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Karuk Tribe: Learning from the First Californians for the Next California

Tribes like the Karuk are among the hardest hit by the effects of climate change, despite their traditionally low-carbon lifestyles.

Photo Credit: Image Source: Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources


Editor's Note: This is part of series, Facing the Climate Gap, which looks at grassroots efforts in California low-income communities of color to address climate change and promote climate justice.

This article was published in collaboration with  GlobalPossibilities.org.

The three sovereign entities in the United States are the federal government, the states and indigenous tribes, but according to Bill Tripp, a member of the Karuk Tribe in Northern California, many people are unaware of both the sovereign nature of tribes and the wisdom they possess when it comes to issues of climate change and natural resource management.

“A lot of people don’t realize that tribes even exist in California, but we are stakeholders too, with the rights of indigenous peoples,” says Tripp.

Tripp is an Eco-Cultural Restoration specialist at the Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources. In 2010, the tribe drafted an Eco-Cultural Resources Management Plan, which aims to manage and restore “balanced ecological processes utilizing Traditional Ecological Knowledge supported by Western Science.” The plan addresses environmental issues that affect the health and culture of the Karuk tribe and outlines ways in which tribal practices can contribute to mitigating the effects of climate change.

Before climate change became a hot topic in the media, many indigenous and agrarian communities, because of their dependence upon and close relationship to the land, began to notice troubling shifts in the environment such as intense drought, frequent wildfires, scarcer fish flows and erratic rainfall.

There are over 100 government recognized tribes in California, which represent more than 700,000 people. The Karuk is the second largest Native American tribe in California and has over 3,200 members. Their tribal lands include over 1.48 million acres within and around the Klamath and Six Rivers National Forests in Northwest California.

Tribes like the Karuk are among the hardest hit by the effects of climate change, despite their traditionally low-carbon lifestyles. The Karuk, in particular have experienced dramatic environmental changes in their forestlands and fisheries as a result of both climate change and misguided Federal and regional policies.

The Karuk have long depended upon the forest to support their livelihood, cultural practices and nourishment. While wildfires have always been a natural aspect of the landscape, recent studies have shown that fires in northwestern California forests have risen dramatically in frequency and size due to climate related and human influences. According to the California Natural Resources Agency, fires in California are expected to increase 100 percent due to increased temperatures and longer dry seasons associated with climate change.

Some of the other most damaging human influences to the Karuk include logging activities, which have depleted old growth forests, and fire suppression policies created by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1930s that have limited cultural burning practices. Tripp says these policies have been detrimental to tribal traditions and the forest environment.

“It has been huge to just try to adapt to the past 100 years of policies that have led us to where we are today. We have already been forced to modify our traditional practices to fit the contemporary political context,” says Tripp.

Further, the construction of dams along the Klamath River by PacifiCorp (a utility company) has impeded access to salmon and other fish that are central to the Karuk diet. Fishing regulations have also had a negative impact.

Though the Karuk’s dependence on the land has left them vulnerable to the projected effects of climate change, it has also given them and other indigenous groups incredible knowledge to impart to western climate science. Historically, though, tribes have been largely left out of policy processes and decisions. The Karuk decided to challenge this historical pattern of marginalization by formulating their own Eco-Cultural Resources Management Plan.