This new tool could help Native American tribes disproportionately affected by climate change reclaim their lands

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Over 42% of the historic period tribes now have no land recognized by the federal or state government, and the current lands that the tribes own is on average 2.6% of the size of their estimated historic area.

Current lands are also generally remote from historic lands, with an average distance of around 150 miles.

In terms of climate change, the analysis found that current tribal lands face more extreme heat and less rainfall. The Indian tribe of Fort Mojave (along the Colorado River), for example, experiences an average of 62 more extreme heat days per year than on its historic lands. Almost half of the tribes are at increased risk of forest fires.

The study also found that Indigenous lands are less likely to include oil and gas resources of economic value. And about half of the tribes have seen their proximity to federal lands increase, leaving them limited in how they can manage and use the land.

Researchers say it’s not necessarily a coincidence

A boy walks out of a hut made from native desert palm fronds at the Malki Museum during the annual traditional agave roast on the Morongo Preserve near Banning, Calif., April 11, 2015. (David McNew / AFP via Getty Images)

Regarding current vulnerabilities to climate change, Kyle Whyte, one of the study’s co-authors, said many people mistakenly perceive the situation as one of the tribes being in the wrong place at the wrong time. . But this is no accident, he says.

“The reason tribal nations are where they are is because the United States has tried to wipe them out and eliminate them, so the United States can build this massive industrial economy, which we now know. , contributes to an increase in the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, ”he said.

Farrell said there was no knowledge of the rising temperatures at the time, but the economic interests of the colonizers motivated them to push the tribes to areas they saw as “less important” to the colonizers. nation building.

The study lasted seven years

To arrive at their conclusions, the researchers examined everything from archives of Indigenous nations and land maps to federal documents and digitized treaties. These data are now accessible to the public in the Indigenous Lands Information System.

They categorized the basic land data of each tribe into historical and current periods, then turned to statistical models to answer their basic questions: What was the total extent of land dispossession and forced migration for the tribes, and did their new lands offer an improved or a reduced supply? environmental conditions and economic opportunities over time?

The project lasted seven years and required a myriad of methodological and ethical challenges.

For example, Farrell said that accurately portraying how Indigenous nations conceive of their relationship to the land meant resisting the more traditional academic approach of imposing strict boundaries on tribes (and instead of recognizing that many tribes can occupy the same land). He also noted that most of their historical sources came from the archives of the colonizers.

Four mature desert rams are seen in the Trilobite Wilderness area of ​​Mojave Trails National Monument on August 27, 2017, near Essex, California. (David McNew / Getty Images)

“It’s a limitation of the study, and that’s why we see this collection more as a beginning than an end,” Farrell explained.

Whyte, a professor at the University of Michigan and a registered member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, also noted that the number of Native American professors is relatively small and that few non-Native academics are interested – or qualified – in documenting complex situations of dispossession of land.

Authors want public help to paint a fuller picture

After nearly a decade of work on the project, the researchers are now releasing their data to the public in hopes that other academics and members of Indigenous nations will examine and refine their findings to provide an even more accurate picture.

They say the information is crucial in establishing policies to mitigate future impacts of climate change, as well as address the land dispossession that caused these vulnerabilities in the first place.

For his part, Whyte said the tools and data sets the federal government has historically used to assess environmental justice issues facing Indigenous peoples are lacking.

He believes the new data provides an important tool for tribes to be able to articulate the land loss issues they face and advocate for greater support for tribal sovereignty and the ability to manage their own lands, including for they can cope with the effects of the climate. cash.

Specifically, he said, it could help identify tribal communities that would benefit from a Biden administration pledges to deliver at least 40% of aggregate benefits of federal climate and clean energy investments to marginalized communities.

The data also contains important lessons for those outside the Aboriginal community and the federal government.

Whyte, who is a member of the White House Advisory Council on Environmental Justice, urged the general public to advocate for the importance for the federal government to engage in “nation-to-nation consultation with tribes.” , noting that voters generally do not rate politicians on the basis of their history of working with tribes.

“Our study shows that the United States needs to strengthen its consultative work with tribes to determine – for each tribe – how to deal with the effects of land dispossession, how to engage in land restitution and how to promote self-reliance. and the sovereignty of indigenous peoples, “he said. “Readers should hold the government accountable for this whether or not they live in an Indian country.”

Copyright 2021 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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