaway from this COP — that there certainly is this perception that by inviting Indigenous peoples into certain spaces, that it’s new, it’s different. What are the motives? But quite frankly, we are understanding as the world is beginning to understand that we have to include just centuries of knowledge and wisdom that we bring to the table. We just can’t solve this crisis without it.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a project aimed at strengthening the media’s focus on the climate crisis. WBUR is one of 400+ news organizations that have committed to a week of heightened coverage around the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. Check out all our coverage here.


Alexander Tuerk produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’DowdSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.