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Indigenous Knowledge Leading on Climate Change Adaptation in the Great Lakes

Picture of Christina Chiasson
Chrissy Chiasson
July 14, 2020
Great Lakes coastal marsh

As climate change intensifies existing challenges and presents new ones in the Great Lakes basin, there is an opportunity to learn from those whose history is intertwined with the region’s lands and waters.

Climate adaptation is not a new concept to the Indigenous nations and tribes that live around the Great Lakes. Over the millennia that people have lived along the lakes’ shorelines, Indigenous Knowledge has helped them to learn about and adapt with the environment around them. Many Indigenous nations and tribes continue to develop their knowledge of the region and are using it to prepare for the changing environment driven by a transforming climate.

The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) is an example of a tribal organization leading on the use of Indigenous Knowledge to prepare for the environmental challenges posed by climate change in the Great Lakes region.

cover art tribal adaptation menu
Cover art of the GLIFWC Tribal Climate Adaptation Menu. Credit: Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission

GLIFWC is a group of 11 Ojibwe tribes in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin leading on natural resource preservation and enhancement in the upper Great Lakes.

To preserve the invaluable resources of the region in the face of climate change, GLIFWC has recently developed a tool to assist decision makers in incorporating Anishinaabeg perspectives into a climate adaptation framework. Anishinnabeg is a cultural group that includes Ojibwe, Odawa and Algonquin peoples in the Great Lakes region.

The Tribal Climate Change Adaptation Menu is a tool for decision makers to integrate Indigenous Knowledge into climate adaptation planning. The menu provides a selection of strategies and implementation approaches for resource managers to achieve their climate adaptation objectives.

Not only does it provide valuable technical guidance, it educates readers on how to engage respectfully with Indigenous Knowledge and knowledge keepers. It covers topics such as reducing the impact of human-based stressors, maintaining and enhancing genetic diversity, designing and modifying infrastructure to prepare for projected future conditions, and supporting tribal engagement in natural resource management and environmental stewardship.

On the other side of the border, several First Nations in the Great Lakes basin have partnered with the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) to undertake environmental stewardship projects under the nationwide Indigenous Guardians Pilot Program. The pilot program, which began in 2017 and has an initial five-year timeline, extends across Canada with Inuit, Metis and First Nations leading more than 70 natural resource management projects. The Guardians program empowers Indigenous peoples to use their deep knowledge of their traditional lands and waters to protect against environmental stresses and changes.

Like all communities across the Great Lakes, First Nations are facing new environmental challenges imposed by climate change. Some examples of the work performed under the Guardians program in the Great Lakes region is the Anishinabek Traditional Ecological Guardians of Georgian Bay which is led by Magnetawan First Nation and the Four Rivers Regional Guardians Network organized by Matawa First Nations Management.

The program run by the Anishinabek Traditional Ecological Guardians involves long-term monitoring of species at risk in the Magnetawan River, which feeds into Georgian Bay, and monitors the impacts of climate change on habitats within the Georgian Bay, situated within Anishinaabe territory.

The Four Rivers Regional Guardians Network is being developed by the Matawa member First Nations whose territory includes a large region along the northern shore of Lake Superior including rivers that feed into the lake. The network is building capacity within the Matawa Nations to manage their homelands and traditional territories which include the lands and waters of Lake Superior through a group of community environmental monitors.  Both programs are funded until 2022.

There are many examples of valuable projects undertaken by Indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes that are leading on responding and adapting to climate change in the region. Generations of Indigenous peoples’ experience and expertise about stewardship and management of the Great Lakes environment should continue to be shared, cherished and elevated as it can benefit all the residents of the basin. 

Picture of Christina Chiasson
Chrissy Chiasson

Christina Chiasson is a policy analyst for the Canadian Section of the IJC in Ottawa, Ontario.

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