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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Alaska Native elders with decades of experience in daily interactions with their environment saw changes in species that forage across a wide spectrum — near shore, far from shore and both on the surface and at ocean depth.

Ilarion ‘Kuuyux’ Merculieff, Unangan, said the Unangan people saw connections between the seals, sea lions, sea birds and the ocean temperature.

“We were the first ones to flag climate change, but we couldn't get anybody to listen to us,” he said.

Since Merculieff’s childhood, the population of fur seals has declined drastically. It dropped from 2.1 million in the 1950s to 627,000 in 2019. Threats include warmer water temperatures, acidification, harmful algal blooms, pollution, entanglement in marine debris, and loss of food due to commercial fishing.

“So we knew that what was happening was an ecosystem-wide phenomena, not just a local phenomena,” Merculieff said, who is the founder and president of the Global Center for Indigenous Leadership and Lifeways.

OCEAN STORY: Google Earth image showing location of Pribilof Islands.

He’s from St. Paul, which is a neighbor to St. George. St. Paul is one of four Pribilof islands in the Bering Sea located 300 miles off the western coast of Alaska (and 700 miles from Russia).

The Pribilof Islands are specks on a map of the Bering Sea but have an outsized ecological role. They support more than half the world’s population of northern fur seals, and millions of seabirds that live on the ocean.

Merculieff said his people for years tried to bring the issues to the attention of federal and state officials, “but our information was considered anecdotal — maybe a useful piece of information, or maybe not.”

Alaska Native expertise “in observing and understanding the environment and the ecosystems of which they're part, it stems back many decades in personal living memories and much farther back into the knowledge that has been handed down from past generations as environmental conditions rapidly change,” Merculieff said.

Merculieff sat on a panel last week on “Indigenous and Local Knowledge and Wisdom for Strengthening Conservation,” at the annual Capitol Hill Ocean Week held by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. He and other panelists agreed the world of western science needs to understand, appreciate, give credence to and make use of Indigenous and local knowledge and wisdom.

OCEAN PANELISTS Top left: Ilarion ‘Kuuyux’ Merculieff, Unangan, Founder and President, Global Center for Indigenous Leadership and Lifeways; Top right: Shavonne F. Smith, Shinnecock, Environmental Director, Shinnecock Indian Nation; Right center: Kyle Whyte, Ph.D., Potawatome, George Willis Pack Professor, University of Michigan, School for Environment and Sustainability; Lower left: Dr. Ayana Omilade Flewellen, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Riverside and Board Member, Diving with a Purpose; Lower right: Allison Smart, M.S.,Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians; Environmental Division Manager, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Natural Resources Department. June 9, 2021 panelists on traditional knowledge, wisdom.

Indigenous knowledge and wisdom is like this story, he said: “Back in 1977 our people noted very unusual things that were happening to the marine environment. The sea birds that migrated to the island, several of them had their breast bone sticking out, their chest muscles caved in. The chicks were falling off cliff ledges in greater frequency than ever in living memory. Steller sea lions were chasing after seal pups and eating them in greater numbers than ever in living memory. Fur seal pelts, when we take the pelt off of the animal and flesh the fat, we could see light through it, and we never saw that before.”

Allison Smart of the Sault Ste Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians also sees Indigenous knowledge and wisdom being devalued. She is the environmental division manager for the natural resources department of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Northwest Michigan.

“One of the biggest issues we face is that Indigenous knowledge and wisdom does not hold the same level of value as Western science,” she said.

OCEAN STORY: Google Earth image of the location of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians lands.
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So when making comments on permits or changes to water quality standards in the Great Lakes region, “there are times where my elders will tell me something and I'm sitting there trying to translate that to my fellow Western scientists,” Smart said. “Then at the same time, they're like, ‘Well, where's the data’. And I'm like, ‘Okay, I now have to go waste $400,000 to find out something that we know.’ And I think that's one of my biggest frustrations with combining those two worlds is that we have the answer. We just don't have a bunch of data points that can go on a graph to make Western scientists happy.”

Panel moderator and University of Michigan Professor Kyle Whyte, Potawatomi, has studied the relationship between institutions and adaptation to climate change.

He said western hubris is also reflected in funding and grant requirements that lack reference to traditional knowledge and wisdom.

He thinks that “those that write those policies need to kind of understand that when, at least in my case, when I see something like that, I'm like, ‘who are these people?’’

“Why do they believe that they have the right to define for us what these concepts mean? What acceptable funding means, what a proper program means,” or what a discipline or field is. “This situation absolutely needs to change, but I know so many people that it's not even on their radar, they actually think it's just a great thing that there are grant opportunities for tribes.”

Dr. Ayana Omilade Flewellen, a University of California Riverside assistant professor in anthropology serves on the board of Diving with a Purpose, and as a member of the Society of Black Archeologists. The two nonprofits are partners in an effort to put communities at the center of archeology and cultural preservation work.

They’re “flipping the understanding of how knowledge production is made and how work can be done in cultural preservation and oceanic conservation work to really center on moving ... to think through us being in service to communities... rather than in service of institutions,” said Flewwellen.

She said they’re exploring “what does it mean to actually give the resources and funds to communities to do this work on their own?”

The Shinnecock Indian Nation, an enclave in Southampton on Long Island, New York, has taken a community-based approach.

Shavonne F. Smith, Shinnecock, is environmental director for the Shinnecock tribe. “There's a lot of sand loss and land loss is taking place along the peninsula,” Smith said. “And at the same time that we're trying to maintain our existence in the wetlands to the plants and the wetlands are trying to maintain their existence...So we're looking for ways that we'll reduce the loss of the shoreline so that there is enough space for everyone and everything.”

OCEAN STORY: Google Earth image of Shinnecock Indian Nation.

While agencies authorized to deal with erosion often look to physical barriers as solutions, Smith said the Shinneock looked to nature. The tribe has been “fortunate enough to have access to funding and partnerships that have helped us do some beach replenishment, do some plantings and then do some work directly in the water.”

She said the Shinnecock also turned to their culture for a solution. They have long relied on shellfish such as oysters, hard shell clams, soft shell clams — local natural resources. She said the Shinnecock have built an oyster reef “so that the work that those species are doing is even more effective in terms of slowing down some of that wave energy and improving low water quality.”

Marine Mammal Commission Executive Director Peter Thomas said Indigenous knowledge and wisdom is needed for good decision making about how to handle environmental change. And that will take support.

“Allies and funders are needed to support Indigenous and traditional communities to develop their own organized systems that increase their presence while developing the capacity to respond to the needs of Western science,” Thomas said.

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