Climate scientist presents on tribal knowledge

On Thursday, Feb. 28, Lawrence University hosted the fourth guest speaker in the Spoerl Lecture Series, a series of lectures discussing climate impact and preparedness. This time, the speaker was Hannah Panci from the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. She was broadcasting what her organization is doing, which is a climate vulnerability assessment in tribal lands. Their goal is to combine both scientific research and what they call traditional ecological knowledge or TEK in order to create a vulnerability score of different species or, as they call them, “beings.” 

This goal involves working with local Native American tribes, of which there are 11 members, to see how they are being affected by the changing climate. The organization does this by visiting the various communities and interviewing the people there about what kinds of things they are noticing about the landscape. Many of the people in the communities still make their living off hunting, gathering and fishing, and as such, a dramatic climate shift could have devastating consequences to these communities. Through this process, the commission receives information in the form of traditions about the land have been passed down for generations. For example, “When spring peepers start calling, it’s time for walleye season.” Based on further interviewing, the organization can then identify which beings are the most important to the tribes. According to Panci, two of the main ones are wild rice and walleye, but there are 11 primary species that tribal members are concerned about. Armed with this knowledge, they can then ask what kinds of difficulties they are having to hone climate change research. In the walleye example, those spring peepers are now coming earlier, and as such the walleye are often not ready, causing great difficulty for many tribes. However, the being most talked about by the tribes is wild rice. It is critical to the diet in northern Wisconsin and an extremely delicate plant, to the point that many are fearing its decline. 

By using this tribal knowledge, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission can then apply current scientific data to create maps of the region where the beings are being talked about combined with scientific data to see what areas and species are in need of climate change protection measures. Even though science is extremely powerful, the knowledge of locals about a particular problem is invaluable. It is by combining these approaches that communities can prepare for a changing climate.