By Lee Horton
Peninsula Daily News And The Associated Press
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The four-day conference, attended by some 300 members of coastal tribes and scientists, ended Friday at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Micah McCarty, chairman of the Makah and the First Stewards steering committee, said climate change has had many different names in the past 30 years, such as the greenhouse effect and global warming.
Whatever it's called, McCarty said, it is important to know about the changing environment.
“It doesn't matter how you spin it; climate change is happening, and it's happening faster and faster than it ever has,” McCarty said.
First Stewards, which was hosted by North Olympic Peninsula tribes the Hoh, Makah, Quileute and Quinalt, featured four regional panels — including a West Coast panel Wednesday — that focused on the climate issues that coastal indigenous cultures face.
Debbie Ross-Preston of Forks, coastal information officer for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said the main topics of the West Coast panel were ocean acidification, melting glaciers, rising ocean levels and warmer water temperatures.
Ocean acidification makes it difficult for shellfish to grow shells, which slows industry and affects the marine food chain.
During her presentation, Simone Alin, an oceanographer and marine chemist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, said the West Coast is particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification.
The environmental changes being seen in native communities are “a serious and growing issue, and Congress needs to address them,” Tex Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of New Town, N.D., said Wednesday.
Mike Williams, chief of the Yupit Nation in Akiak, Alaska, said in the informational Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing that villages are literally being wiped out by coastal erosion.
Williams said he can cast a net and catch salmon at his childhood home because the home is underwater.
He also described how the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, in which he participates, has been moved because of lack of snowfall, and dogs must run at night to stay cool.
“We've always lived off the land and off the waters and continue to do that. But we're bearing the burden of living with these conditions today,” Williams said.
Sen. Daniel Akaka, committee chairman, acknowledged that environmental changes are widespread, but the Hawaii Democrat said native communities are disproportionately impacted because they depend on nature for traditional food, sacred sites and cultural ceremonies.
Several tribes already are coming up with plans to adapt to the changes, and federal agencies are assisting with resources, Akaka said.
The conference closed with a Looking Forward panel Friday morning.
At Friday's Looking Forward panel, there were many calls for indigenous cultures to be included in climate change discussions.
McCarty said those discussions need to be conducted wisely and respectfully.
“We can't inflict hysteria; we can't encourage knee-jerk reactions,” he said. “We must not overreact.”
Ross-Preston added that changes must be made wisely.
“We've never faced a quick climate change like this,” Ross-Preston said.
“As we look for ways to adjust and make changes, we have to make sure the solution isn't part of the problem.”
Williams said Congress needs to come up with a strategic plan to address the impact to help ensure Alaska Natives and Native American tribes continue to exist.
He said in coming up with the plan, Congress should consider Native practices and traditional knowledge.
Reporter Lee Horton can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5152, or at email@example.com.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.