Five Wabanaki wampum bead belts.
Before European contact, tribal nations used strings of wampum for exchange, storytelling, ceremonial gifts, and recording important treaties and historical events. Credit: Frank Speck, The Eastern Algonkian Wabanaki Confederacy
AGU Fall Meeting 2021

For centuries, Indigenous Peoples living along the North Atlantic coast have carved wampum beads from quahog or whelk shells and strung them together to create belts and ceremonial gifts. As European settlers arrived, tribal nations used the beads to form treaty relationships, and over time, the wampum bead came to represent sustainability for these communities, which have long-standing experiences of adapting to environmental changes and colonization.

Consequently, when it came to designing a framework to help coastal communities adapt to sea level rise in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic coastal regions, Kelsey Leonard, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo in Canada and an enrolled citizen of the Shinnecock Nation, named her strategy after the small, but mighty, wampum bead. Leonard will be an invited speaker at “Native Science to Action: How Indigenous Worldviews Inform, Diversify, and Build Capacity in Environmental Science and Policy” on 16 December at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2021.

“Current strategies don’t take into consideration the vast amounts of knowledge that we have and scientific practice that we have in adapting to sea level rise over millennia.”

Leonard’s goal in crafting the WAMPUM framework was to propose a culturally tailored approach for impacted tribal nations to assist them in adapting to sea level rise. Her guidelines also aim to highlight the adaptation strategies that Indigenous Peoples in Northeast communities are already deploying—strategies from which all concerned communities could learn. “Current strategies don’t take into consideration the vast amounts of knowledge that we [as Indigenous Peoples] have and scientific practice that we have in adapting to sea level rise over millennia,” Leonard said.

The Necessity of Indigenous Input

In the past century, sea level crept up more than a third of a meter along the northeastern coastline of the United States. Some predictions estimate it could rise by the same amount again in the next 30 years, with severe consequences for coastal ecosystems and communities. For coastal tribal nations, the expected sea level rise will threaten water security and their ability to survive on lands where they have thrived since the glaciers receded.

Existing sea level rise adaptation strategies, which use militarized and combative language, represent the antithesis of the Indigenous approach of prioritizing the environment and ecosystem over human benefits and use, Leonard said. Western strategies “center on what humans need to adapt rather than the responsibility that humans have to nature to ensure that it can adapt, thrive, and flourish,” Leonard said.

“Moving forward, it’s imperative to have new sea level rise adaptation strategies that are not only inclusive of Indigenous Peoples, but designed by them.”

The current approaches neither include tribal nations’ perspectives nor consider the cultural, social, political, or spiritual effects of sea level rise on Indigenous communities. As such, they often fail to accurately assess the effects on Indigenous communities and, consequently, fall short of outlining effective adaption options, Leonard said.

“Moving forward, it’s imperative to have new sea level rise adaptation strategies that are not only inclusive of Indigenous Peoples, but designed by them,” Leonard said.

Adaptation with Dignity

Leonard’s WAMPUM framework presents a set of guidelines for sea level rise adaptation that is centered on Indigenous Knowledge systems and the historical experiences of northeastern and mid-Atlantic coastal tribal nations.

Each letter of WAMPUM highlights a different principle of the framework. Credit: Kelsey Leonard, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Each letter of WAMPUM highlights a different principle of the framework. The “witnessing” principle emphasizes the Indigenous Knowledge approach of careful observation and cooperation with natural systems for a sustainable future. “The natural world is really smart, keen, and adaptive,” Leonard said. “The witness principle encourages us to be humble and learn how to adapt from the natural world.”

The “acknowledge” principle stresses the need to acknowledge traditional teachings, conservation, and stewardship practices and empower tribal nations to restore these practices to care for the land and water. The related “mend” principle addresses the reality that humans have inflicted trauma on the environment since the advent of colonization and the necessity for adaptation measures to mend shoreline and coastal areas through cultural and ceremonial practices that promote healing and ecosystem rehabilitation.

Tribal nations, such as the Shinnecock Nation, are working to protect their ancestors as rising ocean levels are encroaching on burial sites. The “protect” principle recognizes that the protection of such cultural sites advances Indigenous water justice and cultural and ceremonial practices for future generations.

“Planning for adaptation is something that can’t happen in isolation, whether you’re Indigenous or non-Indigenous. We are small but mighty together, and through scaling up collective resources, we can build adaptive capacity.”

Adapting to sea level rise and climate change will require communities to “unite,” the fifth principle, Leonard said. “Planning for adaptation is something that can’t happen in isolation, whether you’re Indigenous or non-Indigenous,” she continued. “We are small but mighty together, and through scaling up collective resources, we can build adaptive capacity.”

Historically, eastern coastal tribal nations had several village sites across large areas of land, allowing them to adapt to seasonal changes and move when needed. The final principle, “move,” addresses how tribal nations can migrate to new places with cultural connections and rebuild their lives. “But right now, due to colonialism, that principle is impossible,” Leonard said.

The answer to the move principle lies in federal legislation and funding that would support tribal nations moving to areas on the eastern Atlantic coast where they could preserve their cultural connection to the land and ocean and continue stewardship practices, Leonard said. “As a Shinnecock person, you can’t just plop us in the middle of Arkansas and imagine that we’ll be able to maintain our culture,” Leonard said. “We are people of the shore, and if the shores cease to exist, we cease to exist.”

A Sustainable Path

The WAMPUM framework provides a path forward for tribal nations to help guide them in adapting to sea level rise using cultural knowledge and skills. “Tribal governments and communities have to get on the same page in terms of what strategies are realistic and seem feasible,” said geographer Casey Thornbrugh, a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the tribal climate science liaison at United South and Eastern Tribes. “The strategies laid out in the WAMPUM framework, with tribal nations and communities leading the way, offer a sustainable path to adaptation.”

Existing adaptation strategies present humans as battling the coast, using militaristic terms such as “hardening the coastline” and “coastline defense,” according to geoscientist Jon Woodruff of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who is also the codirector of the Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center. “But the WAMPUM framework brings the perspective of mending the shoreline, rather than taking a hardline militant approach,” Woodruff said. “And I think people are starting to appreciate the value of these long-term sustainable practices rather than the short-term fixes that set communities up for failure once the hard defenses are compromised.”

For Leonard, the approach also serves as a call to action to reject oppressive adaptation strategies and develop frameworks that capture Indigenous Knowledges in building resilience to climate change. “If we’re to build a sustainable future and ensure our shared planetary health, we have to mobilize our diverse knowledge systems together,” Leonard said.

—Jane Palmer (@JanePalmerComms), Science Writer

Citation: Palmer, J. (2021), WAMPUM: An Indigenous-designed path to sea level rise adaptation, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO210618. Published on 16 December 2021.