Uniting Voices for the Earth

Uniting Voices for the Earth

Embracing Indigenous Wisdom in Climate Change Action

Authored by Poulomi Chakravarty; Reviewed by Jacqualine Qataliña Schaeffer and Meda DeWitt

The climate crisis is real and is knocking at our doors.

In 2023, we witnessed the highest recorded temperatures, a trend that continued into 2024, as documented in the WMO's State of the Global Climate Report 2023. Acute water crisis, droughts, floods, and extreme events are experienced all over the world. Can we overcome these challenges? Speaking as someone who has worked in the field of environment and climate for a decade, I feel there are ways we can tackle the challenges by incorporating knowledges from the natural world and Indigenous traditional knowledge systems.

Image: Climate Disasters. Created using Dall-E 3

The Global Climate Association has recently developed Climate Communication Channels (3C Model). This conceptual framework facilitates the transfer of knowledge from the natural world and the Indigenous Traditional Knowledge Systems to the scientific community. It is then further adapted for educational settings, ultimately reaching learners. These knowledge flows contribute to the creation of extensive knowledge banks, aiming for the ultimate goal of nurturing climate-resilient communities where the existing knowledges from the communities are adapted by scientific and educational communities to create a climate adaptation framework that is inclusive and region specific.

The framework of Climate Communication Channels (3C Model), aligns seamlessly with the perspectives shared at the recent workshop on “Climate Change and Human Migration: An Earth Systems Science Perspective.” Hosted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on 18-19th March 2024, this event further reinforced the significance and applicability of our framework in addressing current environmental challenges.

Image: Conceptual Framework of 3C Model, (Chakravarty, 2023)

Introduction to Indigenous Wisdom and Historical Context

The workshop presentation by Jackie Qataliña Schaeffer, Director of Climate Initiatives, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) and Meda DeWitt Interim Alaska Director at The Wilderness Society is a clarion call that reverberates with our ethos: the knowledge of Indigenous communities across the globe is not ancillary but central to understanding and combating climate change. It's crucial to recognize that Indigenous knowledge systems are diverse and unique to each community, reflecting a rich tapestry of cultural understanding and environmental interaction. The insights of Jackie Qataliña Schaeffer represented the deep-rooted wisdom of 229 Alaskan tribes while Meda DeWitt recounted oration of ancestral resilience, echoing the urgent need to integrate these timeless wisdoms with modern science. Their profound understanding, illustrated by Qataliña’s observation that "They usually tell the story before an event happens,” and DeWitt’s narratives of environmental adaptability, guide us in formulating comprehensive approaches to today’s climate challenges,indicating how deeply attuned these practices are with the natural world—a profound lesson for modern societies grappling with environmental uncertainties.

Image: Jackie Qataliña during her narration at the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, USA

Frontline Witnesses of Climate Change

As frontline witnesses, indigenous communities like those represented by Qataliña and DeWitt experience the direct impacts of climate change. Qataliña revealed, “Of those 229 tribes, 144 of our communities are environmentally threatened,” a stark reality for communities reliant on direct interactions with their natural surroundings for sustenance and cultural continuity. The narration by Meda DeWitt consisted of tales of ancestral migrations forced by climatic shifts in a beautiful style of oration including songs. She shared the importance of traditional ecological knowledge, emphasizing its transmission over thousands of years and its grounding in geological time.

Story of Adaptation and Migration

Reflecting on Alaska’s past, DeWitt spoke about the significant impact of ice sheets and glaciers on the land and the people. She recounted how the Tlingit people, originally Diné-based and living inland (what is now Canada/Yukon territories), experienced drastic climate change that led to the loss of traditional foods and increased mortality due to a destabilized environment. Faced with these challenges, the Tlingit community realized the necessity to relocate for survival. This led to a daring journey, where elderly women bravely traversed a river flowing under a glacier to determine a safe passage. The community prepared for this migration by cleaning and deconstructing their village, leaving it as clean as possible. Two young men were sent to observe the women’s journey from over the glacier. As the women embarked on their perilous journey, the community sang a grieving song, recognizing the potential sacrifice of the women and the gravity of their situation.

The Successful Migration and Cultural Healing

Upon successfully navigating under the glacier and reaching the coast, the women signaled the rest of the community, who then followed with their belongings. On the coast, they encountered other communities and began a process of healing and rejuvenation. A particular song, which roughly translates to “come out and be in joy,” was sung to uplift the community’s spirits.

