Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Examines the Impacts of Environmental Changes on Tribal Homelands

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Jul 19, 2012


U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, held an oversight hearing on Impacts of Environmental Changes on Treaty Rights, Traditional Lifestyles, and Tribal Homelands today.

“The relationship between Native nations and their environment is sacred. It is the foundation of their cultures and world view,” said Chairman Akaka. “As a Native Hawaiian, we have a concept called malama ‘aina, which teaches us that we must care for the land and nature, so it can continue to care for and sustain us—and our future generations. It means that the relationship between man and environment is a reciprocal one.

“While environmental changes are widespread, studies indicate that Native communities are disproportionately impacted because they depend on nature for traditional foods, sacred sites, and to practice ceremonies that pass on cultural values to future generations.”

Malia Akutagawa, Assistant Professor at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law, said, “As Hawaiians, we make connections through food and rely on our ʻike kūpuna, our ancestral knowledge, of gathering and preparing these foods. The connection to place and our kuleana (responsibility) to care for our place is the essence of our culture. Climate change and environmental degradation impacts Native Hawaiians deeply because they alter our relationship to place, the foods, and the cultural practices that sustain us.”

“For Indian people, our culture, the very fabric of our being is tied to the land. It is what binds us as Indigenous people,” said Chief Thomas Dardar, Principal Chief of the United Houma Nation. “Our homelands are disappearing and with that land are the stories of our elders, the bones of our ancestors, and the very cultural fabric that makes up our nation. [We are] fighting an invisible enemy that we cannot fight alone.”

When asked if government assistance has been provided to the tribal communities most affected by environmental changes, Mike Williams, Chief of the Yupiit Nation, said, “Our Alaskan Indigenous villages have borne the disproportionate and negative impacts of climate change and are literally being swept away into the sea. At least three tribes must relocate and 86 percent of our communities are in danger of coastal erosion. Yet our Indigenous villages cannot access some federal program assistance due to prohibitive funding criteria. There are no overarching federal plans or lead agency to address the fact that many of the residents of these villages are becoming climate change refugees.”

“We have called on the federal government to implement its fiduciary duties by better protecting our habitats and assuring that recovery plans are implemented,” said Billy Frank, Chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “The federal government has a trust responsibility to the tribes and the tribes’ treaties are constitutionally-protected. Our treaty rights are at risk as never before because we are losing ecosystems faster than we can restore them.”

“EPA recognizes the right of tribes as sovereign governments to self-determination and acknowledges the federal government's trust responsibility to tribes,” said Joann Chase, Director of the American Indian Environmental office at the Environmental Protection Agency. “Yet, we still face many challenges that require a strong-federal partnership. These challenges include addressing the impacts of climate change on tribal communities.”

Margaret Davidson, Director of the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said “NOAA is working hard to help these indigenous communities understand the risks and vulnerabilities related to sea level rise, drought, and other factors and is looking for ways to establish meaningful discussions with these communities.”

“Just as the federal government has a trust responsibility to tribes, tribes have a steward responsibility to their lands,” said Chairman Akaka. “Several Tribes and Native communities are leading the way by creating adaptation and mitigation plans. At the federal level, agencies are providing resources and programs to address climatic changes. Although there is no easy solution, collectively, we can address these issues.”

More information and an archived webcast is available on the committee’s website: LINK


Contact: Emily Deimel
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