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Native elders, educators call for greater indigenous inclusion in climate change dialogue

LAWRENCE, Kan. - Tribal elders, educators and scholars are calling for inclusion of indigenous voices in the current international dialogue on global climate change.

About 150 representatives from American Indian nations and tribal colleges gathered at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence Aug. 12 - 14 for Tribal College Forum VII: ;'Climate Crises and Water Nations are Calling for Awakening.''

''If this is a crisis, our response time is pathetic,'' said Beau Mitchell, sustainability coordinator at the College of Menominee Nation.

Keynote speaker Bob Corell, oceanographer and director of the Global Change Program at the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, spoke about the environmental, economic and cultural impact of a rapidly changing climate.

''If you want to know what's happening in Lawrence, Kan., look at what's happening in the Arctic,'' he said.

Corell is chairman of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. He told the forum that Earth had a stable climate for 10,000 years, with a less than 1 degree variance in temperature. But the rate of global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels could increase the planet's temperature by 2 degrees by 2025 - the highest in the history of humanity, he said.

Corell said Alaskan coastal communities are now experiencing a disappearing coastline due to melting ice. He said the cost of relocating Alaskan villagers would be about $1 million per person.

''They've got to go sometime in the next five years,'' he said.

Polar bears are also profoundly affected by the melting of Arctic ice and are now listed on the endangered species list. ''This coming year will be even worse,'' he said.

Corell said climate change is no longer simply an environmental issue - it is an issue of economic security and well-being. ''Climate is really about people.''

Day one of the forum featured a panel of tribal elders who called for a melding of Western knowledge with indigenous knowledge and perspectives to address the challenges of climate change.

''Education is the key,'' said Avery Denny, Din? elder.

The elders panel included Denny and Jack Jackson, Din?; Francis Cutt, Oglala Sioux; Albert White Hat, Rosebud Sioux; Henrietta Mann, Southern Cheyenne; Oscar Kawagley, Yupiaq; and Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually and chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

''Mother Nature needs our help right now,'' Frank said. ''We've got to bring our children home and educate them.''

Elders also called for a return to a simpler lifestyle and to a return to tribal ceremonies and traditions.

''The federal government tried every way to destroy us,'' Jackson said. ''It didn't work.''

''We need to get back to basics,'' Cutt said.

Regina Siquieros, an educator representing Tohono O'odham Community College, traveled from Arizona to attend the entire three-day conference.

''I know the importance of traditional knowledge,'' she said. ''I want a better place for my children and grandchildren.''

Despite the challenges of climate change, Corell said he sees reason for optimism.

Some of those reasons are found in the environmental research and initiatives under way at tribal colleges.

In Wisconsin, the College of Menominee Nation has partnered with the USDA Forest Service to create the Center for First Americans Forestlands, an initiative to promote sustainable forest management practices.

And in Kansas, Lorraine Williams of Haskell Indian Nations University told the forum about Haskell's partnership with the Department of Defense to research the potential uses of switchgrass - a perennial natural grass - in the restoration of training grounds and in the production of biofuels.

Establishing partnerships and building strong, holistic relationships were recurring themes among panelists.

Attending the final day of the forum was Ernie Stevens Jr., chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, who received enthusiastic response when he pledged resources and support from the association.

''If we're going to be successful, we need partnerships,'' said Dan Wildcat, director of the American Indian studies program at Haskell.

The forum included a ceremony among the elders and tribal college representatives, who signed a letter supporting increased indigenous representation in the processes of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The letter will be presented to the president of the IPCC, said James Rattling Leaf, conference organizer and president of NativeView Inc.

Lorraine Jessepe can be reached at