'This is the time to start preparing for a catastrophe'

Medill Journalism

Tribal citizens prep themselves for the impacts of climate change

Carlyn Kranking
Medill School of Journalism

Lea Zeise has been taught that sometime in the future, there will be a catastrophe.

“Our teachings actually tell us that we’re gonna have a time where you need seven years of food put away,” said Zeise, who is a founding member of Ohe•láku, the Oneida White Corn Cooperative. “The climate is changing now, and also according to our prophecies, we’re seeing things that were prophesied to start happening when that time was coming.”

A major prophecy was that trees would start dying from the top, and this would indicate an impending disaster. Trees never used to die from the top until bouts of acid rain in the 80s and 90s caused just that.

“Industrialization has basically set in motion the consequences that we’re seeing now that are from those prophecies,” Zeise said. “If you pay attention to that stuff, your ears kind of perk up and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is the time that they were talking about.’ So now, this is the time to plant, and this is the time to start preparing for a catastrophe.”

Last year, Ohe•láku harvested 10,000 pounds of corn. Despite the success of last year’s harvest, this year’s was diminished by excessive rainfall and by animals who could not find enough other food to eat.

“For our corn co-op, the yields were about an eighth of what they were last year, so it was drastically, drastically smaller,” said Rebecca Webster, a founding member of Ohe•láku. “One of the fields was really wet, and there isn't a road to get to it – it’s [...] basically trucks going through a field to get to it. [There was] so much water that we couldn’t get any cars or trucks back there.”

Instead, they took four-wheelers with garden trailers attached behind them back and forth from the field until they had acquired all the corn. This process was three times less efficient, Webster said, than it was to remove corn with trucks last year, when conditions were drier.

Wet seasons like this are going to become more common for the Oneida and across the Midwest. According to , periods of heavy precipitation are projected to increase in intensity in the Midwest, and the total amount of rainfall and snowfall is also predicted to increase.

“It’s pretty scary, I mean if you look at the amount of increase in precipitation, we’re gonna be well and above what we’re used to. This year was the wettest year on record; it’s gonna get wetter,” Zeise said. “If it gets even wetter, are people gonna be able to drive? Where are we going to be able to grow food?”

Even in the northern part of Wisconsin, flooding has already had devastating effects. Joe Rose, an elder of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, described the impact of a 1000-year flood that happened in the summer of 2016. It was so damaging that highways were washed out.

“A lot of people were homeless on the reservation after that flood,” Rose said.

In some communities, including the Ojibwe and Oneida, there is a cultural tradition of considering the long-term impact of one’s actions known as the seventh generation principle. People are taught to consider the impact of their actions on people not one, not two, but seven generations in the future.

“When we reach adulthood, we take on the responsibility of looking seven generations ahead and ask ourselves, ‘What are we going to be leaving to our grandchildren?’” Rose said. “We have to preserve what we have left for those yet to come.”

For him, this means protecting his reservation from harmful actions of outside groups. In his lifetime, Rose has been an activist against mines, pipelines and a garbage incinerator that threatened the Ojibwe. He believes in the power of grassroots activism to bring down large corporations and their influence in government.

When he fights these battles, he does so to safeguard the planet for people to come seven generations in the future.

Some tribes, rather than viewing themselves as the first generation in a series of seven that will live with the consequences of their actions, view themselves as members of a generation in the middle with three ahead and three behind. That mentality provides a link to both the past and the future, Zeise said.

There are no written rules to seventh generation thinking. It’s simply a way of going through life. Tom Busiahn spent over 28 years working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and over 12 years in Wisconsin, working with tribes, so he became familiar with seventh generation thinking.

“It’s more of a framework,” Busiahn said. “It’s probably not something that is ever gonna be put down in a procedure manual, but it’s a way you think about, ‘Why am I doing what I’m doing today?’”

As the climate changes, it’s becoming harder to make accurate projections about what the world is going to look like in just five years, 10 years or by the end of the century; the world that our descendants live in will be drastically different from the one we know now.

“In my work with the Fish and Wildlife Service, [...] a lot of it had to do with modeling the future,” Busiahn said. “So they’re trying to look ahead, not just a few years, but decades into the future. But it’s difficult, if not impossible, to do that very effectively, and climate change just makes it even harder.”

In the face of a climate catastrophe, Ohe•láku is taking steps to secure a future for people, even those seven generations away.

“Our food system is not resilient enough to withstand the changes that we’re expecting to see,” Zeise said. “I think one of the things we’re trying to do is not just grow food, but also grow farmers. And grow the knowledge within our community to make our community more resilient.”

