Part 3 of a 4-part Primer on Disaster Collectivism in the Climate and Pandemic Crises.
From the perspectives of Indigenous nations, the crises of 2020 have not been something entirely new, or even a significant historical departure from “normal.” Having previously experienced the ravages of violent colonialism, pandemics, environmental catastrophe, and forced assimilation, the current era has long been a dystopia for Native peoples. The Dakota scholar Kim TallBear described 2020 not as an unprecedented apocalypse, or an exception to normalized “progress” in the settler colonial empire, but rather as “a sharpening of the already present.”
Ann Marie Chischilly, the Diné executive director of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, pointed to previous Indigenous experience with environmental disruptions and pandemics when she said “Resilience is in our DNA.” This meeting of history and present-day realities enables Indigenous peoples to have deeper perspectives on existential crises, and to envision and create innovative paths out of these crises.
Pacific Northwest Native nations face the climate crisis
In the Pacific Northwest, Indigenous nations are among the most proactive and prepared communities in emergency planning and climate change adaptation, providing models for non-Native communities to follow. The region is facing drastic changes in seasonal weather patterns. No single weather event can be linked to climate change, as any climate scientist will point out, but the process is intensifying extremes. In the winter months, strong windstorms have knocked out power for days, floods have cut the interstate and rail connections between major cities, and rare blizzards and ice storms have become more intense and commonplace.
In the spring months, heavy rains have caused landslides, such as the 2014 Oso mudslide disaster. In the summer, the drier region east of the Cascade Range has seen some of the largest wildfires in recorded history, choking the region with smoke, and fires are even ravaging parts of the coastal rainforest. The massive West Coast wildfires of 2020 could be tied directly to warmer temperatures and prolonged dry conditions. Autumn rains are sometimes not enough to compensate for summer droughts, adversely affecting the life cycle of salmon, the region’s keystone species.
The Pacific Northwest coast is particularly vulnerable to rising seas. Tribal and local governments need to build and retain wave barriers, prevent shoreline erosion, and build new homes and infrastructure above the floodplains. Several Washington tribes have gained federal support to relocate their coastal housing and service centers out of coastal lowlands to higher ground. Washington coastal tribes are also conducting evacuation drills that have been more efficient than in relatively unprepared non-Native communities.
Part of the reason is the threat of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and tsunami that would devastate coastal communities, and another part is climate change-linked sea-level rise that makes the effects of tsunamis, storm surges, or coastal flooding much worse. Displacement and relocation of coastal Native communities impacted by climate change has already occurred in Alaska and Louisiana. Climate-related resettlement is also underway in countries such as varied as China, Vietnam, Mozambique, and Papua New Guinea.
The tiny Quileute Reservation is moving tribal structures and a school in La Push to higher ground, out of the path of tsunamis, like the ones that struck the West Coast in 1964 and 2011. Congress passed a 2012 bill to allow the transfer of land from the Olympic National Park to Quileute, enabling the tribe to begin to build new housing and a school on higher ground. The Hoh tribe has also acquired higher land from neighboring governments to move housing and government offices, through a 2010 congressional bill. The Quinault village of Taholah has seen its seawall breached during major storms, flooding its lower village, so is in the process of planning to construct an entirely new upper village. (Our Catastrophe class visited both Quinault and Quileute.) The Makah and Lower Elwha Klallam tribes are similarly planning to shift new housing to higher ground.
Disaster resilience can cut across cultural divides, with the crisis forcing Native and non-Native neighbors to acknowledge their mutual humanity and dependency. My 2017 book Unlikely Alliances: Native Nations and White Communities Join to Defend Rural Lands showed how Indigenous peoples and their rural white neighbors (farmers, ranches, and fishers) battled over treaty rights to natural resources such as fish and water. But when faced with an outside threat to those same natural treasures, such as mining, energy, or military projects, the adversaries came together to protect the same resources they had fought over, and formed groups such as the Cowboy Indian Alliance.
In some areas of the country (such as the Pacific Northwest) these “unlikely alliances” have also been protected their watersheds by strengthening climate resilience, and tribes have used their sovereignty to protect their elders’ health in the pandemic. Disaster planning and response affords an additional opportunity to build bridges between tribal and local governments, because when a landslide or pandemic isolates both communities from the rest of the society, they only have each other to rely upon.
Many tribal governments are sharing emergency equipment (such as fire trucks) with non-Native governments, and opening shelters to non-Native neighbors in need after landslides, wildfires, or floods. After the Oso mudslide, which took 43 lives, the Snoqualmie Tribe opened a shelter to the public, and donated $270,000 to relief efforts. (Tulalip Tribes scientists had warned the state of the possibility of the landslide, but their warnings were not heeded.) The Shoalwater Bay tribe has received federal funding to construct the country’s first tsunami platform tower, for tribal and nontribal residents to quickly evacuate out of harm’s way in the vulnerable coastal village. Pacific Northwest tribal government have established disaster planning and response partnerships with other governments, through the National Tribal Emergency Management Council (NTEMC).
