24 April, 2018

GUEST BLOG: What does climate change mean for the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians?

Stephanie Dooper, Sarah Swanz, Katie Proudman, Adam Osielski, Ansha Zaman

Climate change related non-economic losses are an important dimension of the Loss and Damage debate under the UNFCCC. This encompasses the loss of lives, of homes, livelihoods and traditions, in other words: losses that are not easily quantified and that most people would not want to put a monetary value. This guest blog illustrates what a community can perceive as non-economic losses and what it undertakes to deal with them – in this case Chippewa Indians from Bad River Bend of Lake Superior in northern US.
The natural landscape is the foundation of the Bad River Band spirituality and traditional values.

Guest blog by young researchers from the University of Michigan

What do we mean when we talk about loss and damage from climate change? Economic assets, bridges, houses and crops? Yes, but not only. An important dimension of the loss and damage debate under the UNFCCC has been the area of so-called non-economic losses. This means loss of lives, of homes, livelihoods and traditions, in other words: losses that are not easily quantified and that most people would not want to put a monetary value. The issue of culture loss has been studied in different contexts, for example nuclear weapons testing in the Marshal Islands.

Over recent years, literature on observed non-economic losses from climate change (e.g. here) and the need for adequate solutions (e.g. here and here) has also increased. Under the WIM, an expert group on non-economic losses has been established to draft recommendations on how to avert, minimize and address non-economic losses.In this guest blog, a group of young researchers from the University of Michigan share their insights into how the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians perceive and cope with non-economic loss from climate change.

For most people, the effects of climate change are not readily seen. Because many of the impacts are so gradual, communities often struggle to assess these potential impacts and discover ways to combat them. But for a community on the shores of Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin, the impacts are already there.

To capture these insights, stories and experiences, our research team—a group of interdisciplinary graduate students from the University of Michigan—partnered with the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribe in the summer of 2017. Not only were we graciously welcomed by the community, but we were in awe of the tribe’s connection to the land, their reciprocity to their surroundings, and their resiliency in the face of change.

The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians is a federally-recognized Native American tribe with approximately 8,000 registered members, including about 1,700 members living on the reservation. They are part of the much larger Lake Superior Ojibwe group of over in the United States and Canada and are related to the Anishinaabe group of North American indigenous peoples that also includes the Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Algonquin peoples. They are part of the Anishinaabe group of North American indigenous peoples that also includes the Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Algonquin peoples.

Through our partnership with the Bad River Band, we heard countless stories about their stewardship and connection to their land. Their natural landscape and resources are the foundation through which they practice their spirituality, maintain their culture, and carry on traditional values. Practices such as harvesting wild rice, fishing for walleye, and tapping for maple sugar are integral aspects of who they are as Ojibwe people.

With each of our interviews with tribal members, we asked about the importance of wild rice, a sacred and staple food for the tribe. Wild rice (manoomin) is at the foundation of this communities’ spirituality and culture and is one of the signs that were given to their people in dreams and visions on the migration journey that indicates why the Ojibwe people settled in the Great Lakes region. Wild rice therefore represents not only a food source for tribal members, but also a deep and profound connection to the land, and to their native ancestry. As one tribal member stated, to lose this crop would be “economically devastating, spiritually devastating, and emotionally devastating”.

Furthermore, much of their language is tied to these cultural practices. In reflecting on this, one tribal member said, “Because a lot of the language, the roots are tied to describing that plant or that animal or that part of nature that connects that person to that thing or activity. So, if that plant is gone, or if that tree is gone, or if that species is gone, then what does that mean for the word and then what does that mean for the language and then how do we connect to nature?” These are just two of many examples that showcase how the losses incurred by climate change can threaten the culture of this community.

Overall, these non-economic impacts and experiences of loss and damage are quickly approaching for the Bad River Band, and for many other communities as well. On the reservation and surrounding areas, there are changing lake levels, more frequent and intense storms, and vector-borne diseases that could affect coastal habitats and result in loss of wild rice beds, loss of breeding and nursery areas for fish, and loss of habitat and food for migratory birds.

Increased water temperatures result in a reduction of cold water fish, such as the walleye, and the warm water brings invasive species, such as the sea lamprey. Higher air temperature and changes in precipitation patterns could affect upland habitats and may cause the replacement of tree species, such as birch and maple, by tree species from forests further south. All of these changes will drastically affect this community and cannot be replaced. As noted by a tribal elder, trying to evaluate their environmental resources or wild rice in dollars and cents is not even a legitimate conversation, “because it concerns a lot more: our culture, our lifestyle, our spirituality. So, it’s priceless. We can’t put a price on it. We won’t. It’s not for sale.”

However, we learnt that non-economic values can also be a source of resilience. Our research revealed that this community takes a different approach from normative natural resource management practices with respect to invasive species. Non-native species are considered gifts from the Creator that have an important purpose. Rather than pulling up non-native cattails that threaten the wild rice beds, for example, the community has explored other ways of using the cattails either as a food source or craft time or as a sentinel species warning of the fragility of the rice beds. In this way, research into non-economic losses can be a tool to reduce miscommunication by showing that a failure to remove cattails to save the rice beds is not caused by ignorance or indifference, but is due to a different view of the role of non-native species.

Although we did not explore this with our partners, it is possible that by integrating non-native species into the community’s stories about its surroundings, the changes in the environment are given meaning and therefore, these changes may not be experienced as a loss at all. Such productive engagement with change should be further studied and, where needed and possible, facilitated.