Indigenous Communities and Climate Change

by Jackie Swift

The effects of climate change are often communicated through data that rely on averages. When experts tell us that the Earth’s annual temperature has increased by an average rate of 0.32 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1981, or that the average hurricane has become stronger over the past 39 years, how do we apply that information? While accurate on a macroscale, it doesn’t speak to the specific, concrete, local impact of climate change in the towns and villages and hamlets of the world.

“Despite the sophisticated climate models that are developed by NASA’s Earth Observatory and by all kinds of climate scientists, we don’t have the capacity at the level of villages or at the level of valleys, for instance, to anticipate climate change amongst the people who are at the vanguard of that change,” says Karim-Aly S. Kassam, Natural Resources and the Environment/American Indian and Indigenous Studies. “These are largely Indigenous peoples who did not contribute to the primary roots of climate change and currently do not contribute significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions per capita, yet they are among the first affected.”

Historically, these communities have endured cultural genocide, marginalization, and war—often due to the politics of the Cold War and resource extraction, Kassam explains. “So this becomes not only an intellectual challenge to address the issue of climate change but also a challenge of ethics and social justice,” he says.

Collaborating with Locals

Kassam’s research incorporates both ethnographic and ecological components, and his projects span the globe from the Arctic to the mountains of Central Asia to the American Midwest. Collaborating with a range of Indigenous and rural groups, he seeks to address their concerns about the impacts of a changing environment on their livelihoods, their health, and their communities.

“We need to give the necessary respect to local, place-based Indigenous knowledge,” Kassam says. “And if we want to contribute to climate change adaptation strategies, we need to ask how the biophysical sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities can collaborate with that knowledge. We need to understand the relationship between ecological diversity and cultural diversity in specific contexts, whether in the Arctic, or in the mountains—or even in Manhattan.”

A hallmark of Kassam’s work is his emphasis on long-term relationships with his community-based collaborators. Over years, he and his academic team visit a particular community many times, first using ethnographic methods to document climate-change issues there, then collaborating with the people on how to address the impacts of these issues. “The process is transdisciplinary,” he says. “By that I mean that it’s a conversation amongst communities of practice, such as the fisher, the herder, and the farmer, and communities of inquiry, such as the ethnographer, the climate scientist, and the ecologist.”

Reviving Ecological Calendars

Since 2016, Kassam has pursued one particularly sweeping project focused on ecological calendars, which measure time with respect to environmental events. “We first learned about a calendar called the Calendar of the Human Body when we were doing research in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia,” he says. “Biophysical signs, like snow cover or the arrival of a migratory bird, were used by people as indicators for livelihood and food activities such as when to plow, when to harvest, when to hunt, and so on.”

Kassam and his team soon discovered that many different ethnicities in the mountains had used such calendars in the past. “The calendars were very particular to an area; so the calendar for one village would differ from another because they were a thousand meters apart,” he explains. “But at the same time, they were universal in that they transcended ethnicities and ecological professions. Farmers, hunters, fishers: everyone used them.”

“Biophysical signs, like snow cover or the arrival of a migratory bird, were used by people as indicators for livelihood and food activities such as when to plow, when to harvest.”

The people who created the Calendar of the Human Body had a deep connection to their environment. The name alone indicates a paradigmatic difference between their way of thinking and the frame of mind emphasized by industrial civilization, Kassam points out. “The calendar makers didn’t see themselves as outside their habitat,” he says. “They were embodied in it. In industrial societies people might speak of Mother Earth as a metaphor. For the people I work with, the human mother is the metaphor. When they say ‘Mother Earth,’ they mean it literally.”

Kassam and his collaborators set out to revitalize or create ecological calendars in various Indigenous and rural communities. By 2021, they had drafted calendars for communities such as Savnob and Roshorv in Tajikistan, Sary Mogul in Kyrgyzstan, the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in the American Midwest, and Oneida Lake in New York State. In addition, they identified key biophysical indicators that inform food security and livelihood activities for each of the communities.

In the course of their work, the researchers also discovered that the calendars were concerned with more than just the physical world. “Life is not easy, so the people had built in sacred moments to stop and reflect on the vagaries and rigors of the seasons,” Kassam says. “And we can learn from this. When we are dealing with climate change, because of the anxiety levels associated with this change, we need to deal with this notion of the sacred, too.”

Semantic Differences and Scientific Averages

The inadequacies of scientific averages have come home to Kassam in many ways. He mentions the time he and German doctoral student Isabell Haag were speaking with people from the village of Savnob in the Bartang Valley of the Pamir Mountains. “We were presenting six decades of remote-sensing climate data for the area that my colleague had compiled,” he says. “We asked the community members, ‘Does this match your experience?’ And it was a wonderful moment because we learned that their definition of rain, let alone precipitation, was different than ours. Our climate station had recorded rain, and the community said, ‘No, that wasn’t rain. That was just drizzle. When the ground is soaking wet, that’s when it’s raining.’”

Semantic differences like these are problematic for climate scientists, who are unaware of them, Kassam says. “Typically, scientists present their data on a bell curve,” he explains. “They say, ‘On average, in the month of June, we got this much rain.’ But we don’t live in the world of averages. In concrete terms, we need this much rain on these specific days. The monthly average might be sufficient, but if it all occurred in the span of one week, that is not sufficient; that is problematic.”

“These kinds of nuances come into play when you engage with people,” he adds. “In very simple terms, that’s what our research is all about.”