Northwest tribes are working on climate change adaptation with local non-Native governments that usually oppose tribal sovereignty and water rights. The Swinomish Tribe was one of the first Native American nations to develop a climate change adaptation plan, which it called the Swinomish Climate Change Initiative. In developing the plan, the tribe worked closely with local non-Native governments in the Skagit Delta, and set up a community engagement group for tribal members to get involved in the adaptation planning process. Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby hoped the initiative could serve as a model for other Northwest tribes to account for climate change in their joint planning with their neighbors.
As another innovative example of planning ahead, the Nisqually Tribe signed an agreement with the City of Olympia in 2008 to switch their common drinking water source from McAllister Spring to a wellfield on higher ground. The proactive move, completed in 2015, avoids possible saltwater intrusion from sea-level rise and restores water flow to Medicine Creek, ironically the site of the signing of the 1854 Treaty. The sacred spring was returned to the tribe two years later.
Pacific Northwest tribal nations are not only taking the lead in disaster planning, but in proactively mitigating the climate crisis that is the source of many of the disasters. The Tulalip Tribes defused a long-standing source of conflict between dairy farmers and tribal fishers over cattle waste in the Snohomish watershed’s salmon streams by converting the waste into biogas energy. The Tulalip Tribes are exploring plans to store glacial and snowpack runoff to lessen spring floods and summer droughts that have been intensified by warming temperatures. Many of the tribes have also taken the lead in “unlikely alliances” with rural white communities in opposing new oil and coal port terminals, to protect their treaty fisheries, public health and safety, and global climate priorities.
The response of Northwest treaty tribes to salmon depletion and the climate crisis established a template for their response to the coronavirus pandemic, informed by tribal histories of epidemics brought by the colonizers. As the Seattle Times reported, “Tribal communities know death by pandemic. As history threatens to repeat …tribal communities are turning to their teachings and one another to protect themselves amid what they call a near total failure of federal resources to help, despite solemn promises in treaties. No one is waiting in these communities for someone else to come to the rescue. Response to the threat of the virus by tribal governments and health care providers has been swift and aggressive. Tribal governments are sovereign in their territory, with broad emergency powers — and they are using them.”
Tribal responses were swift after Washington became the first state with a reported case of coronavirus. The Lummi Nation established the state’s first field hospital. Native artists mobilized to secure masks for rural and urban Native communities. And coastal tribes such as the Quileute, Hoh, and Makah quickly isolated themselves from outsiders. As the Seattle Times reported about the Makah Nation in May 2020, “At the heart of the tribal council’s order was the urgency of protecting Makah elders, the community’s source of leadership and cultural continuity….It seems to be working: so far not a single case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has been reported on the reservation.”
The Makah approach to community resilience is similar to other Indigenous nations around the world. Other Native nations that were not as able to close their sovereign borders, such as the Diné (Navajo) Nation, were devastated by the coronavirus, and used the pandemic to fortify their resilience. As the Makah carver Greg Colfax said in the same article, “isolation has really been one of our great strengths. We carried the burden of having lost so many people. But we survived and we were able to thrive.”
Māori disaster resilience and hospitality traditions in Aotearoa New Zealand
The Māori, or the Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa New Zealand, prepare for and respond to disasters through cultural structures of manākitanga, or the tradition of hospitality. The pivot is the marae community, through which tangata whenua [people of the local land] host and care for others, including neighboring Māori, Pākehā (European settlers), Tauiwi (recent immigrants), and foreign visitors.
Marae communities care for neighbors and visitors in wharenui (sacred meeting houses) and wharekai (dining halls), hosting large events such as funerals, and have proven to be a particularly useful system in times of disaster. As Ahipara lawyer Catherine Murupaenga-Ikenn told me, “Whenever there’s an emergency, our first thought is, ‘Let’s all go to the marae!’” New Zealand’s National Disaster Resilience Strategy draft document includes a section on manākitanga and other Māori cultural values, and commits to the Crown obligations to Māori embedded in Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi).
After the 2011 Christchurch earthquake on the South Island, which killed 185 people, the homeless community accessed abandoned downtown luxury apartments and, in their words, began “living like kings.” Māori iwi (tribes) and hapū (subtribes) took a leading role in the response and recovery. The quake most deeply affected the Eastern Suburbs, with a large Māori population.
