Tulalips convene summit on adapting to climate change

LUMMI RESERVATION — On the second day of a tribal summit in the Lummi Nation’s Silver Reef Hotel and Casino last week, Reggie Joule got up to speak about the importance of food to his tribe.

His name in the Iñupiaq language, Isigrauqtauq, is the word for the part of the liver of the bowhead whale that is used to make drum heads, he said.

Joule, the former mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough, Alaska, above the Arctic Circle, said the changing climate has upset the patterns of hunting and gathering that provide most of the native community’s foods, such as whale, seal and caribou.

“Our life way is changing as a result of that,” Joule said. “And how do we convey that to people who have no idea where we are, who we are, what we mean as people?”

The two-day conference, jointly sponsored by the Tulalip Tribes and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, was the second summit focused on climate change this year.

In the spring the Tulalips hosted a conference on rising sea levels, and that and other scientific subjects were in the background at the Lummi event.

The attendees were mostly the professional staff of many Northwest tribes, various consultants and collaborators, and a few tribal political leaders, but the main thrust of the conference was less about the science behind climate change as it was about what tribal governments could do to adapt to it so they could preserve their treaty rights and their culture.

There were sessions on planning, communication between tribal governments and their membership, working with local and the federal governments, and finding ways to work together as indigenous peoples to have their concerns addressed on the national and international stages where major decisions are made.

As Joule’s story indicated, sometimes it’s hard just getting someone to listen.

Ray Fryberg, the Tulalip Tribes’ executive director of natural resources, told the attendees that while Tulalip and other Northwest tribes have been successful, other tribes, such as those in the Arctic, were in danger of losing food, culture and their voice.

“We need to bring and elevate that voice,” Fryberg said, calling for more inter-tribal networking and encouraging tribal youth to take up their cause.

That includes addressing the real concerns about changes to the physical world as well as how tribal culture also will adapt to climate change.

“Our treaties are contracts with the United States, and they carry obligations,” said Terry Williams, the commissioner of the Tulalip Tribes’ Office of Treaty Rights. “And one of those obligations is to protect our lifestyle.”

That isn’t always clear to various departments in the federal government, which tend to operate in their own silos, Williams said, without regard for each other or even the president’s agenda.

The Obama administration’s decision to stop on the Dakota Access Pipeline was just one such example of the Army Corps of Engineers pursuing one policy until it realized that it was hurting Obama’s legacy. “They’re now just starting to get in line,” Williams said.

Joule, who was one of two Native American appointees to Obama’s 2013 Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, related the case of Kivalina, an Arctic village built on a barrier reef, as one example of trying to get the attention of the federal government. The annual freezing of the sea ice on the shore comes later in the year now, leaving the village vulnerable to storm surges that erode the reef.

The village eventually will have to move, and the Army Corps of Engineers has estimated it may be completely submerged within a decade. No one has come forward with the money, however.

“They’re losing the land underneath where the homes are built, and nothing’s being done about it,” Joule said. “How are you going to transmit that across 7,000 miles so that it lands on someone’s desk who cares?”

To the extent that there was a unified message, it was that adapting to the effects of climate change was going to take coordinated action at many different levels.

G.I. James is a Lummi elder taking the role of an official witness to the event charged with relaying the knowledge gained during the summit to his community. He said that it’s easy to become frustrated with a lack of progress or the feeling that there’s nothing to be done in the face of government inaction or opposition. But they can succeed by focusing on goals and taking a clear-eyed look at what’s needed to get there.

“The hardest thing to do is probably identify the outcome you’re trying to get,” James said.

“Don’t say, ‘I shouldn’t have’ and don’t say ‘someone oughtta.’ For the one, it’s too damned late. For the other, you can do something,” he said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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