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A recent, seven-year-long study co-written by Kyle Whyte, a professor in the University of Michigan’s School of Environment and Sustainability, found that Indigenous people are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to their loss of historical lands. 

The study’s conclusion supports what Indigenous leaders have been emphasizing for years: that the United States’ government has not addressed the land dispossession and suppression of Indigenous territorial governance. 

The study found that since 1492, when Europeans began to arrive in large numbers to the continent, Indigenous nations have lost about 98.9% of their land. As a result, more than 40% of tribes now possess no federally recognized land.

It has been widely documented in the U.S. that Indigenous people and tribal nations are more severely threatened by different climate change impacts, such as coastal erosion, extreme weather events and droughts, than other communities, Whyte said. 

“There is an assumption that the reason why Indigenous people are so vulnerable to climate change is that they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and living in places that happen to be more susceptible to these types of impacts,” Whyte said. “Rather, their land base has been reduced and the United States actually moved tribal nations into smaller, or in some cases farther away, territories.” 

Whyte explained that the lands the U.S. government deliberately forced Indigenous people to live on are more vulnerable to climate change than where they previously lived.

Zoi Crampton, co-chair of the U-M Native American Student Association, agreed that the government has intentionally colonized Indigenous people by putting them on reservations and displacing them from their homelands. 

“My opinion on colonization, how this country was founded and how Indigenous people have been treated from the very beginning is that we have gone through genocides and displacement, where every move that has been made for us has actually been made against us,” Crampton said. “It is important to try and combat that in a way that is beneficial for future generations, so they do not have to deal with what we have had to deal with in the past.” 

Robin Beck, curator of Eastern North American archaeology at the U-M Museum of Anthropological Archaeology and an anthropology professor, wrote in an email to The Michigan Daily that Native American communities and Indigenous people are more likely to be subjected to the effects of climate change. 

“On the whole, Indigenous peoples are disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because colonial practices forced so many to cede their ancestral homelands and relocate to more marginal and less productive parts of the modern landscape,” Beck wrote. “As climate change unfolds, particularly in areas susceptible to drought and extreme heat, these places and the peoples who live there will bear the brunt of its effects.”

Beck wrote the findings of this study help grasp the scale of dispossession that’s taken place since 1492 and the consequences of climate change for displaced Indigenous peoples.

“In a little more than five centuries, Native peoples across the Americas were dispossessed of an area that amounts to more than a quarter of the world’s land surface,” Beck wrote. “In just a few hundred years, they lost an area that took their ancestors 20,000 years or more to settle. This is the most significant and far-reaching demographic shift in the history of the human species, one with consequences we’re still grappling with today.”

The findings of this study are relevant to NASA’s work at the University, according to Crampton. Crampton said she has observed the direct impact of climate change on Indigenous communities, saying climate change effects longstanding traditions.

“It’s interesting to me, because it’s not just losing those plants or those species, but it’s also losing certain ways of knowledge and traditions,” Crampton said. “As the landscape is changing, we are going to have to change our teachings and ways of understanding.”

Aside from affecting Indigenous traditions and teachings, climate change also negatively impacts the self-governance of tribal nations. According to Whyte, as tribal nations engage in self-governance, one of the most concerning issues they face is the threat of climate change to their economies, culture and capacity to protect their communities. 

Two of the key aspects that influence adaptability to climate change are the size of a landbase and the resources present to make that landbase more resilient to climate change. 

“This study shows that the U.S. needs to work more collaboratively with tribal nations, to both think about how to expand the land base and adapt to climate change, but also how to further empower tribes with resources to build up the ecosystems and habitats to be more resilient,” Whyte said. 

The findings of this study offer room for further research on how forced migration and climate change affect the health and education of Indigenous people, Whyte said. According to Whyte, Indigenous people understand the different causes of health inequities they face and have been telling these stories for many generations. 

“I think this project is an example of a way to tell those stories using quantitative information,” Whyte said. “I think the study should excite other people who not only have an interest in quantitative data and large datasets, but also who are interested in addressing the native stories that scientists oftentimes have not focused on.”

Daily News Contributor Ellie Geib can be reached at egeib@umich.edu.