Witnessing the Impacts of Climate Change on American Communities
Americans often think of climate change as primarily affecting other developing countries rather than people in their own neighborhoods. There is certainly some merit to this idea, as those with the fewest resources to adapt and fight the associated effects, are the most vulnerable.
However, I want to tell the story of the Native American communities I worked with during my internship with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. My project was to understand the impacts of climate change on tribal communities in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest and find tangible and practical ways to help these communities adapt to the changes.
The word "uggianagtug" a North Baffin Inukitit word that means "unexpected behavior" or "unfamiliar way." The traditional ecological knowledge and way of life that has been passed down for generations in many of these tribes tells a story which is becoming more difficult to carry out. The environmental changes described by many of the tribal elders, are putting enormous strain on the ecology and culture of these communities. The permafrost is melting, the shorelines are rapidly eroding, the animal migration paths are changing, and the list goes on.
Larry, a tribal leader that I met in Alaska, emphasized the ways western science and policy has acted so obtrusively and inappropriately in his community. He said that so many times, when scientists have come in to villages armed with data and plans for research and project implementation, they ask the village to help them integrate Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) into their existing work. But to the community, this caveat for integration is more like "mining for a resource", treating the knowledge simply as anecdotal information rather than traditional wisdom. It also subverts traditional wisdom as something "extra" rather than a central part of problem solving.
His comments sparked many ideas for re-contextualizing my project, in format and word choice, in a way that would fit most naturally in their culture framework. He represented a culture of people who have been adaptable for thousands of years and their outlook on life has always spanned multiple generations. Larry said one of the biggest parts of any adaptive strategy should be the emphasis on building and maintaining relationships. The ability for an elder to pass on his traditional wisdom to the children in the village is vital and reconnects people with the land. This is also a strategy to build adaptive capacity in a community by making them more resilient to change for many generations.
Almost all the tribal names in Alaska can be translated as "the real human being." To be truly human from their perspective is to demonstrate love, peace, and forgiveness and Larry said that you cannot live a life marked by these things unless you get the inside right first. He said so many times people try to solve problems with just their heads and they forget the heart.
Throughout my entire conversation with Larry I could hear so much that was similar with the Christian faith and could see a very consistent demonstration of faith among all their community relationships. As followers of the true Creator and Redeemer Jesus Christ, more than anyone we should be pursuing right relationships with our families, communities, and all of the created order!
Tribal communities have gotten so many things right because they understand a more holistic picture of what it means to have full and rich relationships with all of creation. We certainly can learn something from Larry and his people, and it is Jesus who embodies this effort of complete reconciliation and harmony better than anyone.
Climate change issues are real and they affect real people in our country. As Christians we must be lovers of justice and build relationships with those our society has marginalized; we must be their voice.