Ohe•láku began three years ago with 10 families, and now there are 15 involved. Ultimately, they hope to have 50 families as part of the co-op. With more people growing, they will produce more food and teach more people the skills necessary to work toward a food secure future for generations to come.

To grow more farmers, members of Ohe•láku can nominate and choose prospective new members, then take these people ‘under their wing’ for a year. Then, current members determine whether or not each new person is a good fit, and members vote to decide if they can join the co-op. A new full member can then take someone else under their wing after having spent a year in Ohe•láku. There are no dues; it’s free to join and free to participate.

Additionally, they’re learning how to make traditional tools, which will come in handy in case they ever can’t afford fuel for a tractor. Or, in case there is a power outage and they can’t cook on industrial equipment, people are learning traditional methods of cooking corn over a fire or with hot rocks – heated rocks that, when placed in water with the food, will cause the water to boil and the food to cook.

“And we’ve actually traded with other tribes for things; we trade for wild rice. We trade for bison meat and different things like that. And that’s another way that we’re preparing for the future is building up those relationships of trade and renewing those trade routes. Because you can’t do it all yourself right?” Zeise said. “We take care of each other and look out for one another for sure.”

In the 1990s, there was a movement to codify this care for future generations in the U.S. Constitution. Busiahn worked with his wife, Robin Goree; Red Cliff Ojibwe environmental activist Walter Bresette and others to advocate for this. Known as the Seventh Generation Amendment, or Common Property Amendment, this proposed change was meant to provide a foundation underneath the big environmental laws (the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, to name a few) to protect them from changes. It was also meant to protect common property in the United States, like air, water, wildlife and ecosystems.

“It’s the Fifth Amendment that protects private property against government taking,” Busiahn said. “But who’s to prevent the taking of public property or common property by corporations or individuals who pollute or destroy habitat?”

After Bresette’s death in 1999, the momentum around the Seventh Generation Amendment rather dropped off, according to Busiahn. But he thinks the amendment is still necessary.

“I think the need hasn’t changed,” Busiahn said. “The Supreme Court is still trending in a conservative strict constructionist direction, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that we would see major environmental laws struck down as unconstitutional.”

Even without a law, decisions made on a personal level can be applied to seventh generation thinking. Rose uses wind power and solar power in his home, and tries to reduce his impact wherever he can.

“I’m 2.5 miles from the grid. I don’t have power; I don’t have a telephone line. I’m pretty self-sustaining,” he said. “I do what I can. I live in a home that’s really small so that I don’t have to heat a very large area.”

Zeise is also thinking about her home: She’s getting to the point where she wants to buy or build a house, and she is forced to consider whether it will be able to withstand climatic changes. She knows there’s going to be more water in the Midwest, so she’s considering finding high ground or building her home into a hill to protect it from storm damage.

“Mother Earth has been cleansed before by a flood that covered the whole Earth,” Rose said. “We’re probably approaching some kind of a cataclysm event if we don’t do something about it.”

Through this year's harvest was small due to flooding, there’s actually a silver lining. The seed corn that’s saved from this year has a unique ability to help the Oneida withstand future wet seasons.

“They were survivors,” Webster said. “All the seeds that we were able to gather this year are tough seeds, and they will do good in this type of climate.”

There’s another way the Oneida are preparing for wet seasons ahead, and it involves going back to traditional practices. Webster described a mound system meant to protect seeds from standing water.

“You build small mounds about three feet apart, and that’s what you plant your corn, beans and squash in,” she said. “That helps keep the seeds safe from drowning if it gets too wet, but yet, they’re still close enough to the ground where they’re not going to have a lack of water.”

This return to the mound system and other traditional practices – like using traditional tools or cooking with hot rocks – are going to fortify the Oneida with knowledge that can be passed down through the generations to help protect people as the climate changes.

So, when the catastrophe that Zeise has been taught about arrives, in a best-case scenario, people would be armed with knowledge and networks of support, provided for them by their ancestors who kept their well-being in mind. Through seventh generation thinking, people can be prepared.

And unless we do something soon, we’d better be prepared. Zeise has taken it upon herself to acquire knowledge that she can pass on in order to help her descendants survive in a changed reality.

“I need to have skills that I can pass on to the next generation. Survival skills. So I took up archery, I sew and I just try to learn as much as I possibly can,” Zeise said. “It’s sort of my responsibility to learn these skills so that I can hand them down to the next generation who’s really gonna see the effects of climate change. They’re gonna see the floods, they’re gonna see the increases in temperature, the invasive species. They might even see mass immigration because of rises in sea level. We really don’t know. I feel like it’s my responsibility to learn as much as possible so that the next generation has a fighting chance of making it through.”

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This article was Carlyn Kranking's final project for a class at Northwestern University, Native American Environmental Issues and the Media.

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