WASHINGTON — Native communities across the country are facing the brunt of climate change, whether it’s drought in the West or coral bleaching off the coast of Hawaii.

That’s why Hawaii U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, Democratic chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, wanted to hear from Indigenous leaders themselves about the challenges they face as the planet warms and what the federal government can do to help them adapt.

During a hearing Wednesday Schatz said that he intends to introduce legislation — most likely as a part of President Joe Biden’s forthcoming $2 trillion infrastructure plan — but that first he wanted to hear from Native voices about what works and what doesn’t.

Climate change is among the senator’s top priorities and has been since he was Hawaii’s lieutenant governor. 

Sen Brian Schatz at the Dem Party Dole Cannery Ballroom.
Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz wants to bring Native voices into the conversation about how to address climate change. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Climate solutions are not exclusively found in spreadsheets or in tax credits or in incentives or even in the regulatory area,” Schatz said. “It is in the actual physical restoration of the land, and the water and our streams and our lakes. That Native wisdom has to be incorporated into any climate policy that we have.”

Representatives from a number of Native American tribes participated in the round table discussion as did Kamehameha Schools CEO Jack Wong and Kaeo Duarte, the vice president of Community and Aina Resiliency at the trust.

Together they spoke of the importance of collaboration with Indigenous communities when it comes to decision making and highlighted a project at Kaupulehu on the Big Island that essentially let the reef “rest” so that the marine ecosystem could recover.

“It worked even better than imagined,” Duarte said. “The species are recovering faster than expected and now the community, with government and researchers and scientists, are developing a long term plan rooted in indigenous values and that, importantly, are incorporating the knowledge of the people of that place.”

Among the challenges tribes and other Indigenous groups face is consultation with the federal government. There was also concern among some that tribes are competing for the same pool of government funding, which means any solutions to rebuild or retrofit infrastructure that is more resilient to climate change will be piecemeal and diluted.

Amber Torres, chairwoman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe in Nevada, said her tribe, which relies heavily on ranching and agriculture, has been struggling with drought for the past 15 years. She said the lack of water has reduced crop sizes by 40% and cattle herds by as much as 50%.

Kaeo Duarte, of Kamehameha Schools, discusses how Indigenous knowledge helped improve a marine ecosystem in Hawaii. Screenshot

The tribe has tried to upgrade its irrigation system, but often found itself struggling to get enough money to make meaningful headway. As one of her colleagues told the committee, the tribe has 44 miles of irrigation pipes, but has only secured enough federal money to address a single mile for a cost of $2.1 million. That meant the entire project was moving at a “snail’s pace.”

“We all know that there’s not historically been enough funding for Indian Country and the projects that we want to pursue in our respective nations,” Torres said. The various formulas the federal government uses to allocate money to tribes, she added, often “pits us against one another.”

“It’s just so unfair, the access is unfair,” she added. “We have to be able to work together for the next seven generations, the two-legged and the four-legged.”

Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is the vice chair of the Indian Affairs Committee and the only Republican to participate in Wednesday’s hearing, said Native communities in her state have already begun noticing changes in their environment due to climate change.

Subsistence hunters, she said, have seen unusual mortality events in seal populations and witnessed bowhead whales moving farther out to sea. Coastal erosion is already happening, she added, and will cost billions of dollars to mitigate.

Consultation must occur, Murkowski said, and it needs to be “truly meaningful.” 

In an interview with Civil Beat, Schatz said too often the federal government doesn’t take its consultation responsibilities with tribal governments and other Indigenous people seriously and that as chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee he will seek to change that.

“We wanted to demonstrate that we really were listening and interested, and that we’re going to take notes and allow that to inform our legislation,” Schatz said. “Another part of this is that we really do need ideas.”

Now that Congress has approved a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief deal, he said it’s time to turn to Biden’s proposal to revamp the nation’s infrastructure and bolster clean energy initiatives with another $2 trillion in federal spending. Native communities, Schatz said, must be a part of that discussion.

“Whatever investments are made and whatever transformational policies are adopted regarding climate they are going to include and be informed by Native communities, needs and knowledge,” Schatz said.

He pointed to the struggles of the Walker River Paiute Tribe in upgrading its irrigation systems.

At the end of the day, Schatz said, the amount of money the tribe needs to save water, restore ecosystems and cling to economic survival amounts to tens of millions of dollars, which, in the scheme of a $4 trillion a year federal budget, is quite feasible.

“That’s the kind of information we need,” Schatz said. “That’s the information you can’t glean from some wonk and some think tank in downtown D.C., and that’s why we did this hearing.”

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