2017 is the Year of Climate Change and Health, a 12-month APHA-led initiative with monthly themes related to the health impacts of climate change. November’s focus is on Tribal and Indigenous Health, and today’s guest blogger is Emily York, MPH, who leads the State of Oregon’s Climate and Health Program. York chairs the Oregon Public Health Association’s Healthy Environment section and is a co-author of the forthcoming National Climate Assessment Report.

emily-york_oregonMore than ever before, we can point to the links between climate change and our health. It threatens our access to clean air, clean water and healthy food. And while all of us are at risk, some communities are more affected than others.

Those of us in public health know all too well that communities of color and low-income communities already bear a disproportionate burden of disease. Climate change will make these health disparities worse. People already struggling to stay well will face even more stress. Communities hit first and worst by climate change are the communities with the fewest resources to cope, recover and adapt.

American Indians are on the front lines of climate change. Climate change threatens tribes’ subsistence, ways of life, local economies, cultural survivability, rights, land ownership and access to resources. These risks are compounded by existing inequities in income and health, and by a long history of trauma and exclusion.

Major concerns include traditional foods, referred to as “first foods,” and food security — and the impacts climate change will have on already disturbed patterns of hunting, fishing and harvesting. We heard these perspectives first-hand during a storytelling workshop we did in partnership with members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Oregon. The Oregon Climate and Health Program collaborated with tribal members and StoryCenter this past spring to digitize climate and health perspectives.

Tribal members shared stories of how climate change is already affecting their lives on the reservation. Danny Martinez talks about his lifelong relationship with salmon in his story, “Cycle of Life.” He notes how warming waters and shifting river patterns are threatening salmon runs throughout the Northwest. Neal Morning Owl talks about the “Changing Seasons” and how climate change is affecting traditional berry harvests and tribal ceremonies.

These stories illustrate how first foods are a vital source of nutritional, occupational and spiritual health among tribes across our nation. Departure from traditional food systems affects food and economic security and is linked to an increase in diseases such as diabetes.

American Indians are also at greater risk for mental illness, substance abuse and suicide in connection to climate change and its impacts. The loss of culture and connection to the land, in addition to the stress of food and economic insecurity, can create great mental and emotional distress. The rate of suicide among American Indian teens and adults is already the highest in the country. From 2005 to 2009, 17.48 per 100,000 American Indians and Alaskan Natives took their own lives.

Although the challenges are great, many tribal and indigenous people are taking action across the country. Partnerships are being strengthened, and climate action is occurring in culturally appropriate ways. As an example, the Nez Perce Tribe’s salmon hatchery program is using local tribal knowledge to supplement and restore native salmon populations in the Columbia River. This approach helps restore salmon populations, while also aligning with tribal cultural values.

Indigenous youth are using their voices to inspire positive change. As an example, the Coeur d’Alene Youth Council circulated the music video “We Shall Remain” to address the effects of historical trauma on tribal communities. One of the tribal members in Oregon we have partnered with, Scott Kalama, is also using music in his community to raise awareness about water issues.

In his story, “Water is Life,” he talks about how harmful algal blooms are affecting the water quality on his reservation and stresses the importance of standing up for access to clean water. His video, along with the other stories, are being shared in different ways through social media networks, local climate change conferences and in briefings with local decision-makers.

From time immemorial, indigenous communities have understood that the health of our land and water is inextricably linked to the health of its people. As we move forward in our efforts to address climate change across the country, there is much to learn from those we often identify as “most vulnerable”. As indigenous wisdom has been passed down for millennia, a systems perspective and relational worldview may be key to maintaining balance in our biosphere.