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June 30, 2011

Conversations with the Earth: Indigenous Voices on Climate Change

Jimmy John (Gwich’in) at his winter camp near Arctic Village, Alaska.

Have you ever wondered how climate change is affecting people in different parts of the earth? The National Museum of the American Indian will address this question when the exhibition Conversations with the Earth: Indigenous Voices on Climate Change opens on July 22, 2011, in the Sealaska Gallery on the second level of the museum in Washington. Through photographs, video, and audio, tribal communities from the Arctic to Brazil give first-hand accounts about the effects of climate change on indigenous peoples, as well as examples of traditional knowledge and its value in developing appropriate global responses. 

Voices from 15 indigenous communities in 13 countries come together in the exhibition, which is collaborative effort with the nonprofit organization Conversations with the Earth (CWE). Starting with the Gwich’in, who relate how the caribou and other wild foods they rely on are declining due to erratic temperatures, forest fires, and melting permafrost. The Gwich’in, who live in northeastern Alaska and the northern Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada, call themselves the “People of the Caribou.” According to residents and scientists, warmer temperatures have created an array of complex problems. “We need cold weather,” said Allen Tritt (Gwich’in), a resident of Arctic Village, Alaska. “The elders said if it doesn’t get cold, in the future everything’s gonna be changed.”


Charley Swaney (Gwich’in), Arctic Village, Alaska. Swaney and other Gwich’in hunters are concerned about new patterns in caribou migration and declining herd numbers. They constantly monitor the landscape and its animals and their movements. “We may not have much,” Swaney said, “but what we have is out there.”

Contrasting with the Gwich’in of Arctic Village are the Guarani of Brazil. Some 10,000 people live in and around the Guaraqueçaba forest on Brazil’s southeastern coast. Restrictions on subsistence practices have created a regional poverty belt for the Guarani. Over the last two centuries, Brazilian policies have caused steady encroachment on the Guarani territory where indigenous people have never held formal title. After centuries of development, just seven percent of the original Atlantic forest jungle remains. Many people whose families have lived in the forest for generations are now forced to resettle in the state capitol of Curitiba.

“The indigenous people are the true environmentalists. It’s the Indians that preserve the land. Locations where you have the most jungle, best preserved, are the indigenous lands. It’s because nature to us, the Guarani, is living and has to be respected. The laws imposed here in Brazil are already complicated. And when foreign companies come here investing in this area and buying land, it affects us even more because there is greater restriction,” said Jorge Gonzales Wochnicki (Guarani), a resident of the Guaraqueçaba forest. “They don’t want us here [in the forest] . . . but human beings are part of the ecosystem. All this richness that you see was preserved because the people have been here.”


Regional leader Leonardo Werá Tupa (Guarani), prayer house on Cutinga Island, Brazil. “Before the lines were drawn for Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia," Werá Tupa explains, "the Guarani were here.”

Other communities who collaborated in creating the exhibition include the Kichwa from Mojandita Village, Equador; the Manus from Manus Province, Papua New Guinea; The Gamo from the Gamo Highlands of Ethiopia; the Zanskari from Ladakh, India; the Yaqui and Comcaac from Sonora, Mexico; the Kuna from Ustupu Island, Kuna Yala, Panama; and the Quechua and Aymara from a number of locations in the Peruvian Andes.

Conversations with Earth will be on view at the museum through January 2, 2012.

—Dennis Zotigh, NMAI

All photographs by Nicolas Villaume, ©2011 CWE/Nicolas Villaume. Used with permission.

The museum is grateful to The Christensen Fund for its generous support of this exhibition.

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What a night. I love all pictures in ths blog. Just can't wait to see another story of Amercan Indian.

Excellent article. I find it particularly interesting to find out how the indigenous people of the Arctic region will adapt to global warming. This and other factors are changing the migratory patterns of many of their food sources. We are seeing the natural food chain being gradually displaced in these areas, not to mention their entire way of life.

For the most recent updates from the Conversations with the Earth (CWE), please visit CWE FB Page @ http://www.facebook.com/pages/Conversations-with-the-Earth/159461664069502

One of the biggest problems we have culturally is governments and the people of the new countries overlook the ways of the natives.
Natives have done what they do for thousands of years for a reason. Then we come in and literally mess everything up.
There is a lot we can learn from them because they know more.

We need to save the planet for all future generations. The Indian people were there time far ahead!

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