Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto: We must prioritize tribes in the climate debate
Special to First Nation’s Focus
For thousands of years, the Washoe Tribe has spent their summers in Lake Tahoe. Washoe language and culture are inextricably linked to their homeland.
The willows by Lake Tahoe are woven into their baskets. The flora and fauna around the shoreline play a vital role in traditional meals and ceremonies. But the average temperature of the Tahoe Basin is reaching record levels. In July of 2017, the surface water temperature reached 68.4 degrees, a whopping 6.1 degrees higher than surface temperatures in 2016.
New reports indicate climate change is fueling these rising temperatures, putting pressure on the lake’s ecosystem and threatening the Washoe Tribe’s way of life.
Farther north, climate change is also threatening the Summit Lake and Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribes, who have cultivated deep cultural, physical and spiritual ties to the Truckee River and surrounding lakes.
Over several decades, climate change has forced the Paiute tribes to dramatically reduce fishing of the Lahontan cutthroat trout, a traditional food source and cultural centerpiece for the Paiute tribes. Drilling of the nearby McGee Mountain also infects downstream water sources like Summit Lake, killing wildlife and polluting the drinking water and ceremonial lands.
Climate change harms indigenous communities in Nevada, and across the nation, in disproportionately intimate and intense ways by threatening not only the environment around them, but also their traditions, cultural heritage and way of life. The crisis is so dire that some communities are making the impossible decision to uproot and relocate their families, businesses and entire towns to escape harm.
But indigenous communities are also spearheading solutions to the climate crisis. In response, Nevada’s Native American communities are collaborating to study climate change. Funded through the National Science Foundation, these communities recently completed groundbreaking research on the impacts of climate change with vulnerable stakeholders like tribes at the forefront.
In addition, the Nevada’s Great Basin LCC has also formed meaningful partnerships with organizations like the Desert Research Institute to host workshops in Reno with tribal professionals on climate adaptation.
I’m confident these partnerships will lead to innovative and comprehensive solutions that respect and prioritize the will of indigenous communities like the Washoe and Paiute Tribes, whose contributions and history are intimately woven into Nevada.
After centuries of exploitation and marginalization, I’m working at the federal level to repair the government’s trust-responsibility with indigenous communities and ensure they have a seat at the table.
I recently hosted a roundtable to discuss how communities of color are uniquely impacted by climate change. I was struck by stories shared by Barbara Hartzell of Chemehuevi Indian Tribe of Lake Havasu, who lamented that indigenous communities have often been excluded and sidelined from conversations on environmental justice.
Tribal communities belong at the forefront, which is why I’m using my new appointment to the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis to amplify the voices of our most vulnerable populations.
This committee is the first of its kind, and the only body in the Senate dedicated solely to investigating and resolving the far-reaching consequences of climate change on jobs, public health and America’s economy.
Just this month, I leveraged my seat on two committees, the Special Committee on the Climate Crisis and the Indian Affairs Committee, to send a letter to tribal leaders asking for their input and experience to guide national solutions to climate change. I also recently cosponsored the Climate Change Health Protection and Promotion Act.
This legislation would enable state and local health departments to conduct research and develop preparedness plans, arming communities with the knowledge and resources to handle the health impacts of climate change. I’m doing everything in my power to listen to affected communities, bring stakeholders together and fight for policies that protect our people and planet.
I’m also grateful to see meaningful legislation being discussed in Nevada to investigate the intersection of environmental justice and indigenous communities’ way of life.
Governor Sisolak just signed into law a bill that requires state agencies to consult Nevada’s tribal nations and communities in decision-making processes. From mining clean ups and groundwater rights to reclamation processes, tribal communities deserve a seat at the table as policies with far-reaching consequences are deliberated.
In this debate over climate change, we must all remember that there is no Planet B. It takes all of us working together, using our voices, to ensure that we find solutions to the crisis confronting us.
As your Senator, I’ll make sure sacred knowledge is respected and prioritized, not exploited. The climate crisis we face is severe, but I’m confident that collaboration, trust and our shared commitment to our planet’s health are the key ingredients to combating this crisis and keeping all Nevadans safe. O
U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) submitted this opinion column to First Nation’s Focus for publication. Go to cortezmasto.senate.gov to learn more and to contact the senator.