The First Stewards
(July 27, 2012) The declaration was made in 1997 at the North American Indigenous People Summit on Biological Diversity and Ethics:
“We wish to add our voices to ongoing global discussions regarding the protection of biological diversity, the safeguarding of traditional knowledge and sustainable development practices, and the ethical use and treatment of all forms of life based on harmony, respect and the spiritual interconnectedness of the natural world.”
The message came from a single voice representing the collective thoughts and will of “the first stewards” of America’s biodiversity.
During the week of July 17, the indigenous peoples of America’s coastal states, the U.S. Pacific States and Territories and those of the Great Lakes came together to solidify that wish while to participating in the inaugural First Stewards Symposium, held in Washington DC at the National Museum of the American Indian.
The purpose of the symposium was to discuss how coastal indigenous cultures can become more directly engaged in U.S. climate change policy formulation. On the last day, the symposium witnesses — those recognized for their knowledge of indigenous culture, language and tradition — shared their insights on how coastal indigenous cultures and the nation as a whole are being affected by, and will need to adapt to, our changing climate.
According to the symposium website, firststewards.org, climate change is a pressing issue for coastal indigenous cultures, other coastal communities, and coastal and ocean resource managers. Some of the most dramatic and economically important effects include heat waves and drought in some areas and changing ocean conditions that affect sea life that cultures depend on in others.
Because of their unique vulnerability, coastal indigenous cultures are leaders in societal adaptation and mitigation in response to climate change impacts. Exploring their experiences may hold great value and provide guidance as communities across the nation respond to our changing climate.
“I’ve seen, I’ve heard, I’ve felt, I can’t turn away,” said Kalei Nu`uhiwa, an official witness from Hawaii. “Native people are the litmus paper for the world. We still subsist off our own lands. We’re still dependent on the health of our ecosystems. We heard that in every panel’s discussion. We still live by the seasonality of fish, sea mammals, birds, berries – it’s not a choice.”
Nelson Kanuk, a 17 year-old witness from Alaska stated, “As a youth, I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned more about how all indigenous people are related now, because of these problems we’re facing today. I heard from all the panels about unity, the need for us to unify, to be together to solve this issue. If we can’t slow or stop this big problem we’re facing, we’re going to have to find a way to work together to adapt.“
Discussions throughout the week were divided into four panels: The West Coast states; Alaska; the U.S. Pacific states and territories; and the Great Lakes, Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, and Gulf of Mexico states. These panels were composed of tribal leaders and tribal and Western scientists who examined how native people and their cultures have adapted to climate change for hundreds to thousands of years, and relayed what their future may hold as a result of the impacts of climate change.
“A native system adapts to climate change. It’s based on observation and we must implement our observations,” said native Hawaiian and Pacific panelist, Paulokaleioku Timothy Bailey.
Along with the native Hawaiians, that panel also included the Chamorro, Samoan and Refaluwasch people.
After a week of testimony it was clear that all US coastal indigenous peoples are experiencing varying changes to their lifestyle as a result of climate change. And, with a greater threat on the horizon, a unifying call has been made to avoid an unsure future.
Furthermore, smaller biospheres such as the corals reefs in the tropical Pacific have already suffered greatly, while elders from larger ingenious communities listened carefully to their story.
As a panelist for the Pacific region, Ufagafa Ray Tulafono., director of the American Samoa Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources put it simply, “Small changes have big impacts on little islands.”
The panel from the Pacific States and Territories represented a people who collectively live on a land mass approximately equal to the size of the state of Maryland. But where they live also includes an ocean area that is 50 percent of the United States exclusive economic zone.
Video from First Stewards Symposium