Tribal communities are often the first affected by climate change. But their expertise and lived experiences are underappreciated by standard scientific research. 

The Delta Wild and Scenic River Watershed; Photo: Bureau of Land Management

Key Takeaways

  • Indigenous communities have long been living with the effects of an altered landscape, but despite this expertise, their knowledge and perspectives are rarely called upon by standard scientific research.
  • Researchers from Alaska to the Great Lakes are working to bridge the disconnect between policy and Indigenous populations through finding a place for traditional ecological knowledge in science. 

By Christian Thorsberg, Circle of Blue — May 19, 2021

Tribal communities are often the first affected by climate change. But their expertise and lived experiences are underappreciated by standard scientific research. Share on X

On Alaska’s southwest coast and inland territories, the physical foundations of historic communities are rapidly deteriorating. Seaside homes gradually dip then slip altogether into freezing waters. Roads split in two, as if their dotted yellow lines were stitches the ground could burst. Cemetery plots churn from the inside out, disinterring human remains and washing the bones onto beaches. 

Follow the Yukon River some 600 miles northeast, up and away from this eye-popping display of climate change. There, along the river’s braided channels, sits a census-designated slice of ice and marsh: Beaver, home to just a few dozen people, mostly Gwich’in and Koyukuk Athabascan, and Inupiaq. 

Beaver is where Darcy Peter grew up, herself Gwich’in Athabascan, her village just 20 people strong. Beaver is where the native namesake rodent roams free and abundant, industrious in its homemaking of permafrost-thawed ponds. It is where Peter learned to read the river fluently, following the channel in all its freezes, break-ups, and annual salmon yields. 

But after over two decades in Beaver, a change has made the place foreign to Peter, who is in her mid 20s. It is as if the calendar has shifted backward, making the weather and seasons discordant. Freezing on the Yukon Delta is later, warming comes earlier; the birds, the fish, the moose, the beavers–their coming and going is more unreliable than ever. The usual language of the river has been translated into an unfamiliar dialect. 

More than half a continent away, Jonathan Gilbert has worked for decades with Ojibwe tribes in the Midwest. The biological services director with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, Gilbert helps manage harvests and off-reservation land rights, and has become privy to the scientific knowledge and concerns the Ojibwe possess. 

Like Peter in Alaska, Gilbert is reconciling how to strengthen the relationship between traditional ecological knowledge and scientific research. The onus is on scientists, he says, to temper their assumptions about data collection, and make ample space within science for Indigenous authorship.  

With the upheaval in Arctic and sub-Arctic ecosystems, it is no wonder that climate scientists are flocking to the far north, collecting data and studying land transformations that have the potential to affect the world over. But in the communities in which they arrive, permafrost thaw and climate change are hardly new buzz. The locals, often from remote and Indigenous communities, have long been living with the effects of an altered landscape, necessarily becoming relevant experts on the ramifications of climate change in their home lands. But despite this expertise, they say, their knowledge and perspectives are rarely called upon.

Beaver Creek National Wild and Scenic River, Interior Alaska. Photo: Bureau of Land Management

Localizing Climate Change

Not so long ago, permafrost used to live up to its name: ground that stayed frozen for at least two years, and often for hundreds and thousands more. A fixture of the Arctic landscape, the ground layer underpins the ecosystems and communities of northern Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. 

Recently, however, the permafrost is not so permanent. Global warming is thawing the planet’s northern latitudes, a deterioration with planetary reverberations. Scientists estimate that permafrost stores twice as much carbon than is currently circulating in the atmosphere. As the ground thaws, massive amounts of greenhouse gases, notably methane, are released. If permafrost were a country, estimates Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at the Copernicus Atmosphere Measuring Service, its annual emissions would place it around the top-40 internationally, roughly equal to Belgium.

Parrington’s research team is also concerned about the feedback loop between permafrost thaw and the rapid spread of wildfires in the coldest parts of the world. Both record-high temperatures, reaching and surpassing 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and “zombie fires,” nicknamed for their year-to-year self-reignition and refusal to die out, have been raging in Siberia since 2019. Over 50 million acres of evergreen forests and once-frozen fields have been decimated. And when Arctic reindeer shockingly contracted anthrax in 2016 amid an Arctic heatwave, the event reiterated how permafrost crucially keeps ancient microbes and bacteria frozen in time. 

This is the intimate tragedy of climate change, and these shifts, both profound and mundane, have been ingrained in Darcy Peter. They have become the focus of her research with the Woodwell Climate Research Center’s Polaris Project, based in Fairbanks. What began as a study into soil and water microbes has turned, for Peter, into a mission much greater in scale and closer to home. Referred to by her community as “the bridge between Western scientists and Indigenous knowledge holders,” Peter is working tirelessly to highlight the local issues global warming brings about, by way of spotlighting tribal voices and their traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK. The standard scientific process, thus far, she says, has done it all wrong.

“Scientists are flying into a place, completely isolating themselves from locals, taking their samples back from Indigenous land, and publishing a paper that other people will probably want to go do research on,” Peter says. “There’s no local contact at all. Not throughout the planning process, throughout the research, throughout the communication of results. There’s many colonizing characteristics in research that absolutely need to change.”

The exclusion of Indigenous voices pervades many steps of the scientific method. Very few researchers have visited Beaver and the Yukon Delta before, Peter says, which means they lack baseline data or historical context by which to ground their study. The local experience–that of empty freezers during trapping or fishing seasons, the catch made scarce by heavy heat; the changing river patterns Peter once knew like the back of her hand; the spiritual and emotional symbiosis between the tribes and wildlife–is not easily transferable to the infrastructure of an academic paper. Indigenous truth and fact might not hold up in a peer-review; transcribing the oral stories that have defined a people for centuries might be considered unsubstantiated data collection. 

