The Impact of Climate Change on America’s Tribal Lands

with Fawn Sharp of the National Congress of American Indians

Indigenous communities are uniquely vulnerable to climate change, due to their dependence on, and close connection with, the environment and its resources.

Fawn Sharp, President of the National Congress of American Indians and Vice President of the Quinault Indian Nation, joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss ways that climate change directly threatens Native American culture and life.

Posted on:

October 31, 2023

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: Temperatures are reaching record-breaking highs, rainfall and snow patterns are shifting, droughts are becoming more frequent and severe -- all indicators that the Earth's climate is changing. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. While climate change impacts all communities, Indigenous peoples are uniquely vulnerable due to their dependance upon and close relationship with the environment and its resources. Joining me to talk all about this and more is Fawn Sharp. She is president of the National Congress of American Indians. She's also Vice President of the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington state. And, Fawn, thank you so much for being here.

Sharp: [ Speaks native language ] Thank you so much for the invitation.

Anderson: So climate change impacts everybody, but can you explain the difference to our viewers in how climate change impacts those who are living in Indian Country versus those who are not?

Sharp: Yes. For those of us that live in Indian Country, we've been there since time immemorial, since time began, and if you could imagine generation after generation sharing stories, sharing prayers, sharing a spiritual connection to the natural world, that's who we are. We're place-based people, and we have a deep connection to our local environment.

Anderson: How much would you say climate change is a threat to the actual existence of Native American culture and life?

Sharp: Yes, climate change is a direct threat to our very existence. We live in the Pacific Northwest. We're deeply connected to our natural world, to our cedar trees that we use to make our canoes, our clothing, to salmon resources that provide nourishment, that are part of our songs and our ceremonies, weddings. So we're deeply connected to the local environment.

Anderson: And I know that as a member of the Quinault Nation, this is extra connected to the way of life that you know. What's happening within that community because of climate change?

Sharp: Yes, in this very moment, we are under the threat of multiple states of emergency. So if you could imagine having to move two villages to higher ground. The headquarters of my nation is currently threatened by sea level rise. Highway 101, which is our only access road into the Quinault Nation, is vulnerable to a landslide. It's actually giving away. The highway is buckling. The very place where my ancestors signed our treaty is now under water.

Anderson: You have been very public about the issue of climate change and how it impacts your community. Where have you taken your message, and how has it been received?

Sharp: Yes, in my first year in office, back in 2006, I was directly confronted with climate change, and I tried to have conversations at the state level, here in Washington, D.C., and I found that nobody would directly engage with me at that time. There was still a great deal of skepticism as to whether climate change was even real. Two years later, in 2008, we took our message to Poznań, Poland, to the Conference of Parties, COP 14. And since that time, we've been directly engaged with a global diplomat community. In January, I was invited to Davos, Switzerland, to directly engage with the global business community. So we are reaching the entire world with a global message.

Anderson: And this is something the Biden administration has also taken action on. He appropriated about $75 million to help tribes. Tell us about why the administration did that, how they doled out the dollars, and what these tribes are using that money for.

Sharp: Yes, I think the why is because this administration recognizes that we're vulnerable, we're on the front lines, we're disproportionately impacted, and we have little to no resources. So they understand the unique threat to Indian Country. And they decided that they needed to reach those who are on the front lines, who are facing sea level rise, to pilot some projects, so that's where that came from. And, thankfully, this administration does understand our unique threat and challenges in Indian Country.

Anderson: So tribes have money. They're making use of it and making change. But this is something that's not going away anytime soon. What do you think needs to happen in the future so that Native American life and culture can be protected?

Sharp: Yes. I think what needs to happen in the future -- I think tribal nations need to continue to lead the country. We've led the country in pricing carbon in the state of Washington. We passed the Climate Commitment Act, which has secured resources. And we understand that the public treasury simply is not enough to confront the existential threat of climate change. As epic and as incredible as the Inflation Reduction Act was, it was half a billion dollars. You divide $500 million among 574 tribal nations, it's less than $1 million. How am I going to move two villages to higher ground? How am I going to protect the only highway entrance into our village? So we understand what's on the horizon is an intensive and strategic effort to align public and private resources so that we can make the direct investment so that we can work in partnership with the global business community, with diplomats, to secure the resources that we need. And we know that tribes are going to provide a clear and direct investment. If you invest with a tribal nation, you know we're going to restore salmon habitat, you know we're going to protect sacred sites. And so we want to be that gold standard for investing public and private funds.

Anderson: This is a topic that gets people talking, Fawn. So what is your website? Where can people go for more information?

Sharp: Yes, -- the National Congress of American Indians dot org.

Anderson: Fawn Sharp with the National Congress of American Indians, thank you for being here.

Sharp: [ Speaks native language ] Thank you.

Anderson: And thanks to you as well for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, just visit I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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