Traditional Ecological Knowledge Is Key to Climate Damage Control

“It’s impossible to separate ourselves from the environment and our everyday lives as Indigenous people,” said Rahiem Eleazer, environmental liaison for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.
By Kat J. McAlpine

On Cape Cod, the fish used to run abundantly. Bountiful woodlands beckoned to Wampanoag tribe members who could hunt the land for miles and miles. That’s what Jason Steiding remembers hearing as a child. Now, as natural resources director of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Nation, he works to preserve the lands, waterways, and wildlife that are so integral to his community’s culture.

“The stories passed down to us tell of the vast territories of Cape Cod,” Steiding said. But today, residential and commercial real estate sprawl, legal and regulatory barriers, pollution, and climate-impacted ecosystems have severely harmed and curtailed the Native American tribal members’ access to natural resources. “It’s why I’m in the field I’m in – I’m worried about what my kids will see… it hurts because you wonder what it will look like in 50 years, and who will live here?”

At Harvard Climate Action Week – hosted by the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability at Harvard University alongside eleven Harvard Schools and 22 Harvard centers – Steiding and a panel of environmental leaders from New England Tribal Nations explained how traditional ecological knowledge can and should be leveraged to protect natural resources, preserve historical perspectives, and develop climate and environmental solutions.

“The TEK [traditional ecological knowledge] we practice today is different from what our ancestors practiced hundreds of years ago,” said Leslie Jonas, an Indigenous land and water conservationist and elder of the Mashpee Wampanoag. Historically, she said, her Indigenous ancestors lived in harmony with nature: “Never over-foraging, never over-impacting. We took care of each other the way we saw species in the natural world caring for each other. Things were in balance.”

“It is our responsibility to protect the land… shores… oceans,” said Michael Johnson, tribal historic preservation officer and an elder of the Mashantucket Pequots. “These are gifts that provide for us, we must not take more than needed – [but the world today is geared toward] a lot of consumption. Our planet is getting tired.”

Today’s tribal elders of Cape Cod recall their childhood years, when blooming forsythia meant the herring would soon make their run up the rivers to spawn. After that, it was time to start preparing the garden, pull out and repair fishing nets, and prepare for the summer and harvest seasons ahead. “Our ‘New Year’ is celebrated in the spring when everything comes alive,” Steiding said.

Rahiem Eleazer, environmental liaison for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, agrees. The Pequot word for herring, he explained, means “spring fish.”

But herring are disappearing, Johnson said. In the mouth of Long Island Sound, where herring counts used to yield 80 fish a day, Johnson said it’s now more likely, or “lucky” even, to spot just one or two. “This is a traditional food source for us… we are working with the state of Connecticut to combat this, because it’s not that they’re all gone. We see [greater herring] counts in Massachusetts and the Gulf of Maine, but further south in our immediate area [of the Pequot Tribal Nation], this is a problem for us.”

Herring are known for their resilience, but even they may not be able to withstand the strain of climate change and pollution, Jonas said. “They are a staple… if they go, so many other species will go.”

And if the herring do disappear from his community’s waters, Eleazer fears an outsized impact on their way of life and culture – even their language. “What does that mean for our language if ‘spring fish’ don’t come in the spring?”

Panel moderator Keshia De Freece Lawrence, an Indigenous education specialist at Harvard Forest, added that keystone species like the herring – or “our relatives” as the panelists respectfully call other inhabitants of our shared natural world – are bioindicators that reveal truths about the overall health of ecosystems. They are also a bellwether, warning that further losses of lands, waters, and natural resources could wreak additional harm upon Native American tribal identities.

De Freece Lawrence raised another topic where the cultural nuance of language has become painful for some tribal members: “What is ‘clean’ renewable energy, and what does it mean for our people and the land we’re sitting on?”

“In our language, ‘clean’ would mean truly clean” or pure, Jonas said. “In our understanding of clean energy, there’s a bit of greenwashing happening, because these [energy sources may be] cleaner than fossil fuels, but they are not totally clean.”

“This goal we keep hearing about is states wanting to be powered by clean, renewable energy by 2030 or 2040,” Johnson said. But the push for electric vehicles is fraught with environmental issues. For example, “lithium for battery-powered vehicles must be mined – using fossil fuels.”

While renewable energy is positive in theory, Eleazer stressed that clean technologies must be developed in reciprocity with nearby ecology and communities. “To make an omelet, you have to break some eggs… but I’m tired of the environment being the egg that’s broken and disadvantaged communities bearing the impact.”

“What gets lost in the hype about wind turbines,” for example, “is that tribes use those waters as fishing and ceremonial areas,” Jonas said. “We need to be consulted at the beginning of [clean energy initiatives], not at the middle or end.”

There’s a critical difference between consultation and consent, Eleazer added. “Right now, organizations [legally] have to consult us, and they barely do that. If we were able to transition [the law] from requiring consultation to requiring [tribal] consent, that would force people to meet with us way earlier. No one [would] want to spend millions of dollars just to hear [later] that tribes don’t want to consent. That would give us a seat at the table – and a significant seat, which I think is important for our community.”

Looking to the future

The panel also discussed land restitution and environmental justice – “it’s non-existent for us,” Steiding said, as “our community isn’t classified as an ‘EJ’ community.” The group agreed that restitution means more than just regaining access to physical lands and waterways. It also means entrusting Indigenous communities with land stewardship and conservancy, which could allow lands to be “put back to their original uses, restored with traditional plants,” and more.

“Native American tribal members are stepping up and serving ourselves in the EJ realm by holding land in trust…. this is what Native Land Conservancy is doing,” said Jonas, who serves on the nonprofit’s board of directors as treasurer. “If we don’t have space, land, and water for our children and our culture, we can’t transmit our culture [to the next generations].”

Everyone on the panel agreed that reconnecting Native American communities with the wellspring of their culture, spirituality, and subsistence is especially critical for Indigenous youths, panelists said.

Youth and younger generations are now addicted to screens – a stark contrast to the way Jonas and Steiding recall spending nearly every waking moment outside while growing up.

“The youth are our future stewards,” Steiding said. “They’ve got to have a voice, to know what’s happening, and to be part of the change.” The Wampanoag Tribal Nation natural resource department has started running a summer science camp, getting young members into nature, teaching them science through a blend of Western and Indigenous approaches. “We have a ‘culture keeper’ who, alongside a water-quality specialist, for example, might explain what waterways used to look like, what fish used to be here, what fish are here now, and why. Our kids really take well to it.”

That type of ‘cultural keeping’ positions Native American tribal members to be powerful advocates for managing the environment. While many herring today struggle to ascend concrete “fish ladders” built to aid their springtime migration, Steiding says the “unnatural, concrete runs” are proving to be a barrier.

“The fish can’t make it up, the water just rips right through and they end up getting caught and drowning,” he said. Finally, thanks to growing awareness about the value of traditional ecological knowledge, “we’re being asked for assistance in how herring runs should look – what did herring passages look like before [these concrete ladders were put in] and made a mess?”

Looking out at the crowd gathered for Harvard Climate Action Week, Jonas urged collective action “on the right side of history, so that different communities can work together on shared value systems. Everyone in this room wants a planet that’s well and healthy.”