The First Tribal Climate Emergency Declaration Is Here—and It Won’t Be the Last

In Old Crow, Yukon, the Gwichin rely on caribou for food and sustenance.
Photo: G MacRae (Flickr)

In the Arctic, people don’t have time to wait around for others to take action to stop climate change. This region of the world is warming faster than everywhere else, so they’re feeling the impacts of the global fever our planet is running much quicker than the rest of us. That’s, in part, why an indigenous community in Canada’s Yukon territory recently declared a climate emergency. In fact, they are the first indigenous peoples to do so—and that’s major.

Members of the Vuntut Gwichin First Nation live in the village of Old Crow, where Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm declared the emergency May 19. The UK became the first country to declare a climate emergency earlier this month, and local governments from Australia to the Czech Republic have followed suit. These declarations don’t carry the same weight that an official emergency declaration after a disaster would—those actually come with governmental funding. These are largely symbolic, but they send a key message: The time to act is now.

“This is a declaration that should permeate the spheres of industry, political leadership, and the people,” Tizya-Tramm told Earther.

The declaration, titled “Yeendoo Diinehdoo Ji’heezrit Nits’oo Ts’o’ Nan He’aa,” translates directly to “After Our Time, How Will the World Be,” in the native Gwichin language. It recognizes the role traditional indigenous knowledge can play in the effort to curb climate change. It also notes the Gwichin people’s concern that their voices are going largely unheard in the governmental response to this crisis. The declaration reads:

“Affirming the right of Indigenous peoples to self-determination, including Indigenous rights related to lands, waters, and resources, and the imperative that Indigenous peoples be central to every effort for mitigating and adapting to climate change at local to international scales.”

To Tizya-Tramm’s knowledge, no other tribal nations have declared such an emergency. But he’s hoping more will now. That’s kind of the whole point behind this. He said it’s a “call out” to other tribal communities across the continent and the world—and he’s already been hearing from others interested in following suit.

The chief didn’t offer names about what tribal communities have expressed interest, but he’s already got a plan up his sleeves about how to take this emergency declaration further. He hopes that this declaration will help lead to an Indigenous Climate Accord. Think the Paris Agreement but with the representation of all the tribal nations around the world.

“The indigenous peoples have been left out of the Paris Climate Accord,” Tizya-Tramm said. “We’ve gotten a nod in the preamble, but where are the national and international public forums for indigenous voices?”

In the coming months, the tribal leader plans to meet with different indigenous leaders throughout the Arctic. There are the Sami people in Sweden and the other Gwichin communities throughout Alaska and Canada, for instance. He wants indigenous people to play a bigger role internationally in solving climate change. The science has yet to catch up with much of their observational and traditional knowledge—from changing migratory patterns for the Porcupine caribou herd to new birds entering their territories. Tizya-Tramm hopes this declaration will result in a domino effect that spreads elsewhere.

“This is not a responsibility that our people or nation will run from,” he said. “We plan to get into the very heart of this issue and lead our way out of climate change, the climate crisis.” 


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