The climate crisis is threatening traditional ways of life throughout Indian Country. Now, tribal leaders and scientists are working together to help reservations become more climate resilient.
Daniel Mosley is the executive director of fisheries for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in northern Nevada. He says with extended droughts, the water levels of the lake drop significantly, which changes the water chemistry. That makes it harder for important cultural species like the Lahontan cutthroat trout to thrive. The fish is currently threatened and Pyramid Lake is one of its few natural homes.
"We’re trying to figure out, 'Why are our fish getting smaller?' But then we came to realize it was because of the drought and the TDS (total dissolved solids) and the water chemistry," Mosley said. "It all affected the fish."
He's talking about the prolonged drought that lasted for much of the last decade across the Great Basin. Mosley says the impacts from climate change are not only hurting the quality of lake, but also traditional ways of life.
"These extended droughts, and the fires and the invasive weeds, the plants that are coming in are causing fires, all those things, they affect our people," he said.
Mosley says in drought years, Pyramid Lake’s water level can drop up to four feet, which can make it more difficult to sustain healthy trout populations and the minnows the fish depend on for food. He says the tribe now has their own reservoir upstream that they can pull from for fish spawning, but that only came about through decades-long litigation.
"It’s a long, long-term through generations," he said. "We started this in the 1940s, the tribe started this in the 1940s. So, many generations."
It’s issues like this that led to the creation of Native Waters on Arid Lands, a soon-to-end five-year project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its goal is to create more climate resiliency on reservations by helping tribes make use of climate data.
The project recently held a two-day tribal summit in Reno, Nev., where tribal members, scientists and academics met to come up with some ideas and solutions to the climate change problem on reservations.
After an introductory panel, an older man with long, graying hair and a faded denim jacket delivers an impromptu address to the crowd. His name is Chili Yazzie, and he's a member of the Navajo Nation.
"We’re talking about native waters, but we’ve just seen our white brothers and sisters up here. I'm at a loss there," he said. "Our concern is that science, technology, Western society feel they may have the answers to what this great dilemma we are confronted with. The indigenous perspective as I have tried to portray here must be at the table, because we do have that critical answer."
Yazzie believes native wisdom, known as traditional knowledge, is the answer to the climate crisis.
Helen Fillmore agrees, but says Western science also has a role. She’s a hydrologist with the Native Waters on Arid Lands project and a member of the Washoe Tribe near Lake Tahoe.
"Our communities have been in the same areas for thousands of years, so they have knowledge of the local environment from those lessons, those experiences," Fillmore said.
Della John, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, offers an example.
"If you have a fire, they [the Bureau of Land Management] say, 'Get them off of there. Get those cows off there right now.' But that's the wrong thing to do, because when the first rains come, there's going to be erosion and everything's going to run away. But if you have little hoof prints in the ground, the water's going to collect there," John said.
But, Helen Fillmore says over time, some traditions have been forgotten.
"There are things that we don’t remember in our communities. We don’t remember how to do prescribed burns," she said. "So we have to kind of get training on that in a way."
The summit provides plenty of training on new skills and technology, including a hands-on solar panel workshop hosted by University of Arizona Professor Ed Franklin.
"We’re going to look at these systems here, trying to figure out what’s going on. And then I want you to work with some tools here," Franklin said to the dozen or so tribal members in attendance. "So if you say, ‘Hey, Franklin sold me on this idea that I want to have solar, so if I go out and get panels, what am I looking for?’"
It’s this collaboration and this merging of western science with traditional knowledge that Helen Fillmore hopes can make a difference for the next generation, including her 11 nieces and nephews.
"I don’t want to leave them with a world where they can’t have access to the things that make our life and our culture so beautiful. And I don’t want to be one of those people who took that away from them. So I think it’s important to me to do what I can within my lifetime to give that to them," she said.
Native Waters on Arid Lands is wrapping up its five-year project cycle. Officials with the program say the next step is to create hyper-localized solutions and workshops for tribal communities across the region.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe's upstream reservoir was used for irrigation and fish spawning. It's only used for fish spawning. The audio and text has been corrected.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.