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Earth to NASA: Native Americans Join Quest
To Understand Climate Change

By Missy Globerman/Ithaca Journal,
Native Americas Journal
Saturday, February 12, 2000

Copyright © 2000 NAJ
All Rights Reserved

In an unusual marriage of interests, the federal government is embracing the sagacious prophecy and wisdom of Native Americans to combat some of the greatest environmental challenges of the next millennium - climate change.

As one reflection of this partnership, Cornell University's Akwe:kon Press has published a double issue of its widely circulated journal, "Native Americas," with the help of a $61,000 grant from NASA's Earth Science Enterprise Division.

Their convergence is part of a significant trend, initiated and supported by NASA, to incorporate the longstanding, multi-generational perspectives of people who have connected to the earth for centuries, with NASA's data on such phenomena as ozone depletion and rising oceans. NASA scientists, grants and technologies are also supporting Native communities' assessments of climate impact on their homelands.

Despite centuries of skepticism, the intersection of hard scientific investigation and the views of Native people is clear, according to Verna Teller, former Isleta Pueblo governor and project director for the Native Peoples/Native Homelands Southwest initiative.

"Scientists always have been skeptical, but now we have come full circle. The science community used to pooh-pooh our traditional knowledge as myth or legend, unfounded and whimsical, and now they recognize it is a reality that fits hand in glove with their science data," she said.

Native American interest in climate change is entrenched in their homeland roots. Through their spiritual ceremonies and code of teachings, their words and knowledge can be seen as predictive or reflective.

Oren Lyons, faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation, tells a story of Seneca chief Handsome Lake, who in 1799, brought to his people the visions and revelations from his journeys. "Handsome Lake said, 'They said the maple tree, the leader of all trees, will begin dying from the top down and nobody will know how to deal with it,' and now the trees are dying from acid rain and it's not just the maple trees", he said.

Onondaga prophecy says that the acceleration of the winds and how well people treat their children are the two indicators of the earth's decline. "Seeing how many children are abused and homeless, and storms are so violent, we know the earth is being impacted and it will get worse," he said.

Though global climate changes are happening slowly, "Anyone who says these changes are not going on has another agenda, is not observant, or is not interested," he said.

The Onondagas are just one of many tribes whose prophecies predict human effects on the planet. Hopi prophecy included in the journal warns that "if you disturb things that lie deep within the Earth, bring them up, move them around and scatter them, the whole direction of the world is going to change. They say that if deeply embedded material is moved out from under the Earth and put on the top, monsters will be released. These monsters, they said, could destroy the Earth."

"No one has a deeper connection to the land than those who use the land at its most basic level," said Jose Barreiro, editor-in-chief of "Native Americas."

In the double issue, economic and ecological problems resulting from changes like melting ice from the glaciers of Alaska to decades of drought and blizzard in the Great Plains, are investigated. The effects for many communities will be devastating.

The symbiotic relationship developing between science and Native peoples' experiences will connect the quantitative with the spiritual.

A change for NASA?

Though NASA is most commonly known for its study of outer space and moon landings, studying the earth is actually one of its primary missions. Sensors and satellites aimed at Earth have collected data for decades to study environmental phenomena ranging from ozone depletion to glacier movements.

"We are charged with understanding the entire earth, its components and how those elements interact to understand natural and human-induced changes," said Nancy Maynard, former director of applications, commercialization and education for the Earth Science Enterprise Division. "Looking at the earth system as a whole is the perspective NASA shares with the Native Americans."

Maynard fostered the initial discussions between NASA and the Native communities after Native communities were left out of workshops sponsored by NASA to work on the U.S. National Assessment on climate change, part of the 1990 Global Change Research Act.

The workshops united scientists from 19 federal science research agencies - NASA included - with a variety of stakeholders who may be particularly impacted by climate change.

"The Native perspective has a great deal of history and wisdom about the climate changes in particular geographic areas, like their reservations, and I felt very strongly that they be brought into the assessment process," Maynard said.

Listening to the elders.

The funding for the "Native Americas" journal was one outcome of a larger conference in Albuquerque, N.M., in October 1998. Called "Circles of Wisdom: Native Peoples/ Native Homelands Climate Change Workshop," this was the first time tribal leaders, Native American scientists, scholars, spiritual leaders and environmental managers met with a group of government scientists to share their knowledge and observations of climate change.

Barreiro attended the conference since he was astounded that NASA was seriously interested in exchanging ideas with the Native communities. Since Barreiro is of Cuban origin and a member of the Taino tribe, his relationship with Native elders is an essential part of his background, both personal and academic.

