The Nome Eskimo elder lamented that nowadays his homeland in winter is too
warm for the life system to sustain itself -- only 20 degrees below zero instead of 70
below. His people have learned to live in balance with the ice and cold. But now the
Bering Strait is sick. Sea ice is forming later, affecting the animals who breed on it.
The sea pups aren't ready to leave when the ice melts, so they die or are abandoned. The
hunters say the walrus are skinny, and they have to hunt farther into the tundra because
the caribou know the thin ice won't sustain their weight.
In the old days, the elders in
Alaska could forecast the weather by watching the stars. But now, says one Siberian Yupek
elder, "The Earth is so fast now. We can't predict the weather anymore." Many
native prophesies warned of a time when the people would be confused, and the old and the
young would die first. The prophesies said the trees would die from the tops down and the
world would be in danger.
Using "eyes" from space, NASA officials have seen that the elders are right.
Its officials conclude that the "Earth is a living system that is distressed."
So now, NASA has turned to native elders for counsel as it examines the effect of climate
change on the U.S. population, environment and economy. NASA brought together a gathering
of several hundred elders for a five-day climate-change workshop in Albuquerque, N.M.,
last fall. NASA is seeking to merge the knowing and wisdom of people who understand the
responsibilities that humans have to the Earth with the knowledge of non-native
The elders who attended the conference, called the Circle of Wisdom Native
Peoples/Native Homelands Climate Change Workshop, stated: "It is this spiritual
connection to Mother Earth, Father Sky and all Creation that is lacking in the rest of the
world. . . . We call upon the people of the world to hold your leaders accountable."
According to documents issued by the workshop, temperatures will become warmer in the
Northern Hemisphere by 5 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit within the next 20 years. The primary
source of human-induced climate change is the burning of oil, gas and coal. The melting of
sea ice "affects the exchange of energy continuously taking place on the Earth's
surface," according to NASA. While it might seem a distant problem to many people in
the United States, all life is interconnected.
We have long said that native prophesies are misunderstood. They not only are spiritual
visions, but often also come from a life-science observation of the natural world. When
people understand that they are not separate from the natural world, they will seek to
honor and understand it. This is why Chief Joseph said long ago that the Earth was part of
his body and they were of one "mind."
Native people traditionally have understood that the Earth and universe have a mind and
a spirit, a cosmic intelligence that responds to us, to our intentions. "Earth is a
living mother, an organism. I know none of us would think of abusing our birth mother. She
is a spiritual woman . . . that gives life. Through our ceremonies, we honor her
life-giving power so that she can continue to nourish us," says Cheyenne elder
When people no longer live and learn from the land, their disconnection to it leads to
the abuse of Mother Earth. Along with the land, native people's traditions die: their
food, their ceremonies, medicinal plants, their fibers for making sacred baskets. And much
of it has been through the greed of market economies and the perversions of science and
technology that have claimed or contaminated the land, particularly native lands, through
deforestation, pesticides, industrial waste, radioactive poisoning and mining. "What
good is an economic system if our children die anyway?" asked a Kanaka Maoli elder
from Hawaii. A nearby flip-chart read, "There is no post-environment economy."
There are myriad things to be done, including requiring companies to factor the
environmental impact of their projects into their businesses, and demanding that all
public projects invest in clean and renewable forms of energy. But most of all, we must
begin to value life in all its manifestations.
Corbin Harney, a Shoshone elder, says the spirits of the land and the ancestors are
waiting for people to recognize their responsibility to Mother Earth. "They want to
hear us pray so that they can work with us, so everything can heal."