The Ngāi Tahu iwi, led by Sir Mark Solomon, led the relief efforts, based on the theme “Aroha nui ki te tangata” (love to all people), regardless of ethnicity. In the immediate aftermath of the quake, Ngāi Tahu representatives went door-to-door for eight days, asking about power, water, and food. One of these door-knockers who offered frozen fish and vegetables to an elderly white Pākehā woman, who burst into tears and exclaimed “It‘s the Māoris… that remember us. We haven‘t seen anyone since [the quake] happened!’”
Chairman Solomon told me in an interview, “Christchurch has always been known as the redneck center of the country. But there is a dramatic attitude change since that earthquake…. The farmers arrived in droves … And they spent the first fortnight digging [liquefaction] mud… it’s just opened so many doors, knocked down so many barriers.” At the same time, the Red Cross and Civil Defence came under his withering criticism for their slower, more bureaucratic responses, for example sending too many clothes, bedding, and perishable food, or not documenting which families were evacuating.
Solomon coordinated with the city’s large Asian communities, “because, like us, most of the people are at the bottom of the economic ladder,” and some couldn’t read English. One legacy of the bridges built after the quake from was seen in the aftermath of the 2019 terror attack on two mosques. Māori expressed solidarity with the Muslim community with a series of haka honor dances.
After the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake, also on the South Island, Solomon’s local tribal marae was instrumental in sheltering and feeding both the Māori and Pākehā communities. Volunteers fed 1.5 tonnes of crayfish to locals and stranded tourists, who were “absolutely overwhelmed” by the generosity. Solomon recalled, “anything that we had that was perishable at our fish factory, send it up to the marae….we served ten thousand meals in the first week. All food was donated… [S]ome of the biggest bigots … turned up with their cattle, their sheep, their food supplies, to help support the marae….[I]n a disaster, people really come together.”
But Solomon also described how the Red Cross confiscated two tribal food shipments and iPhones brought in by helicopter, adding “we actually asked the police to meet the [third] helicopter , and the police officer had to threaten to arrest the Red Cross person to stop them confiscating this food.”
Marae have also responded to major flood disasters, such as 2017 flood in Edgecumbe, in the Bay of Plenty region on the North Island. I twice visited Edgecumbe, and saw the low-lying mainly Māori neighborhood where 15 damaged homes were leveled after the flood. Marae in nearby towns sheltered many of the 1,600 people who had to evacuate their homes in the flood. Several residents contrasted the warm welcome they received at Rautahi Marae in Kawerau with the colder reception at the war memorial hall run by the district council, in a relief operation that was mired in red tape.
Edgecumbe Collective coordinator Vicky Richards described to me that “there are very few organizations that can cater for high capacity of numbers and as quick as a marae. Some of those that had never been on a marae before were amazed at the engrained efficiency, the kind welcome and support they received.” Marcus Matchitt and his sister Diane Maxwell explained that Rautahi Marae “made us feel welcome and warm….That’s the Māori way… they just opened up their heart and marae, put on beautiful feeds and clothes and access to the doctors.”
The people of Ngāti Awa iwi created the Ngāti Awa Volunteer Army (or NAVA), and invited the district council to send volunteers to join the tribal clean-up. Nearly 1,500 volunteers signed up for “the Team that Mucked In,” and checked on 333 homes. According to Tautini Hahipene of NAVA, “Manākitanga, it’s really helping everyone out. Māori and Pākehā do have it when it comes to disasters… Māori will always be there.”
Edgecumbe was a model for how an Indigenous community can recover from a disaster while extending the sense of community and unity. A recovery pod still provided services a year after to address Depression and PTSD. The community held a Whānau [Family] Day to help in the recovery effort months after the disaster, and two murals were unveiled to emphasize the humanity of the flood survivors. Kokohinau Marae near Te Toko built five homes in a papakainga (village) development for flood whānau, with 14 more homes planned. The community published a moving book to document its experiences in residents’ own voices. The Edgecumbe Collective, a network of local NGOs, developed a culturally centered plan for community recovery.
Another series of floods occurred in 2015 and 2017 on the North Island, around Whanganui, which I visited in 2019. In Whanganui’s first century as a city, floods occurred once every 14 years, but in the past three decades climate change has increased the rate to once every three years. In the Whanganui rohe (region), Māori make up about a quarter of the population, and more in rural areas. Māori had led the effort to have the Whanganui River legally recognized as a person in a 2017 declaration, to protect the water and reframe the human relationships around it.
Iwi and hapū played pivotal roles in the evacuation, relief, and communication during the floods, as part of the Pan-Iwi Civil Defence Partnership with the Whanganui District Council. Army veterans and Security Consultant Chris Kumeroa developed Marae Emergency Management Plans, with iwi and hapū liaisons. Many local residents were sheltered in Tupoho Marae, with room for about 40 beds. It also functioned as a Pan-Iwi Hub with Civil Defence, using radio communications, a coordination room, and access to the public on a bilingual Māori FM station.
