SOMERTON, Ariz. – As the sun rose over the mountains of Yuma, the clouds broke and light peered through the pale blue sky.
“Us Native Americans take everything, such as the land, the air and the waters, as sacred,” said Edmund Domingues, a councilman of the Cocopah Indian Tribe.
“But maybe one of these days we won’t be able to see the sunrise,” he said as he welcomed tribal leaders and climate scientists from across the country to the first-ever Tribal Lands Climate Conference.
The conference, which was co-sponsored by the tribe and the National Wildlife Federation, was held on Dec. 5 and 6 at the Cocopah Casino. Over two days, tribal leaders from 55 nations and representatives from various environmental organizations met to discuss the effects of global warming on tribal lands.
“Our goal here is to begin a dialogue and establish lines of communication within and among tribes on the issue of climate change,” said Steve Torbit, tribal lands conservation program director for the NWF. “What we hope to do here is learn from each other.”
Torbit said the conference was for tribes and about tribes.
“The goal of the National Wildlife Federation Tribal Lands Conservation Program is to ensure the well-being of wildlife and habitat on and near tribal lands by working in partnership with tribal and nontribal governments and tribal organizations, environmental staff and members, while respecting tribal culture and sovereignty,” Torbit said.
At the conference, Robert Corell, chair of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, gave an overview of the effects of global warming.
“Climate change and global warming are no longer simply an environmental issue, it’s an economic and human well-being issue,” Corell said.
He said science is now showing evidence of the effects of global warming that indigenous villages around the world have noticed for decades.
“As salmon people we see what’s changing in the landscape; we see what’s changing with the resources that are important to us like the salmon,” said Terry Williams, Tulalip. “Looking at that, we’ve drawn upon our traditional knowledge and we’ve also drawn upon science.”
Williams said his tribe has seen the loss of animals and fish, which can no longer survive in the changing environment.
“The federal government has put limits on us with reservations and boundaries,” he said. “And as the species migrate off our land we don’t have the legal rights to follow them. And that’s going to affect our culture and it’s going to affect our health.”
The NWF has relationships with more than 100 tribes, including the Cocopah Tribe. In 2002, the foundation partnered with the tribe to preserve the 22 miles of the limitrophe section of the Lower Colorado River. The area, which is culturally significant to the tribe, is home to several species of wetland birds and plants. The Colorado River holds great cultural significance to many other Indian nations and has faced many climate threats to its river system.
The NWF’s programs promote environmental and economic justice for American Indians and seek empowerment for tribes at the local, state and national levels. Programs geared towards education help empower tribal educators and students.
Wahleah Johns, Navajo, said programs that educate the youth are important because it gives them the ability to take the information back to their elders in their community.
“I can’t leave here with the knowledge that I have gained and not tell anyone,” said Johns, who works with the Black Mesa Water Coalition. “I need to go to the elders in my community and explain to them what is going on.”
The conference gave tribes the ability to share the problems that they were facing. Many of the tribes realized the impact that global warming was having in their community was also affecting communities thousands of miles away.
“Mother Earth nourishes all of our relatives; whatever happens to the bears, whatever happens to the fish, will eventually happen to us,” said Caleen Sisk-Franco, leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe.
Sisk-Franco called for traditional Natives to remember what they were taught about the Earth and to remember the lessons they were taught about sacred places.
“As a Hopi woman, my environment is very important to me,” said Cynthia Naha. “And as a people, we need to come together and bring forth a powerful statement of change.”