Mike Williams, First Stewards Board member, talks about Climate Change and its culture-changing impacts to the native communities of Alaska.
Even if you were one of the most respected global warming skeptics in the world, it would be difficult to look Mike Williams in the eyes and tell him that our climate is not changing. As an Yupiaq from the small village of Akiak on the lower Kuskokwim River in Western Alaska, Mike can tell you first hand that climate change is swiftly taking over the lives of his people and that the strength and scope of the effects are on the rise.
This year at the Iditarod, his 15th year of being involved, Mike knows that immediate effects of climate change were felt this year at the race by the lack of snow on most of the terrain. This year Mike observed the race while his son, Mike Jr., raced. Mike passionately speaks about the amount of injuries caused by the rough terrain that would have been smoother if Alaska had its usual snowfall on the race trail. With disappointment thick in his voice, Mike said that many mushers had to quit the race due to "broken sleds and broken spirits".
The mainstream press has covered this year's Iditarod race and a little about how the lack of snow had an impact. But when you talk with Mike, he will tell you that not only was the race itself affected, but that this year's unusually warm weather also impacted their ability to train for the race. "We trained in ice and it rained most of the time and we only had half a day of good snow." Mike recounted. "All winter long back in Southwest Alaska, in our home, it was the worst training conditions we have seen." Mike pauses to think. "The ice was thin and we could not set our fish traps underneath the ice as was usual." For training leading up to the great race they have to set the traps to catch their lush fish, used for mush training, and this year they had to be very careful setting their traps because of the hazardous conditions. In Mike's village, they finally had some colder weather in December and were able to set their traps.
Now it's the beginning of May. "Right now its spring and the ice is the thinnest it has ever been and it is dangerous to go out hunting and it's negatively affected our way life, our subsistence way of life. Our people are suffering for it. We are anticipating some erosion due to lack of permafrost and its continuously thawing. If we don't have normal winters anymore…" Here Mike pauses again and you can tell the thought of endless warm winters unsettles him. "We really wanted to have the severe snow storms that happened back in the Mideast, we needed that snow up here."
Mike Williams is also a founding Board member of First Stewards. First Stewards is an indigenous-led nonprofit with the hope that bringing indigenous peoples together to tell their stories will bring to light the immediate, and at times culturally catastrophic, effects of climate change. First Stewards' 2nd Symposium will be held in Washington D.C. July 21-23, 2014.
The 2012 First Stewards Symposium, a biennial event, highlighted that the effects of climate change on indigenous coastal cultures were manifesting in a similar fashion to one another, despite the vast distances between peoples and oceans. From the rising sea levels in the Pacific Islands, to the Washington coast where melting low-elevation glaciers are threatening iconic salmon runs with the threat of reduced flows and elevated river temperatures, climate change is severely impacting the livelihood and culture of indigenous people.
Included in the 2012 event was the tradition of witnesses bearing testimony to pass on to the next generation. Witnesses Clarita Lefthand-Begay, Kalei Nu'uhiwa, Ted Herrera, and Nelson Kanuk emphasized the desires of all indigenous people to protect sacred information and traditions, while still sharing those things that will help all people adapt and prepare for the changes that have begun as a result of climate change. A full recount from the 2012 witness report can be found here: http://www.firststewards.org/2012-witness-report.html
The use of traditional ecological knowledge to create traditional environmental adaptive methodologies is imperative not only for indigenous cultures, but also for the people of the world who have distanced themselves from understanding the ecological changes around them.
First Stewards Chairman Micah McCarty outlined the 2014 Symposium goals: "This year the Symposium hopes to address research and education gaps so that actions may begin now, and in the future, as we understand more about what is happening to our natural systems. We want Native Nations and all indigenous communities to be considered in all policy making related to climate change put forth by the current administration."
With the recent release of the third National Climate Assessment, First Stewards is hopeful that the current administration is going to take action on this issue that will eventually affect us all.
Mike Williams sees the creation of First Stewards and the 2014 Symposium as a crucial action step. "The tribal indigenous people of the world must get to together and talk about these impacts. A lot of the communities in coastal areas are falling into the ocean and into the sea and are thinking about moving. And I think the indigenous people of the north and all over the continent and the world must tell their story and there must be adaptation and mitigation plans to address these issues. The governments must listen and take action, particularly in the United States. The U.S. Congress must act and no longer deny that climate change is happening. It is affecting us in Alaska and affecting our economic stability. It is affecting us in many different ways. My message is that our leadership must locally, statewide, nationally and internationally address this issue before it is too late."
Jennifer Whitener Ulrich
First Stewards Mission:
First Stewards Inc. seeks to unite indigenous voices to collaboratively advance adaptive climate change strategies to sustain and secure our cultures and strengthen America's resiliency and ability to adapt to climate change by holding symposia, and cultivating sustainable projects and educational opportunities within indigenous communities.
First Stewards 2014 Symposium:
United Indigenous Voices Address Sustainability: Climate Change & Traditional Places
Washington, D.C., from July 21-23, 2014.
Our major goals for this symposium are threefold:
• Promote and discuss how our Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) becomes a stronger part of the climate change conversation;
• Explore how we as indigenous peoples can unite to have a stronger voice since our communities will disproportionately feel the impacts of climate change; and
• Plan how our youth can be promoted to take the lead on this conversation in the future.
This year's Symposium is taking place July 21 to 23, 2014, in Washington, D.C. at the Holiday Inn Washington-Capitol with an opening reception on the evening of Monday, July 21 at the National Museum of the American Indian. The symposium is hosted by First Stewards with support from the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, the National Museum of the American Indian, Salmon Defense, Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe, National Park Service, Quiluete Tribe and other partners.
At the First Stewards Symposium, over 300 industry and policy leaders from around the nation will discuss four main themes generated from the 2012 First Stewards Symposium that address issues common within indigenous communities:
1) Culture and Food Security;
2) Recognizing Rights and Responsibilities;
3) Traditional Natural Resource Management Practices; and
4) Cultural Resource Damage Assessments.
Mike Williams Bio:
Michael Williams is a Yupiaq from the small village of Akiak on the lower Kuskokwim River in Western Alaska. He grew up in a traditional subsistence household and was taught by his father, mother, grandmother, and grandfather. Mike graduated from the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon and served in South Korea as a member of the U.S. Army. He then studied at the University of Alaska, Kuskokwim Campus while working full time as a Mental Health Counselor. He and his wife, Maggie, later moved to Akiak and raised five children. Mike is currently the Chief of the Yupiit Nation; Secretary/Treasurer of the Akiak Native Community; a Board Member of the Institute for Tribal Governments at Portland State University; a Board Member of National Tribal Environmental Council; Vice Chairman of the Yupiit School District; and a Board Member of the Rural Community Action Program. In addition, he is a former Board Member of the Native American Rights Fund, a former NCAI Regional Vice President, former Chairman of the Association of Village Council Presidents, and the former Vice President of Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. As part of his commitment to community and tribal sovereignty, Mike has testified in front of Congress on climate change. He currently works as a Wellness Counselor for his village and he is also an avid Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race competitor.
To Contact Mike Williams: