Tribal Leaders Testify at Senate Hearing on Prioritizing Action on the Climate Crisis

Tribal leaders appearing at the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on February 24, highlighted the climate disaster facing Indian Country, and all life, and called for immediate and long-term action to support Tribal responses to this global crisis.

Leading off the testimony was Fawn Sharp, President of the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington state, who is also President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the oldest, largest, and most representative organization of American Indians and Alaska Natives. In her testimony, President Sharp addressed health, economic, infrastructure, and other priorities in Indian County, and noted the impacts of climate change on Native communities:

“Tribal Nations are at the front lines of the climate crisis responding to sea level rise, coastal erosion, ocean acidification, increased frequency and intensity of wildfires, extended drought, and altered seasonal duration. These weather events have dramatic impacts on traditional cultural and subsistence practices and sacred places, tribal fisheries, timber harvesting and agricultural operations, eco-tourism, and infrastructure.”

In spite of these challenges, Tribal Nations are also leading responses for their communities and are integral to global and national responses to the climate crisis, she noted.

Her testimony was among those offered by Tribal leaders during a Senate Committee oversight hearing entitled, “A call to action: Native communities’ priorities in focus for the 117th Congress.” The Senate committee is chaired by Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii.

Also testifying was Suquamish Tribe Chairman Leonard Forsman, president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and co-chair of the Climate Action Task Force of the National Congress of American Indians. The Suquamish Tribe is located on the Port Madison Indian Reservation in Washington state.

Chairman Forsman noted that, “The inequities and injustices that the citizens of Tribal Nations in the US have experienced in the last 500 years are being amplified by the climate, and the US government has a Trust Responsibility to tackle this issue immediately and moving forward.”

The Tribes have a commitment to ecological health that dates back to their long occupancy of their traditional lands, he noted.

“Chief Seattle, who is buried here on the Port Madison Indian Reservation, stated in 1854: ‘Every part of the soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside and every valley, every hill and grove has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished’.”

The climate crisis is disrupting the ability of Tribal communities to maintain their longstanding ways of life and livelihoods:

“Our elders are being forced to move from their homes because they are experiencing more extensive flooding. More of our children have been inflicted with respiratory illness and have difficulty breathing during recent wildfire seasons, which are worse than ever before. And our traditional first foods, including clams, crabs, and fisheries are threatened by our acidifying oceans. The Suquamish Tribe and our ancestors have always had a sacred relationship with the Southern resident killer whale population in the Puget Sound, but they are starving because of the drastic reduction in our salmon runs. These reductions are strongly correlated with climate impacts and with the presence of dams on the Snake River.”

Tribal nations may be hit hardest by the climate crisis, but they are also at the forefront of taking action with examples that offer hope for all communities.

Chairman Forsman highlighted the work of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in Northwest Washington state which is reviving ancient clam gardens to adapt to ocean acidification, which will improve habitat while providing tribal members with opportunities to harvest traditional foods.

The Navajo Nation, once reliant on coal – which brought with it devastating impacts on water and air quality – has turned towards renewables; the Nation’s Kayenta Solar plant now supplies energy to 36,000 homes on the Navajo Nation and created 284 jobs.

And the Blue Lake Rancheria, a tribal community in Northwest California, has constructed an electrical microgrid as part of their transition to a zero-carbon community.

Tribal leaders’ priorities include building just, equitable, and resilient clean energy infrastructure, increasing climate resilience, promoting environmental justice and health while upholding Tribal sovereignty, restoring ecological resilience, maintaining tribal access to first foods and culture resources, and honoring the rights of indigenous peoples in climate governance and climate science, Forsman noted.

The Affiliated Tribes of NW Indians, National Congress of American Indians and other tribes, and intertribal organizations have identified Tribal priorities and actions as part of the “Tribal Review of the Congressional Action Plan on the Climate Crisis”  to help guide Congress and the Biden Administration as they work in collaboration with Tribal governments to address the climate crisis” said Chairman Forsman and President Sharp.

President Sharp pointed to the importance of consulting with Tribal Nations’ under the principle of free, prior, and informed consent. The full costs of climate impacts need to be calculated, so tribal land, water, wildlife and fisheries can be restored. Tribal traditional knowledge should be integrated into climate responses. And climate financing that is flexible and responsive to tribal needs and decision making should be prioritized.

President Fawn Sharp’s complete testimony, which includes wide ranging issues including the climate crisis and other priorities of Indian Country, can be found at this link.

Chairman Leonard Forsman’s testimony can be found at this link.

Also testifying were Chairperson Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and President Julie Kitka of the Alaska Federation of Natives, also testified.