"Native people, especially the elders, have a type of intelligence that is beyond intuitive, and their prophecies speak to the urgency of the current climate changes," he said.

In Central New York, Lyons said the Onondaga Nation faces challenges from the effects of warmer weather, lack of water and even the creeping northward of non-native animals and insects. He reports from other tribes that there are more drastic effects, like changes in bird and fish migratory patterns that can leave a village in Alaska with no food or economic sustenance. "We believe the earth has a point of no return, no recovery, and we are pushing humanity to that point. The earth many recover from all of this damage, but there will be no human beings left," Lyons said.

Because of these types of changes, recent generations of Native people have shifted from their prior silence or unwillingness to share their knowledge with people outside their communities. "It is so important to preserve indigenous cultures and languages that embody this knowledge, especially since we have lived in these places for thousands of years and are intimately associated with the land," Lyons said.

Though the Native's history is intertwined with violence and antagonism, "Once the elders began to die, there was a realization that they needed to share some of this irreplacable knowledge with somebody," Barreiro said.

The frustration experienced by Barreiro, among other academics, is the lack of authenticity of many who have tried to emulate the knowledge of the elders. "Though there is some sham around the community, the deep culture people in this hemisphere have a type of intelligence that transcends what Western civilization believes about the forces of nature," he said.

Maynard said NASA scientists, with few exceptions, "are very open to any evidence or possibilities to explain climate change, though it is not standard science, and perhaps scientists need to be more open to non-traditional sources of information."

NASA's grant will allow Akwe:kon to print and distribute 35,000 copies of the journal, while their normal distribution is between 6,000 and 7,000 copies. The double issue on climate change will be distributed to every Native school in the U.S., as well as to universities, public libraries and Congress.

By bringing together writers and thinkers who are fully involved in Native life, but also investigate and think critically about current important issues to indigenous people, "'Native Americas' is an important, and useful, tool to create a bridge between academic type knowledge and Native peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere," Barreiro said.

Maynard believes the first steps to institutionalizing the need for the Native American perspective in decision and policy-making regarding environmental change have been taken since the Albuquerque conference.

Effects of climate change

NASA is also providing the funds for two three-year impact assessments, one in the Southwest U.S. and one in the Northern Great Plains, of climate change on native people and their homelands.

Teller said the research project, based at the University of New Mexico, will investigate how NASA's environmental data can help tribes in Arizona, New Mexico and Southern California examine the impacts of global warming in particular.

She said areas of concern for the tribes include lessened tourism and negative health effects as the climate changes. For Native people in her region, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome is of primary concern. The potentially deadly virus, she said, is spread by deer mice and is contracted by ingesting some kinds of nuts and berries in the wild that her people may eat. With an increase in rainfall, there are more deer mice - and a greater chance to contract the hanta virus.

"Our people live off the land, and are dying from this virus, and we are very concerned about what the future may hold," she said.

NASA is also helping Native researchers examine the reintroduction of ancient agricultural practices of the Pueblo people used in the 14th and 15th centuries. Water conservation and water retention were identified as important issues for the future of the region. Ancient farming techniques like terrace gardens and mulch made of pebbles may be useful in severe drought conditions, she said.

Tribes in Teller's region are already improving their land use planning and management using NASA technology like remote sensing and university resources for global information systems and global positioning systems. "These tools are incredibly useful for us, and now, Natives are learning how to use these technologies through our tribal colleges to continue this work into the future," she said.

In addition to sustaining their coverage of climate change issues in upcoming journals, "there is a tremendous need to sustain the dialogue between the scientists and Native people, to have an ongoing relationship," Barreiro said.

For more information contact:
Brendan F. White, Production Manager
E-mail: bfw2@cornell.edu

Native Americas Journal ~ Akwe:kon Press
American Indian Program ~ Cornell University
450 Caldwell Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853-2602
Telephone: (607) 255-4308
Subscription: (800) 9-NATIVE
FAX: (607) 255-0185
E-mail: nativeamericas@cornell.edu

Related paths:
** Native Americas Journal
** American Indian Program ~ Cornell University

This article was provided by Native Americas' special-issue on "Global Warming, Climate Change and Native Lands." Published by the Akwe:kon Press at Cornell University's American Indian Program, Native Americas Journal keeps you informed of issues and events that impact indigenous communities throughout the hemisphere. You can find more information on this topic, as well as, how to subscribe to Native Americas on our web site.

"Nowhere else will you be able to find such powerful-knowledge filled writing."
--Wilma Mankiller, Editorial Board Member of Native Americas Journal

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