Native American tribes comprise a small percentage of the American population, but their lands can be found across the country in very different areas. Because of this spread, and native people’s dependence on the land, they are getting hit by every aspect of climate change much harder than the general population. One tribe in coastal Louisiana is experiencing rising sea levels encroaching on their islands, which soon will wash over burial grounds. At the same time, populations in Alaska are trying to adapt to faster glacial melt and changes to fishing areas.

Some tribes have had to relocate because of the impacts of climate change, whether to be closer to animals for food supply or find higher ground to escape flooding and storms. But moving an entire village is no easy task, and not every tribe can relocate due to reservation boundaries, a connection to the land, or lack of resources. Those tribes that cannot move will face more intense storms, wildfires, droughts and other weather events, causing significant damage that cannot be fully repaired due to lack of infrastructure. The high unemployment and poverty rates on reservations also make it difficult to finance any necessary repairs.

The great duration — thousands of years — tribes have inhabited certain lands allows them to immediately recognize changes in the ecosystem. Tribal leaders want more recognition at the federal level, as they believe their viewpoints could help the government develop appropriate measures to withstand climate change across the country.

Climate change researchers have teamed up with tribal leaders to monitor changes in sea level, water quality and other environmental shifts. Members of several tribes from different regions of the U.S. met with scientists last week for a three-day symposium on climate change, titled First Stewards, in Washington, D.C. Video of the event can be found on the First Stewards website.

What is happening now on tribal lands gives us an idea of what will soon affect the entire U.S., so it is important that we both listen to tribal leaders’ wisdom and help them protect their cultures.

Main image credit: Benedicte Wrensted/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration; video credit: PBS NewsHour