Partnership Seeks to Improve Cultural Understanding, Combat Climate Change

Members of Native American tribes face disproportionate challenges due to climate change. According to the 2014 National Climate Assessment, released as part of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, poverty among tribes limits their ability to rebuild important infrastructure to guard against rising sea levels and coastal erosion in Alaska, for example, as well as drought in the Southwest.

Indigenous peoples are deeply tied to their homelands, but forced migration and abandonment of traditional food sources, due to climate change, threaten tribes’ cultural heritage. Because of their strong connection to the land, Native Americans also have extensive knowledge on adapting to climate change, but cultural disrespect and conflicts of interest can sometimes impede their efforts to join forces with scientists.

A new collaboration between researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) and the College of Menominee Nations (CMN) in Keshena, Wisc., aims to alleviate those tensions.

With a four-year, $450,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, MSU’s College of Natural Science and the CMN’s Sustainable Development Institute are working together to develop a set of recommendations to help government organizations and scientists work ethically with indigenous peoples on the issues of climate change and sustainability.

“This project will initiate, for the first time, a process in which reporting occurs through surveys and case studies to gauge more sensitively participants’ understanding of practices that promote or impede ethical collaboration,” Kyle Whyte, the researcher on the grant and associate professor of philosophy at MSU, said in a press release.

“The federal government has a responsibility to support Native American sovereignty, and a key part is [that] tribes must have equitable access to scientific resources that can be used to plan for climate change,” he said.

As a philosopher, Whyte’s research centers on moral and political issues concerning climate policy and indigenous peoples. He says the partnership between MSU and CMN will base its recommendations on the combined western and indigenous concepts of research, ethics, and evaluation.

“There is a growing body of climate research in which tribes are either the lead or an equal partner, rather than just the focus,” Christopher Caldwell, director of the CMN Sustainable Development Institute, said in a statement. “Our project will help tribes move forward in a positive way by having all partners think through what we have done and where we [will] go next.”