An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Northwest Tribes Convene Climate Summit In Spokane

Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians

There’s no debate among American Indian leaders about whether climate change is real. This week, representatives from the region’s tribes are talking about how they’re adapting to climate change at the Northern Quest Casino.

Many of the tribes represented by the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians have created or are working on climate adaptation plans, including one in western Washington that's leading the way.

Members of the Swinomish Tribe live on a reservation that’s on an island in Puget Sound, about an hour north of Seattle.

“I come from a tribal community that has 7,000 acres, 10 square miles; 90% of our border is on water. So our tribal leadership knew back in 2008 that we needed to confront climate change, sea level rise, global warming," said Larry Campbell, who works in the tribe's environmental health program.

It was then that the tribe began working on a plan to adapt to the effects of climate change. That plan is done. According to chairman Brian Cladoosby, the Swinomish Tribe is the first in the nation to have the federal government certify its plan.

So, when it comes to debating the merits of climate change…

“Our leadership says we’re not going to get into the argument on whether climate change is real or not. We’re going to say it’s real and go straight to adaptation," Campbell said.

That adaptation has led to some creative thinking. Campbell’s colleague in the tribe’s environmental health program, Jamie Donatuto, says the Swinomish took their time to get the community involved in creating its plan. The tribe wanted to preserve its traditional foods, such as shellfish. She says they created something called a clam garden, the first of its kind in the lower 48 states.

“The clam garden is an ancient indigenous technology that’s been used for, I think the oldest one they found is 14,000 years in B.C. What they are are low-lying rock walls below mean low tide that create a terrace behind it. It’s almost like a safe area. Current researchers have done studies to show that shellfish populations are greater and more diverse. Aside from that, there are a lot of other plant and animal populations that are also more diverse and have higher numbers of abundance with clam gardens," Donatuto said.

Chairman Cladoosby says his tribe’s story is just one of many of tribes thinking and working creatively to address climate change. For his people, the problem is related to rising water levels. He says other tribes are experiencing their own unique issues.

“In the Arctic, villages up there for the first time are seeing their homes washed away into the Arctic Sea. That’s never happened before," he said. "In the Pacific Islands I witnessed, in a video, a grandfather standing in the Pacific Ocean, water up to his waist, and he had his two grandkids next to him. They were visiting their cemetery where their loved ones have been buried since time immemorial and now that cemetery is under water two times a day.”

Closer to home, the Colvilles, for example, are seeing trees on its land dying off and wildfire season is becoming longer and more dangerous.

The climate summit sponsored by the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians will continue Wednesday at Northern Quest.