“Today’s Changing Climate is Inevitably Going to Transform Our World And Our Lives,” Says Rose High Bear

In Oregon, the impacts of climate change are clear.

By Rose High Bear

The weather felt unusual that afternoon up on Kelly Butte. The wind was moving through the tall stand of Douglas fir. It seemed stronger than usual. Then I heard a voice speaking.

"The wind is talking. Can you hear the wind?"

I felt surprised and a bit unsettled. A few days later, I was told in a dream that the spirit of the wind had spoken to me. It said that the world needs guidance today due to unprecedented change we are facing and that more and more people will be messaged.

Native American prophecy about today's changing climate has been handed down from generation to generation and is increasingly being fulfilled: "The day will come that the peoples of the world will turn to Native people to learn how to care for the earth and to relate with one another."  This is consistent with Hopi elders' references decades ago to the rising danger of humankind's lack of spiritual attention to the world.

Today's changing climate is inevitably going to transform our world and our lives. In Oregon, the impacts of climate change are clear: unprecedented storms (including the already increasing appearance of tornadoes), rising sea levels on the coast, declining glaciers in the Cascades, water shortages, megafires, insect infestation and disruption of seasonal life cycles that support traditional food species. Oregon's tribal leaders know that in order for us to become more resilient to climate change and mitigate the worst of its impacts, we need to incorporate the wisdom of Native elders into our lives.

For thousands of years, ancestors of Native communities throughout Oregon have passed along to younger generations their rich stewardship philosophies along with their oral history, linguistics, food and medicine gathering traditions. This inheritance is the basis of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, which has become an important source of study for conservationists, environmentalists and educators who seek to understand at a deeper level the rich perspectives of Native people. Those who live close to the land cultivate a relationship of interdependence with the natural world. This distinguishes Native perspective from divergent beliefs that humans have dominion over the earth, which infers a sense of superiority or entitlement over the earth. Our spiritual leaders share that the world of nature is God's creation and therefore our First Teacher. We learn by observing the animals, the trees, the plants, the birds and the insects in our sacred landscapes.

In order to be resilient to climate change, we need to learn from the traditional practices of tribal elders and scientists whose ancestors kept Oregon's sacred landscapes in pristine condition for thousands of years.

Megafires are a huge threat throughout the West today. Defined as fires that burn more than 156 square miles (the city of Portland is 145 square miles), megafires didn't exist prior to 1970. Now they occur several times every year in the West, including the Chetco Bar and Klondike fires that tore through southwest Oregon in 2017 and 2018. The intensity of these wildfires is exacerbated by both rising temperatures in the West and a long-standing policy of wildfire suppression, which has increased the amount of fire fuels across the West and decreased the frequency of smaller fires that forests need to regenerate. Not everyone is aware that Native people have long used controlled burns to maintain forests and prairies in the coastal rainforest, Cascade mountains, and the Klamath Basin.

Luther Clements, of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, has worked in fire management for the tribe for 34 years. "We come from the Columbia River, and so we migrated with the seasons," Clements says. "We came inland to the tributaries of the Willamette, the John Day, and then we came to the higher elevations into the Cascades to gather berries and hunt. As the season ended and we started migrating back, we would start fires behind us to help sustain our forests as they were growing."

William Wilson, of Warm Springs Fire Management, elaborates on this process: "In the wintertime, they would go on the ridgelines after they hunted and would light fires on the ridgelines. The fire would burn slowly down the hill, consuming brush and small trees, which made it easier to travel, but also open up those areas for the gathering of the berries and other traditional roots."

As opposed to extremely hot megafires that can sterilize the soil, controlled burns increase the abundance of cultural food plants by burning the competition, increasing mineral nutrients in the soil, and creating openings in the forest for berries (particularly huckleberries, blueberries and roots like camas). Siletz elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim remembers being taught this method: "I showed them how to do the cool burning because my dad used to do that. Even our berries, he would burn them because it made the leaves smaller and the berries bigger. If you didn't burn, you'd get bigger leaves and the berries small."

The reintroduction of prescribed burns is an important method of tribal habitat restoration that is increasingly being explored by the Oregon Department of Forestry. Allowing natural forest processes to take place is not only vital for the health of the forest, but for the efficiency of our forest management systems. According to Don Motanic (Umatilla) of the Intertribal Timber Council, Tribes manage their land for a third of the cost that it takes to manage Forest Service land.

"That's where the Tribes have the secret," Motanic says. "Going back to the traditional knowledge, their language and their values. They know. They've watched the forest for millennia."

In order to be resilient to our changing climate, we need to cultivate a reciprocal relationship with our natural world.

