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Alaskan Native Communities Facing Climate-Induced Relocation

LINCOLN, Neb.—Native peoples are no stranger to forced relocation. It is a bitter chapter in the history of North American tribal peoples.

Now, the 21st century version of Native relocation has emerged in Alaska, this time, as a consequence of man-made climate change.

Climate-induced relocation is cited as one of six key vulnerabilities facing Native communities in the tribal chapter of the 2013 National Climate Assessment. Some of the authors of the tribal chapter of the 2013 Assessment were on hand to present and seek feedback from Indian country for their final draft at the National Congress of American Indians Mid-Year Conference, June 17 in Lincoln, Nebraska.

According to the tribal chapter, more than 30 Native villages in Alaska are in need of, or in the process of, relocating their entire villages due to the impact of climate change. The draft cited the Native villages of Shishmaref and Newtok, a traditional Yup’ik village in Alaska, as examples.

Melting permafrost (permanently frozen soil), decreased arctic sea ice, rising sea levels and shoreline erosion have led to flooding, and the destruction of homes and infrastructure in Alaskan villages. Public health issues such as loss of clean drinking water, salt water intrusion and sewage contamination have also arisen to disrupt traditional Native Alaskan life.

“Alaska is seeing all these things the rest of the country hasn’t seen yet,” said Dr. Jerome Montague, Native Affairs and Natural Resources Advisor for the Alaskan Command Joint Task Force.

The tribal report finds that the United States currently lacks an institutional framework to relocate entire communities and calls for new governance institutions to specifically respond to climate-induced relocation.

But because Native peoples have had the historical experience of relocation, they have also learned valuable lessons in adaptability and are not just victims, said Bob Gough, a lead author of National Climate Assessment and secretary of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy (COUP), an organization working to build sustainable tribal economies and tribal energy independence.

Innovation through Tribal Participation

Gough described the philosophy of Intertribal COUP to tribal workshop participants. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” said Gough, urging tribal input.

“Decisions are going to be made,” he said. “They should be made with communities. If you’re not at the table, they’ll be making decisions for you.”

Gough said indigenous people can help shape science and put a human face on scientific data. He said there has been a growing recognition of the value of traditional knowledge in the scientific community because of an indigenous knowledge base that goes back hundreds, even thousands, of years. “That’s happening all over the world.”

The tribal chapter for the 2013 Assessment has been developed with more than 250 technical inputs from Indian country, including Alaska and the Pacific Rim.

From global warming to extreme weather events

Rosalita Whitehair, program manager of the NCAI’s Partnership for Tribal Governance, was on hand to give an overview of the ONR—Our Natural Resources—website. ONR (pronounced Honor) is an alliance of tribal organizations committed to developing a national tribal resources strategy that can be found online at

“No one wants to talk about climate change or global warming,” said Whitehair, noting the skepticism that persists over the science of climate change.

Kalani Souza, executive director of the Olohana Foundation, a Hawaiian based non-profit focused on building community capacity and emergency preparedness, agreed with Whitehair. “The way we tell the story has to shift.”

Gough contends that skepticism over climate change is due to “a well-funded campaign of disinformation” by the fossil fuel industry. He said the term “weather extremes” moves climate change past the debates. “There are no weather deniers,” he said. “People don’t deny that we are having greater extremes.”

Souza and workshop participants also said reaching out to the tribal business community and putting the impact of climate change in economic, rather than emotional terms can have a more responsive impact.

The tribal chapter also cites loss of traditional knowledge (TK) as a key vulnerability to climate change. As Native places and homelands are threatened by climate change, traditional knowledge is also at risk of becoming lost.

The chapter notes that many Indigenous Peoples regard all (people, plants, animals, etc.) that share the world as relatives, not resources. The chapter describes traditional knowledge as encompassing all that is known about the world around us and how we apply that knowledge in relation to those beings that share our world.

“From this knowledge emerges our sense of place, our language, our ceremonies, our cultural identities, and our ways of life,” the chapter states. “As knowledge keepers pass away, the continued existence and viability of TK is threatened.”

Other key vulnerabilities cited in the tribal chapter include: the loss of arctic sea ice and permafrost, water resources, forests and ecosystems, and the loss of traditional foods and culturally important species.

The 2013 National Climate Assessment is in response to Section 106 of the Global Change Research Act of 1990. It is the third report since 1990 and the first to include a chapter specific to climate impacts in Indian country that can help tribal leaders prepare for resource and infrastructure challenges.