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updated 8/8/2012 2:16:32 PM ET 2012-08-08T18:16:32

Native American tribes are teaming up with climate scientists to monitor environmental changes along the coast, changes that are disrupting indigenous ways of life that tribes say are key to their survival.

Tribal leaders say their understanding of natural ecosystems such as long-term weather patterns or wildlife migrations can be just as important as CO2 measurements or satellite data.

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“The long term perspective of our people has scientific value,” said Micah McCarty, chairman of the Makah Tribe in Neah Bay, Washington. “We can establish a more holistic baseline of the big picture of things. Some scientists may be more narrowly focused and have an excellent perspective, but we have a broader perspective to draw from. That’s a value."


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The Makah people and their descendants have been living in the area for 4,000 years, and have collected generations of information about their environment. That environment has recently been changing, McCarty noted, as droughts have destroyed freshwater streams that are important salmon spawning nurseries and shellfish that are collected for traditional clothing and crafts are facing threats from increasing ocean acidification.

“We live on one of the wettest places on earth,” McCarty said about his tribal lands on Washington’s rainy Olympic Peninsula. “The salmon could not go upstream because there wasn’t enough water. If we experience more and more of these events, what are we going to do to adapt?"

The Makah aren’t the only tribes facing changes. The Quinault people of Washington are watching the disappearance of a glacier that feeds their local salmon stream, while tribes living along the Bering Sea in Alaska are abandoning their villages because of rising sea levels. Tribal leaders from Hawaii, Samoa, the Marshall Islands and other low-lying atolls are also worried about the future and planning to relocate, according to Dan Basta, director of the office of marine sanctuaries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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“These cultures have been codifying to a fine scale so many natural factors that they are a treasure trove of knowledge if we pay attention,” Basta said.

This unique collaboration between tribal leaders and federal climate researchers will be the subject of a three-day gathering this week at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, DC., sponsored by NOAA, the NMAI; the Hoh, Makah, and Quileute Tribes and the Quinault Indian Nation – all of whom live on the Olympic Peninsula.

McCarty and other tribal leaders hope the meeting will form the basis of a collaboration between tribal members and scientists to act as “first responders” in the face of environmental shifts. That includes working together on monitoring sea levels, water quality, thickness of mollusk shells and fish and wildlife migration patterns, he said. Future meetings will include tribal members from other parts of North America, including those facing drought in the Southwest or rising sea level along the Gulf Coast.

“We’re hoping to build a coalition to address climate change,” McCarty said, “so we have more people doing what needs to be done to change how we live on this planet.”

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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