The Unjust Impact of Climate Change on Indigenous People

We recognize that we work on the traditional land of the Lenape Peoples past, present, and future. We wish to honor both the land itself and the people who care for it.

As a brand passionate about protecting the planet, climate change is an issue we care deeply about. An important part of the discussion around climate change is how it disproportionately impacts different groups. In the United States, the Indigenous tribes across the country (who have lived on this land long before it was colonized by Europeans) are one of the most affected groups. Many were forced to live in undesirable areas by white settlers; this was then reinforced by the reservation system which was created in the 19th century. Today, many Indigenous groups find themselves faced with the challenge of relocating from these locations as climate change has made them almost inhabitable. Below, we amplify the story of two groups.

The Yup’ik People of Alaska

For thousands of years, the Yup’ik people of Alaska lived a nomadic lifestyle, traveling seasonally to hunt and gather. That ended in 1949 when the Bureau of Indian Affairs created a school in the village of Newtok without first consulting the community, forcing many to settle there.

As well as upending the traditional way of life, living year-round in Newtok also placed Yup’ik people at the forefront of climate change’s impact. Rising temperatures have led to the thawing of permafrost and an increase in storm surges which, in turn, has caused erosion to accelerate, roads and buildings to buckle, and the release of even more greenhouse gasses. 

And because of the village’s temporary status, the government has been unwilling to invest in infrastructure. Many residents have lived without plumbing for decades which has led to health problems. As Mary Peltola, a Yup’ik woman who holds Alaska’s seat in the House of Representatives, puts it, “We are living with the effects of climate change; where I’m from, the effects are devastating.”

In 2003, Congress finally agreed to establish a new village called Mertarvik, located about 10 miles east of Newtok on higher, volcanic ground. In 2019, about a third of Newtok’s residents made the move to Mertarvik, making the Yup’ik people one of the first in the United States’ first climate change transplants.

But this move has been anything but easy. According to a 2021 report, only 21 homes had been built so far, while a recent news story reports that two-thirds of Newtok’s population have yet to relocate to Mertarvik. This has meant the Yup’ik have had to split resources like tribal officials and teachers between two locations. Earlier this year, the Newtok Village Council explained they would need more funding to be able to complete the move. 

The Quileute People of Washington 

Historically, the Quileute people of Washington hunted fish and game for hundreds of miles along the Olympic Peninsula. However, an 1855 treaty stripped the tribe of most land and confined them to just one square mile of land, all of it on the beachfront and exposed to flooding. Because of this, the Quileute were forced to locate many crucial resources in tsunami and flood hazard zones.

In 2012, after almost 50 years of the Quileute people fighting for what was rightfully theirs, the federal government returned hundreds of acres of Olympic National Park land to the Tribe. Since then, they have established Move to Higher Ground, a project for relocating the community to safer areas of land beyond the reach of rising sea levels.

The project’s first priority was relocating the Quileute Tribal school to the new Upper Village and, excitingly, this was completed in August 2022!

While this progress is certainly positive, relocating other facilities and homes will be challenging as moving expenses were not included in the government’s 2012 land grant. Additionally, those associated with the Twilight franchise (which used creative liberties to depict the Quileute Tribe without consent or compensation) have not offered to contribute funding. Like the Yup’ik, this leaves the Quileute to seek alternative sources.

While we adapt to our changing environment, we need national leadership that prioritizes solutions as large as the problem we face

What Can Be Done?

Firstly, we can all do our part to address the root cause of this issue; climate change. We believe shopping consciously and listening to Native people’s vast amount of environmental knowledge and experience can help us live more sustainably. 

On a larger scale, using your voice and your vote is vital. As Mary Peltola says, “While we adapt to our changing environment, we need national leadership that prioritizes solutions as large as the problem we face.” Stay informed of the issues and initiatives, and be prepared to sign petitions, write to your representatives, discuss matters with friends and family members, and spread awareness on social media. Vote for candidates who care about combating climate change and are dedicated to supporting Indigenous peoples through climate change transitions. These steps can help build a government that supports those who need it; as it stands, a New York Times review of government data revealed the federal government is less likely to help Native communities recover from extreme weather or help protect them against future calamities than non-Native communities. This must change.

You can also follow and contribute directly to the projects mentioned in this article (Relocate Newtok and Move to Higher Ground), as well as similar efforts local to you. Learning more about the land you live on is a great place to start. 

Furthermore, you can support Land Back, a movement that calls for the return of Indigenous lands to Indigenous people. As educator Deanne Hupfield explains, in Canada, just “10-15% of a land base is all First Nation communities need to sustain our culture, language, and governance”. In the United States, we’ve already seen progress with cities like Oakland, California returning land to Indigenous people. Change is possible and, together, we can create even more.