“The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community started planning for climate change a decade ago. Located on the southeastern peninsula of Fidalgo Island on Puget Sound in Washington, the reservation is surrounded by water and at high risk for sea-level rise. When the sitting president announced his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the United Nations’ Paris climate agreement, the Swinomish reacted swiftly and, together with other tribes, publicly committed to uphold the accord.” L. Gilpin. High Country
“In the West, where many tribal communities and reservations are on the frontlines of climate change, tribal leaders are determined to move forward on climate action as sovereign nations despite budget cuts, climate denial, and inaction. ‘We came together with one another to raise the level of environmental awareness,’ said Debra Lekanoff, governmental affairs director for the Swinomish. ‘We can’t just pick up and move the places where we live.’ Though Indigenous communities have a small carbon footprint, they are often the most severely impacted by climate change.
In California and the Pacific Northwest, tribal nations are at increased risk of sea-level rise. Coastal communities like the Quinault Indian Nation in western Washington and at least 31 Alaska Native villages, including the Shishmaref village near the Bering Strait, face the danger of coastal erosion. Already, several have been forced to relocate… Tribes have already taken a lot of leadership in planning for the negative impacts of climate change,’ said Kyle Powys Whyte, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and professor of philosophy and Indigenous studies at Michigan State University. ‘It’s really important that some tribes begin to take the lead on what it means to have the biggest possible energy-saving impact in the area they live, and to exercise self-governance.’ Though tribes and states are sovereign entities within the U.S., they are not allowed to enter treaties or negotiate with foreign nations. Under United Nations policy, Indigenous people are treated as self-determining when it comes to cultural issues, but lack the political self-determination of member nations.
The 2008 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples allows tribal communities to participate in U.N. matters. Signing an agreement like the 2015 Paris climate accord, however, would require changing policies at the U.N. and in the U.S. Tribal leaders say it’s possible. “Just to have them recognize us was a step in the right direction,” said Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians…’Tribes are really trying to get out there and represent themselves, and become stronger partners in agreements where U.S. representation isn’t necessarily good for them, like the Paris Agreement,’ Whyte said.
The Swinomish have partnered with the Skagit Climate Consortium to protect the region’s salmon from pollution and warming waters. In Southeast Alaska, the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes are monitoring ocean acidification levels and harmful algae blooms while adapting buildings and infrastructure to cope with rising sea levels along rivers and the coasts. It behooves tribes to find ways for their climate change plans to be part of discussion,” Whyte said.”