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Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Climate Change

In the flux of rapidly changing climates across the globe, strategies for adaptation and resilience to climate change are becoming increasingly important every single day. And as we consider what the future holds here in California, where we’ve just experienced one of the hottest and most polluted summers in history, valuable lessons can be learned in looking a climate change from different perspectives and in looking at past and present lifeways of native communities.

The Capital Region Climate Readiness Collaborative (CRC), an initiative of the Local Government Commission, and the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water hosted a public workshop on September 7th focused on Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and Climate Adaptation, aiming to capture the perspective of indigenous communities with roots in American soil dating back more than 6,000 years.

Cohost Amanda Ford of the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water introduced a panel of tribal community members from across northern California, also experts and advocates for traditional cultures and values. Spiritual Leader and Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, based in Shasta County, shared pieces of the tribe’s creation story beginning at Mount Shasta and their deep spiritual connection with and understanding of the land they and their ancestors have inhabited for millennia. The Winnemem Wintu (meaning “middle water”) see water as the most powerful spiritual being in existence, with its ability to carve through rock, lava – anything – over time. Chief Sisk says that eventually, the water in Lake Shasta will also carve through Shasta Dam, which the tribe views as hugely disruptive to the region’s natural ecosystem and to the tribe’s traditional practices.

Specifically, Chief Sisk recounted the Winnemem Wintu’s history with Pacific Salmon, which inhabit the Sacramento River but have been prevented from following their innate migration patterns to the Upper Sacramento, Pit, and McCloud Rivers as well as other tributary streams since the Shasta Dam was first closed in 1943. The Winnemem Wintu people believe that the salmon are more than just a good source of Omega-3s – they believe that the salmon are critical “change agents” of the environment and that allowing the salmon to migrate back upstream as they have in the past could help to restore quality of life for people and animals along the banks of the river, recharge the region’s natural aquifers which have been depleted by damming and drought over the years, and help to rebuild environmental systems and communities that are resilient to climate change.

Chief Sisk’s mission is clear – for the Shasta Dam to come down, thereby restoring the river to its former glory, allowing the salmon to resume its natural migration patterns, and uncovering sacred Wintu lands that have been buried under Shasta Lake for decades. While the likelihood of Shasta Dam being taken down in the near future is slim, lessons can be learned from other areas of the West Coast, such as Yakama Nation of Washington State, where dam removal projects have had substantial ecological benefits.

Chief Sisk says that the Winnemem Wintu tribe is “doing the best we can to hang onto the way California was.” Ultimately, indigenous communities are calling for a blending of Western and Traditional Ecological Knowledges (TEK) and science when it comes to addressing climate change in California and elsewhere. Tribal and other cultural considerations may not only introduce new perspectives and ideas, but also help to drive climate adaptation strategies that diverse populations will be receptive to.

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Jenny Wagner is a Valley Vision Project Associate working on School2Home, the Cleaner Air Partnership, and other Healthy Communities-related initiatives.

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