As both a traditionally educated scientist and Indigenous knowledge holder, Peter is especially frustrated with the sort of performative research this thinking gives rise to, and the lack of retroactive communication after a study is published. “Research is completely useless unless it gets back to people,” she says. “We need to scale down and do research that is going to benefit somebody other than other researchers.”

Tribal water and food insecurity is a more immediate concern than the global reach of thawing permafrost. Drinking water travels precariously via underground piping that can be ruptured by unstable soils. Once-frozen sediment is discharging into drainage systems and upstream water channels, worsening water quality. And a disconnect between policy and climate awareness is threatening tribes’ abilities to secure food–moose and fish are appearing later in the year, but regulated hunting seasons are failing to shift their own timelines to match, shrinking this crucial trapping window. Academic journals rarely home in on these Alaskan localities, Peter says, failing the very people who could stand to benefit from their conclusions and analysis.

“So how can we shift our research to better serve the tribes?” Peter asks. This is her current undertaking, a comprehensive list of 11 guiding principles for conducting research in northern communities. She prioritizes respect and the acknowledgement of cultural differences. 

“For researchers going into Alaska, check your privilege,” Peter says. “We have completely different value systems than yours. We don’t speak the same language as you. This is something that you don’t understand, and don’t assume that you will ever understand it. Be humble, don’t be exploitive, don’t put yourself and your needs before other people and their needs.”

It isn’t just fieldwork that is lacking native perspective. Seats at the proverbial table in Anchorage, where climate and social policy is discussed and enacted, are financially inaccessible for many who live in Beaver and similar remote communities. It’s easier and cheaper to visit Seattle or Denver from the state capital, Peter explains, than it is to travel to the Alaskan interior. 

Dr. Anna Liljedahl is another scientist with the Woodwell Climate Research Center, and a professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She is constantly amazed just how rapidly permafrost thaw is affecting the state, and how few safety nets there are for citizens. “For engineers, there’s no policy or regulations about how to design a building on permafrost under a climate warming scenario,” she says. “And there’s no insurance for these natural disasters.”

“These communities have already seen the impact. They’re not waiting for it to happen, it’s already happening.” -Dr. Anna Liljedahl, researcher at Woodwell Climate Research Center Share on X

Her sentiments about research fall in line with Peter’s thinking. “As earth scientists, we need to work more with economists and social scientists to translate our findings into language that decision makers better understand,” Liljedahl says. “And to offer solutions. These communities have already seen the impact. They’re not waiting for it to happen, it’s already happening.”

Yukon – Charley Rivers National Preserve

Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Centuries ago, per oral tradition, the Ojibwe people migrated from the East coast to the Great Lakes region, instructed to find “the food that grows on water.” This came to be wild rice, still the most culturally significant crop and critical food source for the Ojibwe. 

But global warming is hampering wild rice’s ability to pollinate and grow. Heavy rains and fluctuating water levels are interfering with its habitat. And the homes of cool-water walleye, a keystone species of the Ojibwe’s spring harvest, are continuing to shrink as lakes grow warmer. 

It is within this space of a changing environment and deeply rooted culture that Jonathan Gilbert of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission works.

One key disconnect, Gilbert says, is how certain aspects of science are valued by the two communities. While not a high priority research topic in the first place, scientists might be looking at how wild rice will adapt to a changing landscape; how the plant will likely migrate north to fertilize in Canada and eventually leave the Great Lakes behind. But adaptation is less of an option for Ojibwe knowledge holders, whose very relationship with the land was founded upon the crop. “How do you adapt to none?” Gilbert asks. “The Ojibwe people are here, they’re in this place, they’re not going to move. Wild rice is their origin story. The scientists might listen, but that’s not anything they’d think about themselves.”

Gilbert’s approach to infusing scientific work with TEK is deliberate and based fully on respect and transparency. He finds places where TEK and science overlap, and places where they aren’t as compatible. His research follows step-based guidelines, not dissimilar from Peter’s 11 principles. 

“It needs to be done in a decolonized way,” he says. “You have to ask appropriately, listen to what people are telling you. You need to ask permission of the knowledge holder. Can I use this? Can I record this? Can I take notes? Can I use it after we’re done?”

One of the most forgotten aspects of TEK, Gilbert says, is returning to the knowledge holders after a research paper draft is completed, confirming that their writing is accurate and authentic to local experience. “Scientists come and write their stuff and send it off to their journal,” Gilbert says. “It’s probably peer-reviewed by somebody who doesn’t know anything about TEK.”

Gilbert admits he is still working out the rigid research paper format, and how TEK can be best incorporated once respectfully recorded. In the past, denoting “personal communication” was frowned upon, deemed non-credible and simply anecdotal. Crediting TEK and interviews with knowledge holders as a literature citation might make some journal editors skeptical, he says. It may also trivialize the lived experience, reducing centuries of culture to a timeline blip or single source. Gilbert is in favor of an independent TEK section where community-specific information is listed, credited, and explained. 

“In the past you would read scientists’ writing about their interactions with tribes, and over-generalizing, and being wrong about things,” Gilbert says. “That itself is an aspect of colonization.”

Back in Alaska, it is Peter’s hope that her work will lead to decolonized scientific research–approaches that prioritize the local consequences of climate change, that understand climate justice as social justice, that acknowledge history and understand the violence that might have forced tribes onto ecologically fragile, vulnerable land in the first place. She wants research to be as real as the consequences of global warming. 

“[Climate change] is directly impacting our way of life, our culture, our mental health, our physical health, our spirituality, everything,” she says. “But researchers just see the numbers, the articles written, the graphs. They don’t look at the place where they’re researching. They just read about it.”