Te Ao Hou Marae, also on higher ground, has been set up as a Civil Defence Center for future emergencies. It has room for 60 beds and medical facilities. Geoffrey Hipango told me, the “huge tribal network… will not sit back and idly watch. …. the old people used to say…about having a [food] basket….Everybody contributes to the basket ‘til it’s overflowing, and then … if everyone contributes, you’ll benefit from that.”
Tama Upoko leaders have developed extensive emergency plans for four isolated upriver marae. The project has made maps of all households, Civil Defence radios, and helicopter Landing Zones, and is setting up wi-fi hotspots. This is all information that Civil Defence has lacked, and begins to model a Pan-Iwi emergency response, based on data that tribes themselves control. As Māori disaster scholar Simon Lambert noted, outside agencies “can do their thing, but they should not be in charge. As guests they should ask permission and default to the mana whenua [local power of the land].”
Stories of Indigenous resilience flip the common depiction of Indigenous communities as the first and most deeply affected victims of disasters. Drawing from traumatic histories, Indigenous nations are also developing innovative models of preparing for and responding to emergencies. Leading Pākehā voices have acknowledged that Māori grieving rituals, such as those after the eruption of Whakaari (White Island) volcano in 2019, are “leading us through loss.” These stories also flip the “Native-peoples-as-dysfunctional” script, when clearly Māori responding to disasters have been far more functional than government or NGO agencies, and even local white Pākehā see their own safety and security are better protected by Indigenous authority.
Mike Smith, spokesperson of the Iwi Chairs Forum’s Climate Change Leaders Group, contrasted Indigenous models of disaster cooperation to the western “assumption that it’s every man for himself. So you stock up on food, build a bunker, arm yourself …Then …wait for the zombie apocalypse and smoke anybody who crosses your perimeter. That…speaks to the history of the pioneers… man against nature [and] Indigenous people… Everything’s a threat, you’re on your own.” But as Smith observed, most iwi have few resources: “We’re not silver bullets to those problems…. we shouldn’t overestimate our people’s capacity…[W]here indigenous people have an added advantage is that we do have a fully-woven social fabric… Get the weavers out to weave that web again.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, the Iwi Chairs Forum has played a leading role in preparing marae and urban Māori communities. Much like Pacific Northwest tribes, some iwi and hapū closed off their marae and territories to protect elders’ health. The Ministry of Health recalled the impacts of the 1918 and 2009 flu pandemics on Māori: “It is evident from previous pandemic responses that the business-as-usual model previously used preferentially benefited non-Māori and failed to protect whānau, hapū, iwi and Māori communities from the worst outcomes. It is critical that the specific needs of Māori, particularly equity and active protection, are integral to the health and disability response to COVID-19…. The principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi…provide the framework for how we will meet our obligations. These principles are applicable to the wider health and disability system, including the response to COVID-19.”
The Ojibwe Anishinaabe environmental leader Winona LaDuke recounted that her people “have a prophecy that a time will come when we have to choose between two paths: one scorched, one green. For those who choose the green path, a more peaceful era will follow — known as the Eighth Fire — in which the Anishinaabeg will return to our teaching of Mino Bimaatisiiwin, the Good Life. Mino Bimaatisiiwin is based on reciprocity, affirmation and reverence for the laws of Nature — quite a different value system from that of the Gross National Product…. As Dakota philosopher and poet John Trudell often says, first you have to ‘keep the beast out of the garden.’ I refer to the beast that’s destroying our collective garden as Wiindigo (cannibal) economics —the practice of extracting every last bit of oil just because you’ve got the technology to do it, ecosystems be damned. Killing Wiindigo economics is doable, but it will be a big job. We must work with the determination of people who actually intend to survive, and we must find the Achilles’ heels of the current system.”
LaDuke described how the Anishinaabe make decisions considering “the impact upon the seventh generation from now. This teaching can guide a life, a social movement and ultimately an economy. The essential elements of intergenerational equity involve renegotiating and restoring a relationship to ecological systems, to Mother Earth. It’s not just making sure that you can buy a solar cell-phone charger from Amazon. It means a restorative and regenerative economy. It also means justice — from a just transition for workers, to an interspecies, intergenerational and international justice.”
I remember hearing John Trudell state 40 years ago, at the 1980 Black Hills International Survival Gathering, “We have to learn to put up and deal with the hard times just like we enjoy the good times. We have to learn and understand that hard times are necessary for the good times to be here….We always had to struggle, so let’s not fool ourselves and try to make ourselves quit what we believe just because it’s going to be hard. Let’s struggle for a purpose. Let’s struggle for the freeing of the earth because only by freeing the earth, and those who would attack the earth, can we be free ourselves. It is the only way we can do it.”
This post was originally published on Radio Free.