The list of climate impacts upon Oregon's Native communities is daunting, especially when we factor in the decline or loss of our traditional First Foods. These are the foods that Creator gave the people to help them live with health. In Oregon, First Foods include salmon, sucker, whitefish, sturgeon and lamprey, as well as wild game such as blacktail and whitetail deer and elk. They also include plant roots and berries like chokecherries and huckleberries.

According to Gabe Sheoships (Umatilla), it was "up to us to take care of these foods and to give thanks to them or else they wouldn't return. Especially with lamprey, we're kind of seeing them return less and less. They haven't been taken care of very well."

Pacific lamprey are eel-like fish that live on the bottom of waterways throughout Oregon. According to fossil records, lampreys may be up to 450 million years old—far older than the dinosaurs. They come up and travel to the ocean and back again by sucking onto the sides of salmon. Native people have long eaten lampreys, often by smoking them, and used them as medicine that can restore the strength of an ailing elder and save their life. According to Sheoships, every spring when lampreys returned, the people honored them through dancing ceremony. Today, the Pacific lamprey are categorized as an endangered species that could be wiped out within our generation.

Donald "Doc" Slyter, Coos elder and Native American flute maker, says: "This lake out by Lakeside is called Eel Lake for a reason. But there's no eels in it because, a number of years ago, they put a dam there. They made it so that fish could go up the fish ladder, but the lamprey eel can't make it up there." The Coos tribe recently received a grant to open access for them to go over that dam.

The Confederated Tribe of Umatilla Indians have created a Pacific lamprey hatchery on their reservation, where they are restoring populations of this traditional food in the Umatilla River and several tributaries. Lampreys must have cold, clean water to survive, and the tribes are making sure the dams and hydro system are equipped effectively to let them pass through. This helps keeping the lamprey populations harvestable and sustainable.

Moses Connor (Umatilla) reported: "All the work we've done, from trapping the lamprey, to hauling them up river past all the dams and diversions on the Columbia and the Umatilla, then holding them in our translocation system and outplanting them for spawning. All that work that we do, we've seen them [recover] firsthand."  The Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indians counted 2,600 Pacific lamprey in the Umatilla Basin in 2018, up from less than 200 in 2011.

Restoration efforts are guided by tribal elders, including Thomas Morning Owl (Umatilla), who reflects: "Everything this day that makes [our] life easier, it takes us that much farther away from our First Foods. We're the ones that have changed. And, it's up to us now to change ourselves back, to reacquaint ourselves with that Great Law that can never be changed. This is a testimony I give in relationship to our First Foods—the holy, sacred foods."

In order for younger generations to become resilient to climate change, Oregon's tribal elders and scientists will help them integrate Traditional Ecological Knowledge into their thinking.

In Oregon, tribes and schools are already starting to incorporate tribal history and knowledge into school curriculums. Senate Bill 13 now requires all public schools in Oregon to provide lessons about tribal history and culture to students. Oregon tribal leaders, educators and elders are increasingly sharing a wealth of cultural knowledge with students in their communities and working collaboratively with schools and school districts to help tomorrow's leaders succeed.

At Wisdom of the Elders, we are dedicated to documenting and preserving the knowledge and experience of our Native elders and scientists who we regard as the rapidly vanishing, irreplaceable keepers of oral history, tradition and environment. Between 2014 and 2018, Wisdom's film crew was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts to record, preserve and share messages of Oregon's tribal leaders along with elders and artists. Tribes gave protocol approvals for their observations, stories, songs and other messages to be recorded for the Native Wisdom Documentary Film Series. Since 2014, with support from collaborative partners, Wisdom has held film festivals and film screenings around Oregon to share these productions. Wisdom has also produced annual Native American storytelling events in Portland and Seattle since 2005. We have observed how audiences have listened to and been inspired by the messages of Oregon tribal leaders, elders and storytellers, and we feel it has increased their appreciation and respect for indigenous perspectives.

Film clips from Wisdom documentaries are being added to Wisdom's Discovering Yidong Xinag Toolkit of environmental science curriculum. It will be offered to Oregon's school students in 2020 and beyond with funding included so that tribal elders can serve as co-teachers in the classroom, sharing their stories and wisdom with grandchildren and other students. This practice is already prevalent at Siletz Valley School, Umatilla's Nixya'awii Community School and other tribal schools in Oregon.

Oregon's citizens are increasingly understanding the voices and perspectives of our Native wisdom keepers at this critical time. This is helping to fulfill the prophecy stating that the people of the world will turn to Native people to learn how to care for the earth and for one another. Like the wind that is speaking to those who will listen, the voices and perspectives of tribal peoples are being heard.