Native American Perspectives on Climate Change and the LCCs

Over this past year, researchers at the University of Oklahoma have hosted workshops involving tribes in Oklahoma,

New Mexico, and Louisiana focused on beginning a climate change conversation among Indians, the South Central Climate Science Center and all the LCCs within the region.  The success of these workshops is attributable to support from the South Central CSC, the Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program or SCIPP, and in no small way, to one Absentee Shawnee graduate student with a vision and passion for this kind of work:  Paulette Blanchard.  

Paulette’s history and ethnic background embodies many of the complexities of Native American heritage in the U.S.  She is legally Absentee Shawnee (so named because this band of Shawnee did not “show up” when they were to be displaced yet again and sent from a Kansas reservation in the early 1800s to Oklahoma).  Her mother is Native American and her father is white, so if you want to talk about heritage by blood, she’ll tell you that in addition to Shawnee, she’s part Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Cherokee and redneck hick!

Photo credit: Paulette Blanchard, in traditional Shawnee dress

“Squirrels will have elephant ears”

Paulette began her academic career at Seminole State College in Oklahoma, receiving an Associate degree in social science with an emphasis in Native American studies.  From there she moved on to Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas to earn a bachelor’s in Indigenous and American Indian Studies.  At that time Paulette says, “I had no intentions of going into climate science.  I wanted to get into tribal government and federal Indian law.”  

In 2010, she became one of two of the first Native American interns ever to serve in the Kansas state legislature, serving Rep. Ponca-we Victors, the first Native American woman elected to serve as a Kansas legislator.  In 2011 she began interning with the Haskell Environmental Research Studies Institute or HERS, under the leadership of HERS co-director Dr. Daniel Wildcat, Dean of Environmental Science and Indigenous & American Indian Studies departments, well known for his work on climate change.  

Paulette did not get turned on to the idea of studying climate change effects until a conversation she had with her “aunties” at a spring bread dance.  One aunt made the remark, “If we are going to have bread dance we will have squirrels with elephant ears.”  Paulette did a double take.  Her aunt explained that traditionally the bread dance is held at the time of year when a certain tree has leaves the size of a squirrel’s ear.  For as long as they could remember, that sign had been happening sometime in the first or second week of May.  

Yet looking at the trees surrounding them, the leaves were in full bloom and much larger than a squirrel’s ear.  In recent years, tree leaves had been indicating the time for the spring bread dance should be around the first or second week of April.  For reasons of convenience, the tribes had begun to rely on the calendar to schedule the dance rather than natural signals.  Paulette thought, “That’s a direct cultural and social impact of climate change!”  

“Give me a place, and I will get the tribes there”

Abandoning her original HERS project idea of designing energy-efficient homes, Paulette began researching the literature to learn how historic weather events had impacted tribes - events such as the Dust Bowl and droughts of the 1950s and 1970s.  What she found was . . . nothing.  Then she asked herself what is happening now to the tribes impacted by changing weather?  

Paulette eventually began a dialogue with Rachel Riley of SCIPP.  They told her they did not generally get a good response when reaching out to tribes - no one responded to their email.  Paulette responded, “You give me a place and I will get the tribes there.”

It so happened that the same year she began focusing on climate change, the state of Oklahoma was whipsawed from experiencing the coldest cold temperatures in recorded history (Feb. 10, 2011) to record-breaking hot temperatures the following summer.  This set the stage for the first  Oklahoma intertribal meeting on climate variability and change, held in December, 2011 with the support of Haskell and Rachel Riley and many other agencies, including SCIPP.  At that meeting, 22 Indian tribes came together in Norman, OK to discuss climate change.  The exchange included Native American luminaries such as Dr. Daniel Wildcat, Dr. T.M. “Bull” Bennett and Bob Gough of the National Climate Assessment.  It was, as Paulette says, “a very cool meeting.” 

Recruited by the Climate Science Center

Paulette has been involved in climate change research ever since, from the social side.  After Paulette’s graduation from Haskell Indian Nations University, Renee McPherson, associate professor at University of Oklahoma and director of research at the South Central Climate Science Center, recruited Paulette to OU’s master’s program in Geography and Environmental Sustainability.  Her focus became indigenous geography, the relationship between indigenous people and their place, and her lens is climate change. 

Since 2011, their collaboration and the leadership of Laurel C. Smith, an assistant professor and Paulette’s advisor, have resulted in 6 additional meetings of tribal leaders and climate scientists.  “This means more to me than just a meeting; it’s about empowering tribes to exercise their sovereignty and make decisions on climate response in a way that is culturally appropriate.”

Her thesis is addressing no less than the entire history of Native Americans and climate change, including a look at the challenges posed by institutional stereotypes in today’s science institutions.

Empowering native tribes with tools from the science industry

Paulette Blanchard’s overall goal is to empower native tribes with tools from the “science industry,” including providing information about tools available to perform all kinds of tasks, from monitoring drought to learning the history of climate in their region to best practices and policies to address climate change on their own terms.  As an example, she cites how the Nisqually tribe in the Northwest has been extremely successful in working with a coalition of federal, local government and nonprofit partners to address climate change impacts to salmon.

A secondary goal is to help facilitate more of a reciprocal dialogue between tribes, Native American scientists and the western science community.  “That’s the win-win in all of this,” Paulette says, “not just for tribes but for science - to learn how tribal knowledge can supplement orthodox science.”  

Finally, Paulette is seeking to create a history of climate change effects, or weather events, in the words of Indians themselves.  She is trying to use video and other tools to document first person perspectives on how tribes have been impacted by climate change.  The potential benefits of this kind of information go far beyond informing science.  Paulette points to the Chickasaw as an example of how telling their own stories in their own words - disseminated through ads, PR events and education - has gone a long way toward improving how the Chickasaw are perceived by the non-Indian public, transforming a historically troubled relationship. 

Paulette hopes to see some LCC and CSC representation at the upcoming Indigenous People’s Climate Change Working Group meeting to be held at Dartmouth College November 4 and 5, 2013.  This meeting takes place twice a year and is a very good place to begin grappling with these issues.

“I want so bad for tribes to be empowered with the knowledge that science can contribute, as well as to have science supplemented and enhanced by the knowledges that native botanists and others hold,” says Paulette.  One example of a need that tribes have begun discussing is their desire for consistent standards of measurement for various parameters related to water and species.  Now that sounds like a goal worthy of an LCC.

 

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