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Indigenous People & Climate Change

An Athabascan woman holds up a blood-red salmon in a village on the Alaska Peninsula. With a gentle tug, she slides the fish’s skin off like sludge. The salmon, a major part of the village’s diet, had been overcome by Ichthyophonus hoferi, the microscopic parasite that is proliferating in Alaska’s warming rivers and tributaries.

“It felt like paste,” says Larry Merculieff, deputy director of the Alaska Native Science Commission and a keynote speaker at this week’s “Indigenous People, Climate Change, and Environmental Knowledge” conference at the UO. “I’ve never seen it before.”

UO history professor Mark Carey, the co-organizer of the conference, sought out keynote speakers like Merculieff, an Aleut member, and Daniel Wildcat, a Yuchi member and professor of American Indian Studies at Haskell Indian Nations University, because he continues to see a lack of understanding in the general public about the impacts of climate change on indigenous peoples.

“Native peoples are disproportionately affected by climate change,” says Carey, who teaches the new UO Honors College course Climate and Culture in the Americas. 

Carey hopes that the conference will expose the community and university to different perspectives on climate change because, in spite of the innovative methods many indigenous groups are using to adapt, there is little information transfer to scientific communities. “In my own interaction with scientists, there is a lot of resistance to incorporate indigenous knowledge.”

That’s where Merculieff comes in. “What’s missing is the spiritual component,” he says. Merculieff has been denoted as the messenger for the elders, or wisdom keepers; he grew up with on Alaska’s Saint Paul Island, a land inhabited by the Aleuts for more than 10,000 years. They believe that the Earth is weary with fever and world leaders are only looking to treat the symptoms. “The root cause is separation. Separation from self, separation from others, separation from nature, separation from Earth,” says Merculieff.

Until we reconcile the individual with the environment, the elders say, conditions will continue to worsen, and Alaska will have a front row seat. Merculieff points out coastal erosion, changes in migratory patterns (beavers found north of the arctic circle), and a major decline in species (caribou, sea lions, sea otters). He predicts that salmon — due to the Ichthyophonus hoferi parasite, decreasing water levels, and water temperatures too warm for fish eggs to survive — will have completely disappeared from Alaska in 15 years.

Merculieff and Wildcat spoke May 23 at the UO’s Many Nations Longhouse and the conference continues on Thursday, May 24, with an additional keynote address at 9 am in the UO Fir Room, followed by student presentations and panels. The conference is free. For more information, visit http://uoclimateconference.wordpress.com