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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Climate change impacts tribal nations and other people of color more than other communities, leaving them to face “systemic inequalities” without having a voice in discussions at the state and federal level.

That was the conclusion of Harvard University expert Megan Hill, Oneida, who moderated an April 4 panel on “Indigenous, Black and Communities of Color Fighting for Environmental Justice,” sponsored by the Ash Center and the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.

“We know that communities of color and tribal nations are often hit first and worst, whether it's an increase of extreme storms and weather, extreme heat, drought, melting permafrost, flooding, air pollution – the list sort of goes on and on and on,” said Hill, who is director of the Honoring Nations program at Harvard and the program director of the Harvard Project.

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“And compounding these very real issues are systemic inequalities that are driven by a lack of investment, higher health disparities, and often, a lack of a political voice because communities of color and tribal nations are often left out of federal and state conversations that have to do with preparedness and resilience,” Hill said.

Megan Minoka Hill, Oneida, is director of the Honoring Nations program at Harvard University and the program director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. (Photo courtesy of Megan Hill)

Those communities have much to offer in making decisions on how to respond to the changing climate, she said.

“These communities are really the best-positioned to come up with adaptation and resilience plans and solutions to ensure the long term sustainability of both their communities, but also their regions, and in many cases globally,” Hill said.

Shamar Bibbins, senior program officer for environment at the Kresge Foundation, said climate change adds to problems already faced in those communities.

“Climate change is a threat multiplier,” Bibbins said. “The many intersections between climate, water, airborne diseases…exacerbate known existing health inequities. So all of the inequities that any community is facing —whether social, economic, health — climate change just adds more and more and compounds that.”

Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community, who was also on the panel, said when given the opportunity, tribes can bring solutions and innovation to the table, as his tribe has done during a historic drought in southwest Arizona, the worst in 1,200 years.

“Our water, our namesake, was literally stolen from us over 150 years ago,” Lewis said. “We fought — it was a historic battle in the courts, in Congress — to get our water rights back. And it was done in 2004, the largest water settlement act at that time in the nation's history”

Now the tribe controls a quarter of the Colorado River, which gives it greater weight in discussions about water use – an influential position he said the tribe has used to promote conservation policy.

Shamar Bibbins is senior program officer for environment at The Kresge Foundation. (Photo courtesy The Kresge Foundation)

It’s part of the Gila River Indian Community’s values and traditions to be caretakers, good stewards of their land and water, he said. And the tribe is looking at ways tribes can have meaningful input.

“This is in our blood, in our historical survival, of over 500 years of colonization,” Lewis said. “We have a moral imperative to be leaders in conservation.”

He said during extremely dry conditions, the federal government can officially declare a drought, a move that can affect local control of the resource.

“Takings can occur,” he said. “Cities, tribes, can have water taken. We don’t want to go in that direction.”

With a promise of the Gila River community to put 500,000 acre-feet of water in the waterways in the next two years, the Colorado River Users Association signed a conservation agreement.

“Water represents not just economic benefit,” Lewis said. “It represents spiritual benefits. It represents culture. We are all connected to water. Water is life.”

Stephen Roe Lewis, secretary of the National Congress of American Indians, shown here on March 20, 2022, is also governor of the Gila River Indian Community. (Photo by Dalton Walker/Indian Country Today)

For the Ojibwe, like the Gila River tribe, everything is connected, said Karen Diver, a senior advisor on Native American affairs to the president of the University of Minnesota. She was a special assistant on American Indian affairs during the Obama Administration and a former chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

“Everything is multidisciplinary,” said Diver, who also joined the panel discussion. “So when we advocate for the environment, like protecting one of our sacred species, wild rice, for example, we do that not just because it's a species that is sacred to us, it's a food security issue.”

She continued, “It's an economic development issue. It's a water quality issue because it's a harbinger of the health of our waterways.”

It’s important for future generations, she said.

“It's a resiliency factor for our children because we know their participation in traditional lifeways builds a positive self-identity and gives them strengths that they could build upon as they come into adulthood and face other challenges around identity in a fairly homogenous community,” Diver said. “So we look at it as all of those things.”

Diver said it’s an uphill battle to communicate to federal officials “that our relationship with the natural landscape and how it's being affected by climate change isn't just around species management. It's an existential threat to identity and how we look at wellness very holistically.”

Diver said a broader solution is for people to coalesce around a common agenda and demand accountability from elected officials.

“I know that's kind of a generic answer, but the answer to climate change, to equity, all of it, is in us demanding more from our government and participating in the process,” Diver said.

Karen Diver, center, is a senior advisor on Native American affairs to the president of the University of Minnesota and was a special assistant on American Indian affairs during the Obama Administration. She is a former chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. She is shown here visiting New Zealand in 2016. (Photo by U.S Embassy New Zealand via Creative Commons)

Lewis said as an election official in Arizona he was subject to death threats and he’s seeing racist anti-Native people pushing to take civil rights away from all voters.

But with the federal resources coming soon to Indian Country, “we're looking at ways where we can start to address these longstanding issues and to grow and to push our institutions to evolve – of course within our culture and our value system – but to push them nonetheless, to evolve into institutions that are, hopefully, we can be a model for this nation, where we can show some best practices as to how and what good governance and good leadership is,” Lewis said.

Speakers also praised youth leadership, saying they bring passion and skills to the discussion.

One student who attended the panel discussion, however, criticized Harvard for offering only one class on tribal governance in its John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Panelists said with 574 federally recognized tribes throughout the country, future governmental officials at the city, county, state, and federal level need to know about tribal sovereignty and governance, so Harvard can and should be doing more.

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