Forced relocation left Native Americans more exposed to climate threats, data shows

WASHINGTON — Centuries of land loss and forced relocation have left Native Americans far more exposed to the effects of climate change, new data shows, adding to the debate about how to tackle climate change and racial inequality in the United States .

The findings, which took seven years to compile and were published Thursday in the journal Science, mark the first time researchers have been able to quantify on a large scale what Native Americans have long believed to be true: that European settlers, and more later the United States government, pushed indigenous peoples to marginal lands.

“Historic land dispossession is a huge contributing factor to the extreme vulnerability of tribes to climate change,” said Kyle Whyte, one of the study’s authors, a professor at the University of Michigan and a member of Citizen Potawatomi. Nation.

The new data comes as the United States suffers increasingly severe heat waves, droughts, wildfires and other disasters, compounded by global warming. By demonstrating that government actions have made Native Americans more vulnerable to climate change, the authors say, the data strengthens the case for attempting to repair this damage, however imperfectly.

“It’s not just a story of past wrongdoing,” said Justin Farrell, a Yale University professor and another of the study’s authors. “We need to think about ways to reward this story.”

To measure the effects of forced migration on climate exposure, the authors assembled a database showing the historical lands and land loss of 380 individual tribes, based on data from the tribal nations’ own records, land cession treaties and other federal records. Most of the data covers the period from the 1500s to the 1800s.

The authors then compared the amount of land the tribes owned with each tribe’s current reserves. In total, land area decreased by 98.9%. In many cases, no comparison was possible: of the 380 tribes they examined, 160 today have no federally or stately recognized land base.

But for the remaining 220 tribes, the authors found that their current lands were on average only 2.6% the size of their historic lands, an average reduction of 83,131 square miles.

In addition to occupying far less land, most tribes were pushed away from their historic lands. The average distance between historic and present land was 239 kilometers (149 miles); one tribe, the Kickapoo, traveled 1,366 kilometers (849 miles).

Not only were the tribes pushed into smaller lands away from their original territory; these lands also have less hospitable climates.

The authors measured extreme heat exposure by tabulating the average annual number of days above 100 degrees Fahrenheit between 1971 and 2000 on each tribe’s current lands, then doing the same for historic lands.

They found that, overall, present-day lands experience two additional days of extreme heat each year. But for some tribes, the difference is much greater.

The Mojave Tribe, whose current lands are along the Colorado River, experience an average of 117 days above 100 degrees or 62 more than on their historic lands.

The Hopi Reservation in northeastern Arizona recorded 57 days above 100 degrees on average, compared to just two days on their historic lands, which included higher terrain. The Chemehuevi along the California-Arizona border experienced an average of 84 days of extreme heat each year, 29 days more than on their historic lands, which also included higher terrain.

More extreme heat means higher electricity costs, according to Brian McDonald, secretary-treasurer of the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe. He said these higher costs are particularly difficult because many residents have low incomes.

The extreme heat is prompting tribal members to leave their reservation and move to cities, where there is more access to air-conditioned spaces and more transportation options to get to those places, according to Nikki Cooley, co- director of the Tribes & Climate Change Program at Northern Arizona University.

“We used to go to the highlands, where we had our summer camps. That’s where we would cool off,” said Ms. Cooley, who is a citizen of the Diné (Navajo) Nation. “We don’t have that because all the high altitude communities are off reserve.”

As the heat pushes tribal people away from their communities, the result is further erosion of indigenous culture and language, Ms Cooley said.

“You’re disconnecting their umbilical cord — their connection to the land and to the elders, who probably won’t move with them into these urban areas,” she said.

The authors looked at the difference between other types of climate vulnerability. They discovered that another change was rainfall: Across the 220 tribes, average annual rainfall was almost a quarter lower on present-day lands than on historic lands.

Among the tribes that receive less rainfall is the Pueblo de Laguna, whose current lands are west of Albuquerque. According to the new data, the average annual rainfall on the tribe’s current lands is about half of what its historic lands receive.

Tribal members include Deb Haaland, whom President Biden named the first Native American to lead the Department of the Interior, which is responsible for tribal lands.

Secretary Haaland’s office declined a request for an interview about the steps his agency has taken to make tribal nations more resilient to the effects of climate change.

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, a Democrat from New Mexico and chair of the House Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States, praised the infrastructure bill Mr. Biden has pushed, which includes $216 million. dollars for climate resilience and adaptation of tribal nations.

More than half of that money, $130 million, would go to “community resettlement” — helping Native Americans move out of unsafe areas.

“It’s not enough. But it’s more than we’ve ever received,” Ms. Leger Fernandez said in an interview. She said the government should pursue other options, including helping to transfer more of land to the tribal nations that previously occupied that land – including land now held by the federal government, or using federal money to purchase private land from willing sellers.

“Be aware and educated about the harsh history of our nation,” Ms. Leger Fernandez said. “I think all of those options are on the table.”

Paul Berne Burow, another of the paper’s authors and a doctoral student at Yale, said land restitution should be seen as a form of reparation, and also as a way to make tribal nations more resilient to climate change.

“There are really meaningful, deep connections that people need to make,” Burow said. “Returning dispossessed land is one of the best things you can do to start addressing these inequalities.

Nohemi M. Moore