HCN Since human memories are fallible, how do you know what to trust?
MHR It is striking how well the oral history accounts match with the meteorological data that we have. For instance, there was a record snowstorm in December 1966. And a lot of people remember that, but aren’t sure if it was in 1966 or 1967, but they knew it was that particular winter. That’s pretty close!
Also, we have safety in numbers -- we've done about a hundred interviews. We look for people that have lived their entire lives on the reservation, living a traditional lifestyle. And we seek out people who are more knowledgeable about plants. The medicine men in particular, because they keep track of what plants and animals are around so they can use them in ceremonies.
Also, interviews from people in specific areas are very consistent. And we're seeing that people who live in the drier low-lands are seeing a different timing of changes than people who are living higher, among the buttes, ponderosa, pinyon and juniper trees. We're trying to understand that difference more clearly.
HCN How will this information help the Navajo?
MHR It takes the information that the elders have to offer and provides it to the community in a clear format, so they can discuss how they want to plan their land use. It really raises people's awareness.
HCN Are the Navajo going to be able to survive the next two centuries of climate change?
MHR That's the real concern. I think they -- along with a lot of native people and society in general -- are going to have to decide what is important to them and what their identity is. There are going to be cultural changes, there is no way for that not to occur. A lot of people have already moved away from having livestock. There is just no water for them; there is no feed. And to haul hay to the reservation all the time is really expensive. You're often making a poor living or losing money in the deal. People have some livestock now, just not very many, and mostly for ceremonial purposes.
HCN You've spoken with indigenous people all over the world about changes they've seen in their local environments.What are some of the similarities that you hear in those conversations?
MHR It's interesting because a lot of them say that they can't predict the weather anymore. Things have changed so much that their traditional calendars don't work. From people in the Amazon, in Africa, in Asia, that's a worldwide unified statement.
Often they blame themselves for the changes, because they're not following their traditions anymore. They blame themselves for becoming Westernized, driving cars, having wage jobs and not taking care of the land and having the same ceremonies like they used to. Most of the traditional religions have a tone of stewardship, a tone that Western society doesn't have. They think that because they're not taking care of the land that's why this is happening. In a way, you know, that's true (thinking abstractly) but it's really kind of tragic that they're blaming themselves for these changes.
HCN How do you react?
MHR I've discussed it with a lot of medicine men, that they're not to blame. Some are finally coming around, though it's taken a while. They still think, though, that they're partly responsible. It's a hard point to get across.