Climate Change and Narragansett Cultural Revitalization

Climate Change and Narragansett Cultural Revitalization

Jan SALICK, 2 Cassius SPEARS & Dawn SPEARS

1 Missouri Botanical Garden, USA
2 Narragansett Tribe (American Indian, Algonquian Group)

Climate change on the northeast coast of the US is prominent with rising seas, breaking high temperature records, droughts and floods, all resulting in a rapidly changing environment. Algonquin native peoples of the northeast coast are struggling to revitalize their historically decimated cultures while the environment upon which their cultures are based is changing rapidly.  The Indigenous Knowledge (IK) of culture and environment is available through spiritual and traditional practices, but only some IK – notably strategies for adaptation and mitigation – is germane in this changing world.   Their struggle for identity and power is much exacerbated by climate change.  The components of this process are analyzed and detailed with examples from the Narragansett tribe.

Among the Narragansett, climate change is perceived to include rising and prolonged periods of record breaking temperatures – both summer and winter, year after year.  The northeast coast extending out into the Atlantic is one of the areas of greatest sea level rise in the world due to warming waters, changing currents and backup of ocean circulations.  Precipitation is variable, some years greater (accompanied by severe flooding) and some years less (this year is a severe drought, exacerbated by little snow causing both ground and fresh water reserves to dwindle before the drought itself).  The erratic nature and severity of weather events – including hurricanes, “perfect” storms and even tornadoes, never before seen in the northeast –  make adapting to climate change that much more difficult; the tribe tends to react to the immediate crises instead of concentrating of longer term climate change. It is both the rapidity and length of time span over which climate changes are taking hold that determine the intensity of impacts.

The Narragansett recognize that these changes in climate bring about changes in the northeast coastal environment. Vegetation and plants change: the forest floor is drier and more susceptible to hotter fires.  Medicinal plants lose their potency (e.g., blueberry as a cleansing agent) while other plant populations increase (e.g., boneset, grasses and lily pads).  Black Ash is diminishing, possibly moving northward, forcing changes in traditional Narragansett culture. Traditional crop varieties (e.g., Narragansett flint corn) are adapted to cooler, wetter conditions.  In contrast, invasive species (e.g., Japanese knotweed, honey suckle, purple loosestrife, etc.) are well adapted to the new conditions, to fluctuations and to disturbance.  Fish migrate up-river (e.g., trout, herring, shad) but water temperature and flow greatly affect these migrations and resulting reproduction.  Other plant and animal populations are alternately spiking and declining (e.g., blueberries, lobster, crabs), an unusual situation with unknown results.  Vernal pools are necessary for amphibians and plant populations, but if they do not form or dry too early then dependent populations do not reproduce.  Both plants and their pollinators are stressed, each in their own ways, but together threatening their co-adapted reproduction.  Sea level rise affects sediment beds and sand bars, home to shell fish, eel grass and scallops that are affected in turn. Oyster spat (larvae) are washed out to sea with rising tides and sea levels.  Sea level rise and concomitant storm surges cause coastal fresh water ponds to be breached with ecosystem level results.

The Narragansett adapt to climate change in a myriad of ways.  Blooming shad bush no longer predict the shad run, so the Narragansett look to other indicators. Non-traditional crops and crop varieties produce better harvests and grocery stores offer the plenty once provided by nature.  Traditional medicines are replaced by pharmaceuticals. American Indian arts and crafts that traditionally depend on ash splints are now made from cedar or bamboo.  As a result, the Narragansett become increasingly dependent on the cash culture and global economy.  The Narragansett live where they do because of the traditional wealth of sea and land resources providing plenty.  When traditional lifeways no longer provide that plenty or allow them to survive, they seek subsistence elsewhere – towns, cities or wherever the job market casts them.  Air conditioners supply a tolerable ambiance, while leaving an ever enlarging carbon footprint.  While 400 years of oppression has not obliterated the Narragansett or their traditional culture, climate change feels like moving target.

The Narragansett see mitigation of climate change as a basic tenant of traditional natural resource conservation and a minor extension of their traditional land and sea management.  The Narragansett have been assisting migrations of animals and plants for millennia by dispersing seeds, larvae and shell fish and by transplanting medicinal plants and saplings of desirable trees.  In the face of great economic and social pressures they maintain one of the largest tracts of natural hardwood forest in Rhode Island.  They manage seashores, wetlands and inland waters with ample peripheries to prevent damage from hurricanes, tidal surges and droughts.  Their Narragansett Food Sovereignty Initiative places tradition, culture, health, education and the environment beyond economics in their goals to maintain sovereignty, self-determination, self-sufficiency, sustainability, and food security.  Though revitalization of indigenous knowledge and culture, this is initiative manages not only traditional farmlands, but also the Narragansett environment: forests, grasslands and wetlands; and not only traditional agriculture, but also resources for hunting, fishing, forestry and conservation; as well as the inherent right of plants, animals and nature to survive and thrive.  The Narragansett see climate change as intrinsically manageable if people live by the holistic precepts of Mother Earth or Turtle Island, our small and fragile planet, without which we parish.




For more than forty years, Dr. Jan Salick, Senior Curator at the Missouri Botanical Garden and “Distinguished Economic Botanist”, has been researching and publishing on Ethnobotany and Ethnoecology, including theoretical, methodological and field aspects. She, her collaborators and her students have been studying the devastating impacts of environmental changes on indigenous peoples throughout that time and around the world. Their work on climate change dates back more than fifteen years and is recognized internationally among scientists and policy makers, especially the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, IPCC, GPPC, IPBES, which prioritize “Building Synergies between Science and Indigenous and Local Knowledge Systems.” She has received funding from the National Science Foundation (USA), National Institute of Health (NIH and NCI), Ford Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, National Geographic Society and other sources. From the tropical rainforests of Peru and Borneo and the high alpine of the Himalaya, to her most recent work with American Indians, she applies her scientific results to support indigenous peoples and to raise awareness of the impacts of environmental and climate change around the world.

Cassius SPEARS and Dawn SPEARS

Cassius and Dawn Spears are members and representatives of the Narragansett Tribe (American Indian, Rhode Island, USA). In the name of the tribe, Cassius is the founder and director of the Narragansett Food Sovereignty Initiative that strives to maintain and restore indigenous agricultural knowledge and practices. Cassius also works with the United States Department of Agriculture to facilitate supportive Tribal-USDA projects in keeping with tribal values and priorities. Within the Narragansett Tribe, Cassius is known as one of the few remaining tribal members familiar with indigenous knowledge of natural resources (plants, animals, marine life, soils, habitats as well as climate and effects of climate change). Dawn Spears is Director of the Northeastern Indian Arts Alliance (USA). Aside from being an active native artist, Dawn has organized and published numerous art exhibits with American Indian artists from throughout North America. Dawn recognizes the changes in American Indian art brought about by climate change (materials, methods, timing and content). Together, Cassius and Dawn, represent a holistic tribal view of Nature-Culture and the effects that climate change has on its elements and philosophy.

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