The Lessons of Indigenous Cultures Can Help Us Adapt to Climate Change

Scientists have now confirmed that a significant rise in sea levels will occur over the next several decades, creating extreme, and in some cases catastrophic, changes in our coastal landscapes. Millions will be faced with moving to higher ground. This “climate retreat”—which will be the planning issue of our time—is already underway.


On Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, more than 800 Quinault Indian Nation tribal members are being forced to abandon their traditional clamming, crabbing and salmon fishing businesses, and resettle on safer land. Fawn Sharp, the Nation’s president recently lamented:  “Our ancestors were good stewards of the land, yet we seem to be paying the price for others who don’t share the same values.”


For thousands of years, indigenous planners like those in the Quinault Nation relied on a set of planning principles that they acquired from the natural world. They learned to plan with their ear to the ground, and with their hearts tuned to the life giving cycles of the world around them. In the words of Black Elk, a holy man of the Oglala Sioux Indians:


“In the old days all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation and so long as the hoop was unbroken the people flourished. The flowering tree was the living center of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave rain and the north with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance. This knowledge came to us from the outer world with our religion.


Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle. The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were.


The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our teepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.”


In contrast, Western societies embraced more linear, sequential and specialized approaches to planning, where physical and economic boundaries were determining factors. So what are we missing here? And what can we learn from these resilient indigenous cultures? The real question is: How can we learn to live with—and not merely exploit—our natural ecosystem?


The idea of integrating resources was the main idea behind the ancient native Hawaiian’s planning concept of ahupua’a. Here, instead of isolating their island’s limited assets—mountains, plains and oceanfront properties—into separate zones, each community was provided with a pie shaped slice of land extending downward from the top of the mountain, through the rich woodland plains, and out into the ocean. This meant that residents would have access to all of the resources needed for survival; from fruit trees to vegetables, mammals, reptiles and fisheries.


Ahupua'a, the traditional Hawaiian method of land division, gives each community an allotment of all of the available resources. Image via
Ahupua’a, the traditional Hawaiian method of land division, gives each community an allotment of all of the available resources. Image via


A less integrated version of this kind of thinking can be seen in the mix of commercial uses or mixed-income housing in the planning of some contemporary cities and neighborhoods. However, physical and economic diversity are only two of many components needed for livable, sustainable and resilient communities. A better alignment of the community’s full range of physical, cultural, social, economic, organizational and educational resources can create more sustainable economic benefits, more human capital, and a higher quality of life for all community stakeholders.


This kind of alignment of resources happens best when everyone—local residents, elected leaders, schools, police, business owners, philanthropy, nonprofits and others—pool their energies to address the full spectrum of community challenges and opportunities. Most community planning projects fall short when it comes to this level of total engagement.


Indigenous cultures survived for thousands of years because of their commitment to teamwork and shared responsibilities. In native Hawaiian culture, the word laulima, is often described through the metaphor of a canoe that is adrift in the vast reaches of the open ocean with only its inhabitants to bring it (and themselves) to shore. It’s here that teamwork is not only desirable, but critical to one’s survival in the face of overpowering natural forces.


Teamwork is tough, but in the hard work of community relocation and resettlement, there will not be many other options; in order to be sustainable and equitable, life-changing moves have to be created by the people who are doing the moving. Design charrettes with post it notes can not be the only answer. With sea levels rising and land subsiding at previously unheard of rates, and with millions of lives in play, we can once again lean on the metaphor of the canoe and the spirit of laulima, which in the native Hawaiian tongue means:  “No work is too big when shared by all.”


In the plains of North Dakota more than a thousand members and supporters of the native Standing Rock Sioux nation are following this same indigenous wisdom as they band  together to block construction of the $3.7 billion Dakota Access pipeline. “Every time there’s a project of this magnitude, so the nation can benefit, there’s a cost,” said Dave Archambault, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, who was among many who were arrested. “That cost is born by tribal nations.”


The pipeline project was approved by the US Army Corps of Engineers, using a fast-track process, known as permit 12, with limited community engagement. The corps also designed a flood protection levee system in south Louisiana that will pass just north of an island called Isle de Jean Charles, where Biloxi, Chitimacha, Choctaw and Houma Indian inhabitants settled 170 years ago to escape the impacts of the Indian Removal Act. Since 1955, the island has lost 90% of its land mass due to sea level rise and land subsidence. Of the island’s original 120 full time residents, less than 70 now remain. Chief Albert Naquin and other tribal leaders have a vision for the resettlement and reconstitution of the community on higher ground, but some members are still reluctant to leave. It’s a scenario that will be played out in countless other communities in the future.


These examples illustrate some of the complex issues that will inform the direction of community planning in the 21st century, as thousands of rural, suburban and urban communities are forced to relocate due to rising sea levels. As community planners move to address these formidable challenges, they will benefit from the common ground of lessons learned from thousands of years of planning and living with—and not just in—the natural world.


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