There is a saying that when a country like Mexico, United States, Nigeria or Indonesia “sneezes,” indigenous people get the “flu.” While this is really just a variation on the actual saying, I think you will get the point. Indigenous communities the world over live in environments where there is a fine balance between prosperity and disaster. This condition causes most indigenous peoples in the world to be more sensitive to changes–more able to make adjustments and adaptations too–especially those peoples still close to the natural world.
For as long as I can remember, my community of Tietnapum-Cowlitz and neighboring peoples have consistently expressed concerns about slow and sometimes rapid changes in the environment. These environmental changes were always dismissed by state and federal authorities as unimportant or simply too expensive to address. When a salmon grows from a small fingerling to a small fish it gets ready to travel to the ocean an become a big fish after five or so years. Tribal fisherman began to notice some time ago that those small fish would try to swim through the waters of Puget Sound past Seattle and before they could get to the ocean…they died. Pollution in the water killed these small fish.
When visiting with Cora people in western Mexico a few years ago they told me that it was no longer possible to catch “good fish” in the bay off of Puerto Vallarta. “The fish just aren’t there anymore,” they people would say.
Meeting with the Nuxalk, Wuikinuxv, and Kitamat peoples last summer I learned that the oolichan (small smelt) that used to swarm in February and March up the rivers of the Pacific Coast “aren’t coming up the river any more.” The rivers in western Oregon State no-longer receive oolichan that used to fill the river from bank-to-bank they were so abundant. These rivers have “collapsed” a biologist explained to me.
“Rockfish, salmon, crabs and other fish just washed up dead on the beach,” one old Salish speaking man told me just the other day. There are now “dead zones” in the ocean where there isn’t enough oxygen in the water for the fish to breath–they just die when they are swept into these pockets of “dead zone” water.
The water, I was told by a Navajo woman, in some places is so “rancid” that it is undrinkable. Temperatures have changed significantly, reported a biologist.
The weather is changing and clearly big changes are underway in the environment. One doesn’t need to have Vice President Al Gore tell us that.
This morning I watched a US Senator expound on the differences in opinion held by various scientists concerning whether their is such a thing as global warming. The Senator demonstrates his complete disconnection from on-the-ground realities. No dispute between scientists with computer models help the Senator. When the fish begin to die you know the ocean is sick. If the ocean is sick, everything in the world faces very big changes. Indigenous peoples are already making adjustments to adapt to the new environmental circumstances. It doesn’t really matter too much why all the changes are taking place. Things are changing. It’s time to pay attention to the changing weather alert.
(c) 2007 Center for World Indigenous Studies
(Dr. Rÿser is the author of Fourth World Geopolitics and the forth-coming book Nationcraft, and actively participated in the twelve-year effort to draft the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.)
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