First Stewards Symposium Held to Address Climate Change

Photo of the Pacific Islanders Hawaii Delegation. Source: Wanda Archy

Pacific Islanders Hawaii Delegation. Source: Wanda Archy



The inaugural First Stewards symposium on climate change brought together coastal indigenous people in a four-day symposium, held June 17-20 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). The symposium gave indigenous people from across the country a chance to share personal experiences about how the environment has affected their local communities and address the issue of climate change.

The symposium looked to Native peoples as leaders in adapting to a changing environment. Indigenous cultures came together to discuss the scientific value added through their observations of the natural world.

Indigenous people have survived for millennia through their intimate knowledge of ecosystems. Unfortunately these people, whose “lifeways” are closely connected to their environment, are at the forefront of climate-change impacts.

Photograph of the honoring of the witnesses ceremony. Source: Wanda Archy.

The honoring of the witnesses. Source: Wanda Archy.



At the symposium, Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation (QIN), described these tribes as the “front-line witnesses to the decline and decimation of the natural world.” The symposium discussed how the most significant effects of climate change occur at the coasts, where Native populations have lived for thousands of years and depend on the ocean and seas for their livelihood. Tackling issues associated with climate change becomes a matter of survivability, rather than sustainability.

“First stewards is an appropriate name for the group that’s leading such an important symposium, because Native Americans were our first caretakers, and they looked after our forests, and rivers, and the waters of the northwest,” said U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat who gave the keynote address.

Indigenous traditional knowledge is ingrained in deep and rich on-the-ground science, gathered over thousands of years. The ability of tribes to link history, art, and science is essential to making progress in combating climate change, symposium speakers said. First Stewards sought to recognize that the connection of the heritage of American Indians, Alaska Natives and Pacific Islanders to climate change is key to addressing issues the tribes and natives will face in the future.

Photograph of Senator Cantwell speaking at the event. Source: Wanda Archy

Senator Cantwell, keynote speaker. Source: Wanda Archy.



Hosted by the Quinault Indian Nation, Quileute Tribe, Makah Tribe, and the Hoh Tribe, the symposium featured speakers, panelists, and witnesses from a variety of different cultures, governmental organizations, and nongovernmental players.

Regional panels consisting of the West Coast, Alaska, U.S. Pacific Islands, the North American Great Lakes, and the East Coast and Gulf Coast held discussions concerning the impacts and adaptation to climate change. Issues they covered included: glacial melt, coastal erosion, salmon population shrinkage, pollution on forests, and hypoxia related to the acidification of the ocean. The symposium encouraged the start of First Stewards as a monumental step in preparation for climate change.

The West Coast Panel, for example, discussed the Nisqually River Tribe’s success in working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore 900 acres in the Nisqually River Delta. Those involved also are looking at how to best aid fish survival within the area in the face of climate change. Ed Johnstone, fisheries policy spokesman for the QIN, talked about how the Quinault peoples have been able to adapt to their Pacific homelands even after facing many challenges, with traditional ecological knowledge at the heart of solving these issues.

Photography of West Coast Panel giving a presentation. Source: Wanda Archy.

West Coast Panel. Source: Wanda Archy.



Sharp, who gave the keynote introduction, also addressed other issues of climate change: new migrations of animals, erosion of coastlines, interference with plant life, deoxygenation of oceans, and glacial melt. She urged Native American leaders to align with state and federal policy-makers to develop strategies that are sustainable and comprehensive in order to adequately prepare for climate change. Sharp also encouraged partnerships with the private sector, scientists, and academies. She commended the work by tribes all around the world, who are able to come together despite their diverse cultures, in order to find a solution to climate change.

Senator Cantwell also highlighted three areas in which progress has been made: combating ocean acidification, responding to oil spills, and protecting coastal communities. Additionally, she highlighted three areas that need a continued focus: addressing climate change, restoring Pacific salmon, and protecting the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run in Alaska.

Photograph of a table with a variety of tribal arts and crafts materials. Source: Wanda Archy.

Tribal crafts. Source: Wanda Archy.



The symposium placed emphasis on promoting cultural awareness of the participating tribes and communities. Each day began and ended with a cultural ceremony. Exhibits and demonstrations also were held on topics including teaching traditional navigation techniques in seafaring, weaving cedar bracelets, and displaying coconut leaf baskets.

Additionally, a Looking Forward panel consisting of seven indigenous, governmental, and non-governmental representatives applauded the efforts made so far. The Looking Forward panel encouraged a follow-up symposium to assess the progress made and to use a combination of traditional knowledge and science for assessments on the impacts of climate change. The symposium encouraged reaching out to policy-makers through the National Climate Assessment of 2013, which will for the first time include Native American input.