The congress attendees worked together to define climate issues and develop ideas to become climate resilient. Photo by Alejandro Morales/USFWS
Alejandro Morales worked on communications the first week in July at the second annual Inter-Tribal Youth Climate Leadership Congress, a result of a partnership among the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies. The congress was held at our National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
Nearly 100 Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students between the ages of 15 to 18, participated in the weeklong congress to learn about climate change issues in indigenous communities, federal agency efforts on climate change, and most importantly, how the students can help their communities become more resilient in the face of these challenges.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is committed to uniting students for the common cause of conserving the American landscape and the wildlife that depend on it. These Native American youth are on the fore-front of climate issues and will be the first people to experience climate challenges,” says Georgia Jeppesen, National Conservation Training Center course leader. “We’ve already seen several tribes from Alaska being affected by climate change and we have seen our first climate refugees. Uniting these students and teaching them their traditional ways we hope they will continue to develop the skills and knowledge to become more climate resilient.”
Hopi students demonstrate their culture to the congress by doing a traditional corn dance during the cultural gathering night. Photo by Keanu Jones/USFWS
Don't Ignore the Elders
During the congress, federal scientists taught the students about climate science, traditional ecological knowledge, and how a changing climate is impacting native environmental health and ways of life across the country. All the speakers expressed to the students that traditional ways of life are not fading away because of climate challenges, but rather are evolving to respond to new ecological and social conditions, as generations of Native people have had to adapt before. The other main messages to the youth were the importance of learning from their elders and the imperative that the youth apply these traditional teachings to current climate change challenges.
Jim Siegel, a National Conservation Training Center course leader, mentions another. “When developing the congress, we wanted to emphasize the importance of public service and involvement, so we developed a service-learning session to give students an opportunity to perform four hours of community service by contributing to citizen science efforts, removing invasive plant species and rebuilding a hiking trail down to the Potomac River,” says Siegel. “We hope that students will take home a number of ideas and new skills from the youth congress and begin to engage their peers and community leaders in the climate change conversation.”
'Making a Difference'
Each student passionately discussed their cultural values and beliefs, and collectively discussed tangible ways they could make a difference in their home communities. The students then started to brainstorm solutions, leading their own discussions on climate change and how they will use their developing leadership skills and technical climate knowledge to address these issues by engaging tribal leaders, school officials and their peers in their communities. Finally, all students delivered group presentations with innovative ideas to promote ecological and cultural resilience in their communities.
Many of the students said they now felt more confident discussing climate issues with their tribal leaders, peers and communities, and hope to make a difference advancing climate change initiatives back home.
“I didn’t know much about climate change before the congress, but I do know that our sacred mountain used to have snow on it all year-round and now snow can only be found on that mountain for five months of the year,” says Cody Apachito, a Mescalero Apache and Navajo tribal member and congress attendee from the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico. “The decrease in the snow melt is directly effecting my community’s gardens, fish hatchery and how much fresh water we get in our homes. Seeing that change makes me feel sad, but after the congress I feel like I can have a discussion with my friends and educate my community in making a difference.”
The Inter-Tribal Youth Climate Leadership Congress and the Sampson Brothers join for a group photo to celebrate their climate change research. Photo by Alejandro Morales/USFWS
The congress celebrated their hard work with an inspirational hoop dance performance from the Sampson Brothers of the Muscogee Creek and Seneca Nations. A contemporary cultural gathering topped off the congress with students and mentors teaching one another about their culture and traditions - from regalia to dances to games.
This event was made possible by the following federal agencies working together to create a place for Native youth to gather and learn from one another: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, U.S Forest Service and U.S. Geological Survey.