A Drying Earth

Tribal communities look to ancient practices to prepare for a megadrought

Scientists say the Southwest may be in for a 35-year long “megadrought” by the end of the century if we stay on our current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions. A drought like that would hit Native American communities particularly hard. Many tribal communities still depend on farming and other work that requires access to water.

But Native Americans have lived in this area longer than anyone else, so they’ve developed traditional methods for dealing with drought. Beverly Ramsey is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and she’s studying how practices from her ancestors might offer lessons for the Southwest in the future.

Ramsey researches and teaches at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada and is a lead scientist on a new project called “Native Waters on Arid Lands.”

This interview was conducted by WBEZ’s Marc Garber. A transcript of their conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

Marc Garber: You’re the team expert in paleoecology--can you tell me what that is and how you're using it in the project?

Beverly Ramsey: Paleoecology is the study of ecological processes in the past. A lot of the project is looking at what we knew, why we changed, and which components we can go back to in order to help our communities now.

How can tribal farmers and ranchers learn from the past to adapt to a potential megadrought?

Beverly Ramsey: Historically, humans have dealt with very unfavorable environmental conditions by migrating. When you think about that as a strategy now, it’s impossible. We have reservation boundaries, we have state boundaries, we have community boundaries. A question we should ask is, “How do we get back to ways of using the landscape to allow sustenance and trade and agriculture that are not dependent on the changes that we have imposed in the West because we could irrigate?” That’s like Alfalfa production — it’s very hard to sustain during droughts. It’s also important to consider animals that are indigenous to dry areas — like bison, who are much less consuming of water than cows.

"Native Waters on Arid Lands" serves tribal communities in the Great Basin and American Southwest

"Native Waters on Arid Lands" serves tribal communities in the Great Basin and American Southwest

Have you discovered anything in your research that’s really surprised you?

Beverly Ramsey: The importance of storytelling. If you listen to a lot of the origin stories out of the Hopi tribe, they will often talk about periods that were very difficult because of the lack of water, and how that changed not only their ceremonial behaviors but also their practices to use less and less water near the creeks and more and more upland, dry-land farming techniques.

Tell me about your personal investment in this issue.

Beverly Ramsey: I was raised traditionally, so I enjoy being able to make a contribution that walks between my science and PhD work and communities that I care very much about being able to sustain and support. So it’s both parts of my life.

Heat of the Moment is a long-term project about climate change, led by WBEZ Chicago.