Image: Meda DeWitt during her oration at the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, USA

Lessons from Traditional Ecological Knowledge

DeWitt highlighted the traditional ecological knowledge and experiences of indigenous communities across Alaska, including insights on past warm periods, sea level changes, and the location of ancient communities. These stories of migration and adaptation are not new to indigenous peoples, though current challenges are intensified by human contributions to climate change and geopolitical boundaries.

Adaptation of Traditional Knowledge Systems with Modern Science and Technology

The speakers discussed the dynamic adaptation of traditional practices. Qataliña addressed historical dismissals of indigenous knowledge, stating, “This is starting to change as scientists are beginning to recognize the value of indigenous knowledge and working alongside indigenous communities.” Her words underscore a shift towards inclusive scientific practices. The 3C model resonates deeply with the themes highlighted by the speakers. It seeks to bridge traditional indigenous practices with modern scientific understanding, creating a space where wisdom from both worlds is valued and integrated. As Qataliña points out, the adaptation of these practices within current regulatory frameworks showcases the need for innovative solutions that respect and preserve traditional knowledge. Her observation of the growing appreciation for indigenous knowledge in scientific circles aligns with the *3C model’*s objective of fostering collaborative and inclusive practices. This model serves as a conduit, ensuring that indigenous insights are not only acknowledged but actively incorporated into our collective response to environmental challenges.

The Power of Collaboration Qataliña highlighted collaborative efforts yielding new insights, particularly in the Arctic. She stated, “We have knowledge, intimate knowledge of ice systems,” illustrating the depth of indigenous understanding in enhancing scientific models. DeWitt expressed the belief that while reversing climate change might not be possible, mitigating its effects is within reach. She emphasized humanity’s internal journey to examine and change consumption patterns and behaviors that contribute to environmental imbalance. Citing indigenous values and the need for global cooperation, she called for a collective effort to evolve and thrive amid these challenges.

Conclusion: A United Front for Climate Resilience and Adaptation

The powerful voices of Jackie Qataliña and Meda DeWitt present an undeniable case for the integration of indigenous wisdom in climate action. Their narratives strengthen our commitment to inclusive climate action. Echoing Qataliña’s sentiment, “This is about saving humanity. It’s not about one area on this planet,” recognizing the universal importance of these collaborative efforts. We as a collective should pledge to ensure that such rich, time-honored wisdom is a central part of our strategy, as we journey towards sustainable and resilient futures.In embracing the wisdom shared by Jackie Qataliña and Meda DeWitt, alongside the application of frameworks such as the 3C model, we are reminded of the power of unity in diversity. Their insights, woven into our collective efforts, illuminate a path towards a more resilient and sustainable future, bridging traditional knowledge with contemporary science for the betterment of our global community.

Reviewers: This article was reviewed by Jacqualine Qataliña Schaeffer, Director of Climate Initiatives at Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and Meda DeWitt, Interim Alaska Director, The Wilderness Society, Alaska, USA.

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The author extends heartfelt gratitude to The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (The National Academies), USA for hosting the enlightening workshop on “Climate Change and Human Migration: An Earth Systems Science Perspective.” which sparked the inspiration for this article. Sincere appreciation is also extended to Jackie and Meda for their valuable contribution of time and insights in reviewing the article, ensuring an authentic representation of their perspectives.


  1. W.M.O. (March 2024), State of the global climate 2023. Available at: https://library.wmo.int/records/item/68835-state-of-the-global-climate-2023 (Accessed: 20 March 2024).

  2. Chakravarty, P. (2023) “Climate Communication Channels, AI, and Indigenous Wisdom: A Triad Approach for Adaptation In the Era of Global Boiling.” Colorado University Scholar Libraries. DOI https://doi.org/10.25810/wq39-sp67

  3. Chakravarty, P. (2023) “Climate Communication Channels: An Innovative Approach Integrating AI/ML and Indigenous Knowledge Systems for Extreme Weather Events Prediction and Mitigation in Coastal Regions” at the TROPMET 2023: National Symposium on Changing Dynamics of Arid Region and Impact on Weather and Climate over Indian Subcontinent, held on November 22-24, 2023 India, published in University of Colorado Boulder Libraries 10.25810/ffmf-mj86

Please visit the official website of Global Climate Association for more interesting information on climate science, literacy tools,initiatives and narratives at https://globalclimateassociation.org/.