When Quileute Nation elder Chris Morgenroth III was growing up in La Push, Wash., first-graders spent recess at the beach, where a few miles offshore, thick beds of kelp waved underwater. Today, those kelp beds are all but gone.
In tiny Kipnuk, Alaska, flooding is eroding the banks of the river that lies close to 17-year-old Nelson Kanuk's family home. Last year, he said, 10 feet disappeared, swallowing a shoreline trail.
And in the Olympic Mountains of Washington state, Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp wonders how a glacier's retreat will affect the Quinault River's salmon. A chance helicopter flight last fall revealed no traces of Anderson Glacier, which sends cool meltwater into the river when the blueback come to spawn.
"My heart sank," Sharp said. "I can't imagine trying to explain to another generation of Quinaults how our rich blueback salmon tasted. That's a central part of who we are and that glacier keeps the waters cool and the water levels at an appropriate place. Now it's gone."
Their experiences are not unique. For American Indian tribes and indigenous groups, climate change is a growing threat, altering landscapes they have known intimately for generations.
Now an increasing number of tribal leaders are choosing to meet the challenge head-on, searching for strategies to cope with rising seas, melting ice and shifting populations of plants, animals and fish. Many believe they are uniquely suited to the task.
"We're not just icons," said Micah McCarty, chairman of Washington state's Makah Tribe. "We're not another flavor on the street of ethnic food. We have scientific value in the long-term observations of our peoples, and what our peoples have gone through to survive and adapt to changes that have been imposed on us."
Fears that climate change will erode progress
McCarty is an organizer of a climate change conference taking place in Washington, D.C., this week that has brought together coastal American Indians and indigenous groups from the United States and its Pacific Island protectorates and territories.
He is not interested in debating whether climate change is a reality, he said. Instead, the discussion this week has centered on bringing together tribes, scientists, federal agencies and nonprofit groups to negotiate a path forward.
For Washington state's Nisqually Indian Tribe, that path is working to restore the natural contours of its namesake rivershed. Working with the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, the tribe has removed thousands of feet of dikes that once diverted river flows, reclaiming areas converted for agriculture and restoring more than 900 acres of salt marsh.
"We've allowed the heart to beat again in the Nisqually," said David Troutt, the tribe's director of natural resources. "There are small pocket areas created through restoration that provide unique refuge for juvenile salmon."
But Troutt fears that climate change will erase some of those gains. Scientists project water in Puget Sound will rise 12 to 14 inches in the next 10 to 15 years.
"If that happens, the unique habitat we've created will be lost," he said.
Now the ambitious Nisqually Tribe is pushing the state Department of Transportation to remove dikes that support Interstate 5 as it crosses the Nisqually delta, replacing them with piers to allow saltwater to flow inland.
That would let new inland marshes form as the sea level rises. It would also remove an existing bottleneck for salmon, which are forced through one relatively small opening in the dikes that support the interstate where river flows into delta.
Moving to higher ground
Farther north, the Quinaults are trying to understand how climate change will affect their long-term effort to restore the Quinault River's prized blueback salmon, a traditional subsistence food and a source of income the tribe sells under the "Quinault Pride" label.