Climate scientists are working with indigenous tribes

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It involves collecting, for example, meteorological data as well as carrying out multiple interviews with indigenous people who have lived a long time in a particular place. Comments with group consensus would then be classified in a database. Entries in this database could catalogue anything from observations about wind speed and temperature to animal behaviour. Such standardisation could help to make such information, though admittedly stripped of its colour and richness, appealing to climate researchers and international bodies such as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says Reyes-García.

Knowing what is important to indigenous communities is also beneficial because it helps those involved in planning mitigation or adaptation strategies to do so appropriately, says Reyes- García.

Data and a way of life

Listening carefully can reveal the true depth of the challenges faced by indigenous communities, too — so by recording their observations of climate change, there is an opportunity to work on climate justice. “I see my culture starting to disappear,” is how one indigenous participant in a 2022 study described the severity of change. The paper resulted from a two-day workshop attended by elders, knowledge holders and young adults (ages 19 to 30) from 12 Anishinaabe communities around the Great Lakes region.

One of those communities, the Magnetawan First Nation, had the initial idea for an information-gathering session. “They just said, ‘Hey, this is something we’re concerned about. Can you organise something?'” says lead author Allyson Menzies, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Guelph. As Menzies and her coauthors reported, the 37 participants discussed a range of effects they had noticed, such as how strawberries were appearing later in the year — July rather than June — and how fish spawning, which used to last a month, now continues for only about two and a half weeks because of rising river water temperatures.

The participants also said that passing on traditional harvesting and hunting techniques was becoming difficult since these depend on the climate behaving in a way that it no longer does. This concept of evaporating culture is familiar to many indigenous people. Inuit communities on Baffin Island, Canada, for instance, frequently report that, as temperatures soar, they are finding it harder to predict the weather, navigate the ice and pass on hunting skills to younger members.

In that sense, we might miss something important if we treat research involving indigenous communities as merely an exercise in filling in cells on a giant spreadsheet, says Ben Orlove, an anthropologist at Columbia University in New York, who co-authored an article about climate anthropology in the 2020 Annual Review of Anthropology. “I think the indigenous people are saying the whole problem with climate change is not the data gaps,” he says. “It’s the limits in your framework.” Speaking broadly, he says there’s a tension between the Western view of the natural world as a resource to be exploited and the indigenous view of a world where humans and nature are part of one single whole.

Ettawageshik agrees: Traditional knowledge is not just an encyclopedic list of facts. What matters, he says, is the Odawas’ ongoing relationship with beings — plants, animals and natural places.

“We’re but one spot in that web of life,” says Ettawageshik. “We knew that in that web of life we could not survive without the other beings and, those other beings, they agreed to take care of us. And we agreed to take care of them.”

* This article originally appeared in Knowable magazine and is republished with permission. This is also why this story does not have an estimate for its carbon emissions, as Future Planet stories usually do.

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