ASU's Indian Legal Program hosts panel on climate impacts on tribal heritage
December 15, 2017
Aaron J. Tohtsoni
Gila River Indian News
On the eve of the community Water Rights Day celebration, Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis was invited to be on a panel at Arizona State University discussing climate justice as part of a conference sponsored by Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law’s Indian Legal Program with the topic “Cultures Under Water: Climate Impacts on Tribal Cultural Heritage.”
Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, Faculty Director of the Indian Legal Program, Brenda Ekwurzel, Director of Climate Science, Union of Concerned Scientists, Robert Hershey, Professor Emeritus, Indigenous Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona and Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network joined Gov. Lewis on the panel.
The panel focused on the issues of climate justice in Native American communities throughout the United States and Canada. Each panelist brought their area of expertise to show how climate change is having many negative effects on Native American communities.
“It was great to be a part of a panel with the subject matter experts, top activists, scientists and attorneys,” said Gov. Lewis of the opportunity to be on the panel. “It was great for Gila River to tell our story on this panel that really enforced all of these critical issues addressing climate change and climate adaptation that this whole conference is focusing on.”
Climate change has an effect on Native American communities in a variety of ways. In the Gila River Indian Community, the obvious change comes in the lack of water available, something completely different from the days of the GRIC ancestors.
Before the success of the Gila River Gaming Enterprises, Gov. Lewis pointed out to the audience that GRIC members were humble people earning their living as farmers. Stating that the Akimel O’otham and Pee Posh people have always had a connection to the land, not just the modern-day reservation but to the indigenous homeland.
In present day, Gov. Lewis points to the construction of the Loop 202 freeway through South Mountain as cultural and environmental degradation while saving just a few minutes of daily commutes. The land and ecosystem of animals are going to be altered or destroyed.
“Climate justice is very important,” said Gov. Lewis. “It has to do with respecting and recognizing our sovereignty. It goes back to the vigilance and protection of our water settlement, our water rights and protection of our natural resources.”
As a tribal leader, Gov. Lewis reminded those in attendance that each community is not the same and that there are no cookie-cutter issues when it comes to climate issues. Urging, that each tribe and communities need to look at their culture and history to see how to address issues. He advised the audience that the ancestral answers lay in the community and that the teachings will help sustain the issues.
Gov. Lewis also discussed the ways that GRIC is addressing the issues.
“It’s an exciting time but also a challenging time,” said Gov. Lewis. “It’s an exciting time because we are going to be looking at, with our various departments, addressing climate change on a wide scale, across the community. We are going to start engaging our community members, our young people and our elders, to provide an education and outreach to reestablish that as O’otham and Pee Posh people we were always good stewards of the land.”
The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will be playing a big role moving forward as GRIC addresses climate change issues. Air quality is also something that Gov. Lewis said needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.
“We have so many resources across the community,” said Gov. Lewis. “We need to bring all of our assets across the community together to address these issues and work collectively together to start to look at solutions and look at a plan for the future.”
The panel all believe that the necessary adaptation and changes will start with the community youth. They believe that the youth should continue to attend school and get the proper education needed to come back to their communities and address the many issues facing Indian country.