Our analysis of the interviews suggested four significant conclusions, which are each outlined in the next four subsections. We reflect on (1) tribal perspectives on time and seasonality, (2) temporal adaptations, (3) construction of time from the perspective of climate science, and (4) perceived association of climatic change in relation to other changes.
The importance of time, seasonality, and relationship
For these tribes, the most culturally significant aspect of climate change is how it affects the definition of time, and particularly seasons. Our study found that the tribal understandings of time are defined by cues and patterns observed in the natural world. As such, time is then relied on, operated in, and based on a 3D construction rather than the westernized linear time system. Their concepts of time are important not least because they indicate when certain traditional behaviors should begin, for example, hunting, fishing, and gathering. They are also strikingly relational, so that seasonal patterns are observed as an intricate system of connectivity and integration among plant, animal, insect, and human experience.
These cues for human behavior include weather events, like the first appearance of snow on a certain mountain, botanical indicators like when berries emerge, and animal behaviors like the emergence of a certain species of ant.
“... in the spring, you got carpenter ants, big black carpenter ants, and [eel hunters] didn't go eeling until they saw those carpenter ants, they came out to mate, grow wings and fly off and start new colonies and stuff and that was what they marked when the weather was right to start eeling.... they marked other things the same way, but you can't do that anymore because our weather's changed so much that you can't mark anything like that; there's no way to do it.” (Oscar Hatfield, CTSI Elder)
In the above example, the carpenter ants have no direct biological connection to the spawning times of “eels” (Pacific Lamprey) or water levels, yet the emergence of the ant colonies historically corresponded to eel patterns in the river, and the Siletz relied on this correspondence to know when to go eeling, like a timer going off. This example is also directly (if implicitly) related to climate change caused by rising greenhouse gases, as noted by the comments on changing weather. Winter seasons are shorter and spring seasons are notably occurring earlier in the Pacific Northwest.
Quinault tribal member Doug James gave a similar account relating to Blueback salmon: “The older guys used to tell us that when the salmon berries start coming out, you’d start throwing your net out for blueback, and when we start seeing the salmon berries start coming out, we’d start seeing one or two even if they were games (not full runs, but isolated fish that indicated runs were arriving).” Figure 2 shows a Quinault tribal member fishing.
Disruption of the seasonal cycle, consequently, has profound effects for Native cultures. When a changing climate alters long-established associations between phenological events as in the examples above, the consequences are not merely an inconvenience or a set of information; instead, they challenge the fundamental belief about how elements of the natural world are connected, as well as the timing of when traditional patterns occur and behaviors are performed. Bonds between species such as those between carpenter ants and eels, between salmon berries and blueback, represent a fundamental order of the universe; when these bonds dissolve, the sense of order begins to fray and several interviewees expressed confusion, dismay, and concern, as in the last part of Hatfield’s remark.
These phenological events are indicators of what is referred to sometimes in Native communities as Indian time—understood here as precision in timing, oriented in relationship to other environmental phenomena and in relationship to appropriate behavior and action. Cycles of events, bound together, not only show these patterns of seasonality, but illustrate the sensitivity with which relationships among people, animals, plants, and landscape may be observed and interpreted. While phenology and relationality do appear in Western science, particularly in noting climatic changes (e.g., Menzel et al. 2006), the primacy of relationality as a mechanism of knowing and identifying change, and the inclusion of right human behavior within these relations, we see as distinct from most western science frameworks and understand it as an epistemological difference between these ways of knowing.
Some aspects of traditional culture are adapting to timing shifts
Some traditional cultural elements or events are being altered in ways that many members see as temporary, and short term, compared with the extensive period that Natives have been in their aboriginal landscapes. Examples that arose in our interviews included those linked with seasonal indicators.
A seasonally important time period (generally winter, but it varies with each tribe’s customs and beliefs) are those days, weeks, or months when some tribes deem it traditionally appropriate to “talk story,” and thereby to transmit and sustain traditional information. The term “story” is a misnomer, as this period of time is quite literally an Indigenous informational data system within respective tribes. For Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes, traditional “talk story” time began when a snowfall of several inches visibly covered the nearby mountains. Owing to the shifts in autumn snowfall timing, the beginning of this time has changed. Due to lessened snowfall amounts, adaptations have taken place. Now less snow is required to indicate when “talk story” time begins. Time, measured as periodic, and timing, understood as onset or co-occurrence of related events, are both important in traditional practice. Adaptive responses, in this case, is offsetting the change in snow with a change in defining appropriate behavior, or timing, thus minimize the effects of climate change on some practices.
Climate science and assumptions about time and seasonality
In our study region, the Pacific Northwest, changes in climate have been observed over roughly the last century. The most recent and comprehensive study calculated an annual mean warming of 0.6–0.8 °C (1.3 °F) in the Pacific Northwest from 1901 to 2012 and demonstrated that the warming is anthropogenic (Abatzoglou et al. 2014). Several other metrics of climate changed too, including a large rise in the coldest night of the year, lengthened freeze-free season, and increased growing-season evapotranspiration. Abatzoglou et al. (2014) found no change in annual total precipitation since 1901, though there were shorter term trends in precipitation during certain seasons. Numerous studies have documented other aspects of climate change in the western USA, including timing in the arrival of spring (Cayan et al. 2001), spring runoff arriving earlier (e.g., Stewart et al. 2005; Fritze et al. 2011), reduced mountain snowpack (Mote et al. 2018), changed timing of spring fish migration (Robinson and Bayer 2005), and increased wildfire activity (Abatzoglou and Williams 2016), to name a few.
