Near total loss of historical lands leaves Indigenous nations in the US more vulnerable to climate change

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A team of researchers tried to quantify the huge loss of historical lands that Indigenous nations have suffered in the United States over the past 100 years since European settlers began to claim the continent. This was a first-of their kind study.

The researchers also discovered that historical land dispossession was linked to future and current climate risks, as Indigenous peoples were forced onto lands that were more vulnerable to a range climate hazards and risks. They are less likely to be located over oil and gas reserves.

Justin Farrell, Yale School of the Environment, led the study. It was published online in the journal Science on Oct. 28. Kyle Whyte, University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, was one of the co-authors.

Farrell stated that "everyone who has ever read history or a true copy of itknows this story." "But this is the first time that scholarly research has examined the full extent of change, tried to quantify it and to systematically geo-reference the data at scale."

U-M's Whyte is the George Willis Pack Professor at SEAS, and a member the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. He said that the new study reinforces long-standing claims.

"The research confirms the call of Indigenous leaders for years," stated Whyte, a Citizen Potawatomi Nation enrolled member. "The U.S. has not addressed land dispossessions and suppression of Indigenous territorial governance, which are the main reasons why Indigenous peoples are disproportionately vulnerable to climate change impacts," said Whyte.

The seven-year-long effort to publish the study with all data hosted and made publicly available in collaboration with Native Land Information System was immense.

Farrell and his team hope that other scholars and members from Indigenous nations will examine and improve their findings as they move forward through open data and public dashboards. This will give a better picture of the extent to which Indigenous nations have been dispossed of their land.

Their findings revealed that the land base of Indigenous nations in the United States has lost 98.9% since European settlers claimed the continent. Over 40% of the historic tribes are now without federally-recognized land.

The researchers linked their findings with overlapping questions about climate risk and availability of natural resources beyond this single figure. They asked how does the past and present climate change exposure differ? What is the difference between historical and current agricultural suitability? What about the availability of oil and gas minerals? Researchers wondered what could be said about the land's quality beyond the loss of vast amounts of land.

Paul Burow, a Yale School of the Environment doctoral candidate and co-author of the paper, stated that "Obviously, the main-line finding is this: Native peoples are more vulnerable due to climate change because of systematic land dispossession" and forced migration under settler colonialism.

The average number of extreme heat days in modern lands is higher than historical lands. About half of all tribes are at risk from wildfires. The results on agricultural suitability were mixed. Modern lands have a lower oil and gas mineral potential than historic lands.

Burow stated that while we have a broad understanding of climate effects, this work opens up opportunities to gain a deeper understanding at the local level. This is just the beginning of a long-term comprehensive research program that will allow anyone to drill down into how climate dynamics affect specific Indigenous peoples and their places.

Extreme heat was cited as an example. While an average finding about the increased risk of extreme temperature to the nation's Indigenous tribe groups is useful, it is not meaningful. Therefore, data from specific areas in the West on wildfire and extreme heat risk would be more valuable.

Kathryn McConnell (another doctoral candidate at Yale School of the Environment) noted that this project fits into a larger research trend linking "contemporary impacts on past histories".

She stated that the goal was to "bring this historical conversation into contact" with climate impact conversations.

She also stressed the importance of making the data public, since much of the information that they have collected in the past has remained in the hands academics and commercial interests.

Farrell stated that there is still a violent legacy and that it is important that we understand it on a large scale. "Not only historical clarity about forced migration and land dispossession, but also for concrete policies moving forward: How do we use this information to improve the daily lives of Indigenous peoples so that existing inequities can be corrected and future risks minimized?"

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Further information: Justin Farrell and colleagues, Effects on land dispossessions and forced migrations on Indigenous peoples, North America, Science (2021). Information from Science Justin Farrell and colleagues, Effects on land dispossessions and forced migrations on Indigenous peoples in North America (2021). DOI: 10.1126/science.abe4943