“Mother Earth is in distress,” says Chief Donna Wolf Mother Abbott of the Nause-Waiwash Band of Indians in Dorchester County, Maryland (Pew 2022). “She’s out of balance.” Flowers are blooming earlier than normal, invasive species are overpowering native vegetation, and tides are higher than ever before. The lands Chief Abbott and her community have called home for many years are in danger, and the culprit lies in plain sight: sea level rise.
According to the 2022 Sea Level Rise Technical Report from the National Ocean Service, the sea level along the U.S. coastline is expected to rise 10 to 12 inches in the next 30 years. This is the same rise measured over the last 100 years. If we fail to reduce our future emissions, the sea level could rise as much as 7 feet by the end of the century.
The sea level rise has not only displaced many of the Nause-Waiwash from their homes, but also the species native to their lands. “Everything around us is part of our family,” says Chief Abbot. “We’re brothers and sisters to everything.” An integral member of their family is the native muskrat. For generations, muskrats have been a source of food, clothing, and tools, and have also played a crucial role in the health of their surrounding ecosystem. However, there has been a significant decline in the number of muskrats living on Chief Abbott’s lands over the past 40 to 50 years, and she doesn’t believe that the decline can be attributed completely to overtrapping. Rather, she believes that sea level rise, among other factors, could be contributing to the decline in the muskrat population.
“If we don’t do something soon, we’re going to lose all of our history,” warns Chief Abbott. Indigenous communities are intensely affected by climate change due to their deep connection to their ancestral homelands, experiencing what has become known as “ecological grief.” “Inuit are people of the sea ice. If there is no more sea ice, how can we be people of the sea ice?” laments one resident of Nain, a town in a self-governing Inuit region in Canada (Winerman 2019). However, not all hope is lost.
“If we listen to our surroundings, we could probably get Mother Earth back into balance,” says Chief Abbott. Through the Land Back movement, which advocates for indigenous control over the lands that were taken from them, indigenous communities are playing a key role in the restoration of our planet.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that the key to restoration is preserving what you still have. Only then will you have a baseline to restore what has been destroyed,” says Dune Lankard in an ABC News segment about the Land Back movement. Lankard is the founder of the Native Conservancy, a non-profit organization that aims to preserve the homelands of the Alaska Native peoples.
Through the Land Back movement, native people are fighting back against climate change using methods that have existed for centuries. For instance, the Native Conservancy farms kelp. Kelp can be turned into products such as biofuels and bioplastics, and can also help with carbon sequestration due to the natural process of photosynthesis, which captures carbon dioxide and prevents it from warming the atmosphere. “Kelp is the hemp of the sea,” says Lankard.
One thing is clear; indigenous communities have the knowledge and skills needed to preserve and restore our planet, and it’s important that we let them lead the way. “The Earth is in crisis right now, and people need the knowledge that we have,” says Chief Anne Richardson of the Rappahannock tribe in the ABC News segment.