Climate Change Working Group Meets at SIPI

May 2nd, 2015 | By | Category: 26-4: Tribal College Governance, Tribal College News
By Laura Paskus

The Indigenous People’s Climate Change Working Group convened at SIPI in Albuquerque, New Mexico, during the AIHEC student conference.

On a sunny spring weekend in Albuquerque—on the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) campus— the Indigenous People’s Climate Change Working Group convened to hash out a strategy for addressing the planet’s greatest emergency. Formed in 2006, the group has sought to develop education and research programs at tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) that are focused specifically on climate change. The plan is to train those future generations of Native students who will have to protect their own communities—and Indigenous communities worldwide—from a range of impacts on Indigenous homelands, including rising sea levels; increased desertification; and changes in land use, food resources, and the ability to access clean and reliable water sources.

In mid-March, the group held its 17th meeting at SIPI in conjunction with the 2015 AIHEC Student Conference. Originally called the Native American and Alaskan Native Working Group, participants recently changed the name to be more inclusive of Indigenous peoples worldwide. “The name change was the direct result of our Pacific Island brothers and sisters,” explains Dan Wildcat (Muscogee Creek), a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University. The people of islands such as Vanuatu, Tonga, and Papua New Guinea have appealed to the world for help—and asked the working group to be a member of their family and to join them in their struggle for climate justice. “After that, there was no turning back,” says Wildcat.

In recent meetings, the group has also shifted its focus away from simply convening and discussing the problems Indigenous peoples face to identifying four main priorities for action, says Dr. T.M. Bull Bennett (Mi’kmaq). Those include being involved in scientific climate assessments, developing an Indigenous research institute, creating a journal for research that combines Western scientific methods with traditional ecological knowledge, and planning for resettlement or migration with dignity.

This latter issue of migration with dignity is particularly important, as tribes along the coast of Louisiana and in the Pacific Islands are watching rising seas levels inundate their homelands. “Migration has been a tradition in all our communities; we have always been migratory, as we would go to where there were resources,” says Bennett. “But colonialism stripped us of our ability to move as we traditionally have done.”

Bennett emphasizes that Indigenous peoples are not just victims who need saving. “As these communities go, so goes the rest of the world,” he maintains. “We can’t continue to just talk about this. The response has to be now.”

Working together, the group and TCUs are knocking down the barriers that keep Indigenous peoples out of the rooms where scientific work is done and policy is made, says Bennett. “We are empowering our students so they can be the change they want to see.”

In the coming year, the working group has plans to meet again, hopefully in southern Louisiana, so they can see firsthand what’s happening there. “Where the working group is moving now is to create even bigger opportunities—and really start trying to move TCU students in leadership positions on the issue of climate change,” says Wildcat. “The world is looking for some kind of leadership that is different.”

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