Forced resettlement made Native Americans more vulnerable to climate change: NPR

A dry landscape photographed on the Navajo Nation is seen in the town of Gallup, NM in June 2019. New research indicates that the near total loss of tribal lands in the United States has made indigenous peoples more vulnerable to climate change.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images


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Spencer Platt/Getty Images


A dry landscape photographed on the Navajo Nation is seen in the town of Gallup, NM in June 2019. New research indicates that the near total loss of tribal lands in the United States has made indigenous peoples more vulnerable to climate change.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Indigenous nations in the United States have lost almost 99% of their historic land base over time. And it’s not just the quantity of land that matters, but also the quality: tribes have been moved to areas that are now more exposed to a wide variety of climate change risks.

These are among the key findings of a multi-year study published last week in the journal Science. Researchers from Yale University, Colorado State University and the University of Michigan have constructed a first-of-its-kind dataset to quantify the history of land dispossession and forced migration in the United States, and examine its long-term environmental and economic impacts.

Due to the near total loss of their tribal lands, the researchers say, indigenous peoples are forced to live in areas that are, on average, more exposed to the vagaries of climate change, such as extreme heat and decreased rainfall. These lands are also less likely to lie on valuable underground oil and gas resources.

“When we think about how to address climate change, we sometimes forget that past US policies and actions have led to conditions in which some groups are more burdened by climate change than others,” said Justin Farrell , a professor at the Yale School of the Environment and lead author of the study.

“And so, when we talk about dispossession of indigenous lands [and] forced migration, in the American narrative at least, is this story of past damage…there’s less attention to, how is this a continuing story about current climate risk? How is this a continuing story about future climate risk?”

Many tribes face more extreme heat, less rainfall and increased risk of wildfires

We know that European and American settlers drove Indigenous peoples from their lands and that settler colonialism laid the foundation for the systemic inequalities that persist to this day.

But experts have not previously been able to fully quantify the extent of this displacement, or gauge how contemporary indigenous lands compare to those they have lost in terms of environmental conditions and economic potential.

The study offers one of the most comprehensive accounts of this history and presents a stark illustration of how, more than two centuries later, the legacy of displacement has compounded the challenges faced by Indigenous groups in the face of growing threat posed by climate change.

Indigenous nations in the United States have lost 98.9% of their historic land base since European settlers began colonizing the continent, the researchers found.

More than 42% of historic period tribes no longer have federally or state-recognized lands, and the current lands tribes still own average 2.6% of the size of their estimated historic area. .

Current lands are also generally remote from historic lands, averaging about 150 miles.

In terms of climate change, the analysis revealed that the current lands of the tribes face more extreme heat and less rainfall. The Mojave Tribe (along the Colorado River), for example, experiences an average of 62 more days of extreme heat per year than on their historic lands. Nearly half of the tribes are at increased risk from wildfires.

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

Researchers say it’s not necessarily a coincidence

Regarding today’s climate change vulnerabilities, Kyle Whyte, one of the study’s co-authors, said many people mistakenly perceive the situation as one of the tribes at the wrong place at the wrong time. But this is no coincidence, he added.

“The reason the Tribal Nations are located where they are is because the United States tried to root them out and eliminate them, so that the United States could build this massive industrial economy, which we now know is it contributes to increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” he said.

Farrell said there was no knowledge of rising temperatures at the time, but settlers’ economic interests motivated them to push tribes into areas they considered “less important” for building. of a nation.

The study lasted seven years

To reach their conclusions, the researchers examined everything from Indigenous nation records and territorial maps to digitized federal documents and treaties. These data are now publicly available in the Native Land Information System.

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

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

For example, Farrell said that accurately depicting how Indigenous nations see their relationship to the land meant resisting the more traditional academic approach of imposing strict demarcation lines on tribes (and instead taking into account the fact that several tribes can occupy the same land). He also noted that most of their historical sources came from the settlers’ colonial archives.

“That’s a limitation of the study, and that’s why we view this collection as a beginning rather 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 scholars are interested – or qualified – in documenting complex situations of land dispossession.

The authors want the public’s help to paint a more complete picture

After nearly a decade of work on the project, the researchers are now making their data public in the hope that other scholars and members of Indigenous nations will review and improve their findings to provide an even more accurate picture.

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

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

He believes this new data offers tribes an important tool 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. change.

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

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

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

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

A version of this story originally appeared on the morning edition live blog.

Nohemi M. Moore