In order to meet stringent statistical requirements, such studies typically describe change over periods comparable to the change in radiative forcing (decades) and dismiss as “noise” shorter term variations, especially if they are not statistically attributable to identifiable causes (as is the case for precipitation). Indeed, shorter term trends can be so dominated by statistical ‘noise’ that they are in the opposite direction as the forced response (e.g., spring cooled 1980–2012, Abatzoglou et al. 2014). By contrast, Indigenous and other experiential views of climate may be more sensitive to more subtle changes because they are focused on the interactions among constituents in an environment in nuanced ways. This relational quality is a benchmark of significance in our interviews.
In mainstream climate science, seasonality can be defined in several ways. Climate data are often averaged into 3-month seasons (December–February is winter, etc.), but seasons can also be defined in other ways, like growing season or rainy season. Some studies also focus on the timing of key events and how they are shifting: first fall freeze is coming later (Kunkel et al. 2013), lilacs are blooming earlier in the spring (Cayan et al. 2001), peak spring flow is shifting earlier in snowmelt-driven basins (Stewart et al. 2005), and lakes are freezing later in fall and melting earlier in spring (Benson et al. 2012), to name a few. In the Northwest, the freeze-free season has lengthened by about 9 days (Abatzoglou et al. 2014).
Such descriptions of seasonal change, focusing on timing, are relatively rare in academic papers describing climate; most papers focus on the changes in quantitative attributes within a 3-month season (i.e., spring is always March through May, MAM). Even rarer in the climate science literature is a holistic description of change; for example, Cayan et al. (2001) describe both interannual variability and long-term change in spring (MAM) temperature, date of lilac bloom, and date of spring snowmelt runoff. By contrast, the Native TEK view of seasons is entirely about timing and connections; seasonality is emergent and describes how the whole system changes, and how interactions among things are moving in relationship to one another.
Grounding the view: climate change in perspective
Perhaps the most striking difference between our interviews and climate science is that our interviewees described the changes in environment, culture, ceremony, and socio-politics together, as a body of observable changes over a centuries-long period of time. Regardless of cause, all interviewees were hesitant and anxious about the manner, rate, and sustainability of resource use. This anxiety, which extends to resources not yet in decline, stems from uncertainties that cannot be explained with the traditional stories, songs, or cycles that have been witnessed and conveyed for generations. TEK, then, has been rendered inconsistently reliable by climate-driven uncertainty. This longstanding traditional way of discussing change as a whole was contrasted with the generally more compartmentalized climate science literature, which only rarely produces a holistic or integrated view of climate change within larger socio-political or human-ecological contexts (e.g., Pachauri et al. 2014).
The scope of observable change demonstrated by interviewees is profound, even to the point of altering foundational ceremonies. For example, in the traditional marriage ceremony of the Siletz, a woman accepted a man’s marriage proposal, in response he gave a dowry to her family, she then would move into their new home and make ceremonial acorn soup; the soup completed the marriage ceremony, and the couple was then considered married. For complex reasons including the Tribe’s relocation in the 1850s but also the dwindling population of oak trees in western Oregon, the acorn soup part of this ritual is no longer practiced. Invasive species like Scotch broom and Himalayan blackberry prevent survival of oak seedlings, which require moist soil and ground cover of leaf litter for propagation and survival.
Additionally, the Quinault Indian Nation described the traditional practice that Elders had for collecting eels (Pacific Lamprey) during the spring. Because the eel population has declined, this collection practice has largely died out, and even the Elders who prepare and consume eels rely primarily on the fish hatchery, which collects a few every spring, mainly for the Elders who request them. Justine James (QIN) states: “A lot of the eels in this area, they started going out in about the 60s, some of the Elders still follow that old life-way of eating, preparing eels, and it’s kind of a dietary change and the logging practices have kind of altered the environment and so you don’t get the eels as much.” Close et al. (2002) suggest that the decline may have been exacerbated by a Euro-American notion that the Pacific lamprey is a pest and managed it as such.
Nearly every participant described changes they had observed and expressed anxiety about these changes, but also expressed apprehension about future changes. These perspectives included changes resulting from a host of factors connected to the cataclysmic replacement of an Indigenous management system of the socio-political and natural environment in North America, with a Western management system. The latter system has brought assimilation pressures, economic upheaval, increases in invasive species, ecosystem changes, and climate change together. In other words, by not compartmentalizing climate change from other human-environmental changes, connections among human action and resulting risk to animal and plant species are more visible in a TEK epistemological construction of climate change.
We argue this difference in assessment, in part, has to do with the organization of knowledge, knowledge construction, and understandings of time and temporality. Understanding inter-relational change puts the events described above in a temporal field that understands changes as dense, intimate to place, interrelated, and across systems, including and especially in changes to socio-political systems and the impacts of colonialism writ large (Killsback 2013). Whereas the primary emphasis in TEK is holistic, the primary emphasis in climate science literature is in thoroughly understanding each component (e.g., physics of sea ice), with much less attention given to seeking connections (as in Cayan et al. 2001) or understanding strong interrelationships. Climate science has developed complex earth system models representing the physical and biophysical components and their interactions (e.g., Flato et al. 2013) and also integrated assessment models representing the interactions between humans (chiefly as their activities affect the radiative energy balance of the planet) and the climate system (e.g., Clarke et al. 2014). Such tools are intended to emphasize interactions and connections among components, and though the two epistemological constructions might share many overarching goals, they also have clearly different approaches and aims.