An Inter-Tribal Gathering Is Helping Scientists Fight Climate Change
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An Inter-Tribal Gathering Is Helping Scientists Fight Climate Change

Indigenous tribes from Siberia and the Pacific Northwest gathered this summer to strategize their survival in the rapidly warming Arctic.

Jon Waterhouse, a descendant of the S’Klallam, Chippewa-Cree and Cree tribes, set out in 2006 with a simple mission: a group of Native American Elders in the Yukon Watershed asked him to “go out and take the pulse of the river.” They had noticed a decline in their salmon population, which was central to the health of their tribe. But they didn’t know why.

So Waterhouse took to the water. He spent two months in a canoe, dragging a water quality probe that collected data at five minute intervals.


The results of his investigation were so much more detailed than what contemporary scientists were able to accomplish in the region, that he was soon compelled to travel to parts of South America, Russia, Greenland, Africa, and New Zealand to track similar trends in global watersheds.

Waterhouse’s work forged a connection between two tribes on seemingly opposite sides of the world—the Samish Indian Nation of Anacortes, Washington, and the Nenets of Siberia, an indigenous tribe from Arctic Russia—who nonetheless shared similar concerns about the rapidly warming northern Pacific. Joining forces with Waterhouse, the Samish organized a series of gatherings with the Nenets that spanned months and took place in the homelands of both tribes.

As temperatures hit record highs around the world this summer, surpassing averages by 40 degrees in Northern Siberia, the Nenets traveled to the United States to join a long-standing inter-tribal gathering called Canoe Journey. Indigenous tribes from Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington embark on a journey through the Salish Sea that can last up to a month. The tribes share food, song, dance, and gifts along the way, in a tradition referred to as "protocol." The mission was to unite Indigenous Peoples in an effort to protect their cultures under duress from global warming.

Nenets elder Pyotr Ledkov with a drum made from reindeer skin, birch, and spruce wood

“Everything connected to the reindeer is sacred to the Nenets people,” tribal elder Pyotr Ledkov told VICE through interpreter Mariana Markova. “The word ‘life’ in our language is ‘ilebts,’ which also means ‘reindeer,’ so reindeer is life for our people.”


The Nenets herd reindeer along ancient migration routes during winter months when ice is thick enough to traverse the arctic tundra. Their clothing, food, shelter, tools, transportation and sacred ceremonial objects all come from the animals. But temperatures are rising two and a half times faster in Russia than the global average, meaning longer summers and shorter winters and big challenges for the Nenets.

In addition to the warming Arctic, expansion of fossil fuel extraction within and around the Nenets's territory threatens every aspect of their lives. “The rivers located near oil reserves get polluted. You can taste the difference in our water, which is no longer safe to drink or fish in,” said Yulia Taleeva of the Nenets through interpreter Mariana Markova. “There are abandoned rigs from where oil companies drilled years ago, and when reindeer cross these areas, they get trapped and entangled in wires from old rigs. Many of them die painful deaths because they’re helpless to defend themselves against animals and insects that eat them alive.”

Yulia Taleeva of the Nenets with an instrument made from reindeer antlers and baby reindeer hooves

Like the Nenets, the Coast Salish tribes of the Pacific Northwest are no strangers to the devastation of fossil fuel extraction and global warming. “When I was a kid, it was nothing for me to catch a 40 pound salmon. There were so many I could just go to the river, hit one with a club, and bring it home. That doesn’t happen anymore,” Waterhouse said.


For Coast Salish tribes, dry seasons are longer and more severe, with wildfires surging along the entire west coast. Droughts and rising water temperatures have serious implications for wild salmon, which have declined to five percent of historic populations. The disappearance of salmon creates an ecological domino effect that devastates other species, like orcas and eagles, that rely on them for feeding.

“To the Salish Tribes and First Nations of the Pacific Northwest, the salmon is far more than a food item, it’s a core part of our cultural DNA,” Waterhouse said. “The Coast Salish people are spiritually and culturally connected to these living organisms that are dying out."

“So what happens when you get a big hole blown through your culture? The culture dies,” he said. “If somebody bombed the Vatican and killed the pope, that would be devastating to the Catholics. The same thing would happen to Indigenous People if all their reindeer and salmon disappear.”

Vern McLeod of the Upper Skagit tribe retired this year after 60 years as a fisherman in the Salish Sea. “When things get out of balance, you have big change. Man’s greed has put so many things out of balance. When I was a kid we swam in these waters. I wouldn’t swim in this water now for any amount of money because I’d come out dirty from the insecticides, oils, and all the other pollution that bleeds off of man into our waters. And that’s what our mussels, oysters and fish are soaking in,” McLeod” said.

Many Coast Salish tribes established their own Departments of Natural Resources after feeling their needs were not met by existing governmental infrastructure.

“We had an elder come to us one day and say, ‘I'm really concerned. I live right on the beach and there used to be lots of kelp. I used to be able to pick bull kelp leaves to wrap my salmon to cook it traditionally, and now I can't find it anymore,’” Todd Woodard, Director of the Samish Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources, said. “So now we’re investigating why there is less kelp and if there’s something we can do to restore it.”


The Samish Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources has succeeded where other governmental entities have failed: namely, in listening to the native people on the environmental front lines. In doing so, they have been able to combine their findings with scientific methods of environmental restoration.

This approach emblematizes Waterhouse’s ethos in environmental remediation. “Indigenous science and modern science aren’t conflicting, they’re complimentary of each other,” he said. “Standing alone, each one is missing a component that it really needs, but combined, the two give us a much deeper understanding of the climatic challenges we’re facing.”

After a long day of canoe journey, tribes share songs and dances late into the night at the Swinomish Reservation

Indigenous peoples have long joined forces to protect their heritage. The pipeline protests at Standing Rock are a recent example of indigenous tribes coming together from around the world to resist cultural and environmental threats.

Many Coast Salish tribes have begun attaching water quality probes called YSI Sondes to their boats during the month-long Canoe Journey. “These probes help the tribes collect all kinds of data for scientists that hadn’t been measured before,” Waterhouse said. “Before tribes enlisted these probes, scientists didn't have as clear of an understanding of how fast the Salish Sea is changing, because they hadn’t been monitoring these areas as closely.”

Jai-Lee James of the Samish Tribe at Fidalgo Bay canoe landing with Andeavor Oil Refinery in the distance

As the Coast Salish tribes collected data on their waterways, they simultaneously performed an ancient rite in seas that are now beginning to cover ancient burial grounds. “Because of rising sea levels, we’ve seen our ancestors’ remains wash up onto our beaches,” Samish Tribal Chairman Tom Wooten said.


“People didn’t believe Galileo when he said the earth is not the center of the universe,” said Waterhouse, “but there were Native cultures that knew this long before he did. The Eurocentric mindset has a lot to learn from Indigenous folks.”

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