The Arizona Republic
Dec. 4, 2006 12:00 AM
Less than 50 years later, the snow reaches only to his ankles.
Wahleah Johns, 31, grew up without running water or electricity on the Navajo Reservation. After years of worsening drought, her family now must drive even farther to find water for their personal use and livestock.
Native American communities are witnessing firsthand the effects of a warming planet. Representatives of more than 50 tribes from Alaska to the Mexican border will gather on the Cocopah Reservation near Yuma on Tuesday and Wednesday for what organizers are billing as the first tribal conference on climate change.
They'll share information on the signs of global warming observed on reservations across the continent. Tribal leaders will discuss alternative energy and traditional, sustainable ways of life on their reservations. They also will talk about the effects of U.S. climate-change policy on their land and people.
"Native people have a close relationship to the land, culturally, spiritually, economically," said Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Minnesota-based Indigenous Environmental Network and a conference speaker.
Climate change, he said, "is becoming a human rights issue."
A living threat For many American Indian tribes, the effects of climate change, the rise in global temperature caused by heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, are not an abstract possibility. They are happening.
"I've seen whole banks of trees (along the Rio Grande) eroded away from a single flooding in the spring," Hena said. "I've seen birds going south when they should be going north."
Extended drought is shrinking water supplies and hammering wildlife on reservations in the Southwest and Midwest. Traditional ceremonies based on seasonal changes have been disrupted by prolonged summers and delayed rainy seasons.
Melting ice in the Arctic Circle is destroying the foundation of Inuits' homes and threatening entire villages with relocation.
A national climate-change assessment published in 2000 said climate change posed health, environmental and economic risks to the more than 565 recognized tribes and Alaska Native communities in the United States.
Adjusting to the environmental changes wrought by global warming takes money and technology, commodities scarce on many reservations, the government report said.
Finding solutions In addition to comparing problems, conference participants also will discuss renewable-energy and sustainable-living solutions under way on many reservations.
An increasing number of tribes are taking advantage of their reservations' unique geography to invest in solar and wind energy. Tribes can sell the power generated to local utilities and can sell carbon credits to companies or individuals looking to offset their own carbon emissions.
Tribes are also looking to old ways of life for answers to new environmental problems.
In the mid-1990s, Hena started teaching a two-week course on traditional uses of the environment for everything from erosion control to medicine. Native people from across the U.S., Canada and South America have since attended the course.
With climate change threatening native lands, traditional survival methods are all the more relevant, Hena said.
A global issue Forming a Native American response to the Bush administration's climate-change policies is one of the conference's goals. North American tribes have started to fight U.S. climate-change policies that they perceive as harmful.
In 2005, an Inuit group filed suit against the U.S. government, claiming that the government's failure to curb greenhouse gases was destroying the Inuits' culture and environment.
Last month's U.N. climate-change conference in Nairobi concluded that the planet's poorest people produce the fewest greenhouse gas-causing emissions but are bearing the brunt of global warming's harms. Indigenous rights groups complained that the conference largely overlooked their concerns.
For a member of the Navajo Nation living without running water or electricity, "their carbon footprint is a lot smaller than someone maybe who lives in Phoenix," said Johns, an environmental activist and conference speaker. "How do you communicate that?"