How Maine Tribes Are Adapting To Climate Change, Threatening Thousands Of Years Of Culture

Sep 18, 2019

In northern Maine, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs has for decades been trying to protect important tribal cultural resources, including traditional foods, from pollution. And warming temperatures are expected to further that threat. But the Micmacs and other Maine tribes are taking steps to adapt.

In a tiny studio nestled in his backyard near Houlton, Richard Silliboy gathers, splits and weaves together long thin pieces of ash that will eventually form a basket. The vice chief of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, Silliboy says he learned the art as a child from his mother, who’d craft up to 120 baskets a week that were used by workers in the nearby potato fields.

As he sits and weaves, Silliboy describes the practice as spiritual and part of the tribe’s creation story.

“I think about my past. I think about my family. Think about the Creator. Think about the problems that we face as Native Americans. And always trying to resolve some problem that’s out of my reach,” he says.

Those problems include the threats to ash trees and other cultural resources from the environmental effects of invasive insects and a changing climate.

Richard Silliboy, the vice chief of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, weaves pieces of ash into baskets at his studio behind his house in Littleton. For years, Silliboy has voiced concerns about the decline of ash trees and other effects of climate change.
Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public

“The tribe has been living here in what is now Aroostook County for thousands of years. And the tribe learned to make use of all the natural resources that were available. And now our natural resources are changing because of climate change,” says Fred Corey, the natural resources director for the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, which he says has been dealing with environmental challenges for years.

Corey says pollution and contamination of waterways have diminished the supply and quality of culturally significant food sources such as wild brook trout. And now some reports indicate that trout could be at risk of losing cold water habitat in some areas due to factors including reduced stream flow and warming water temperatures.

“Brook trout fishing has been a legacy that many families in the tribe have practiced for thousands of years. And to see that practice eventually go away, or our brook trout become so fragile that we’re not able to fish for them, is really scary for the future,” he says.

“These are all, both, scary situations. But also I see, on the tribal side, a great ability and a resilience to respond to these potential challenges,” says Darren Ranco, a professor of anthropology at the University of Maine who has worked with tribes as they prepare and adapt as climate change threatens important species such as moose, long hunted as a source of food and now under pressure from infestations of winter ticks.

In this May 31, 2018, file photo, a pair of bull moose pause while feeding in the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge in Wentworth's Location, N.H. A study by University of New Hampshire researchers finds that winter ticks are posing an increasing threat to the region's embattled moose population.
Credit Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press

Ranco says in the effort to adapt to these pressures, it’s important that indigenous knowledge and science be considered, along with expertise from outside of the tribe.

“The worst thing we can do is just have some expert at some high level make a decision that impacts so many people, if they haven’t really embedded themselves in what’s really important to those to those local people,” he says.

To adapt to present and possible future threats to brook trout, the Micmacs have decided to grow the fish themselves. More than 30,000 trout swim inside two giant, bubbling tanks at a hatchery they’ve built in Caribou. While some of the fish head to restaurants or markets, the tribe estimates that nearly a third are distributed to its members.

Environmental specialist David Macek says the hatchery offers a way to provide a sustainable, clean food source for the Micmac community while conserving trout populations in the wild.

“It’s really important because we know it’s going to be available. We know where it’s coming from. We know how it’s being produced. And it’s going to be there, even as climate change might start taking a toll on the wild stock,” he says.

Dave Macek checks the temperature of the water at Micmacs farm, a hatchery in Caribou that the Aroostook Band of Micmacs are using to raise wild brook trout. The facility is partially intended to protect the wild brook trout population, which is threatened due to a variety of factors, including warming waters from climate change.
Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public

The tribe is also planning for other climate related changes, including a study of the effects of mosquitoes and potential vector-borne diseases, which staffers hope will begin next year. Tribal officials say they want to be proactive and learn from other tribes across Maine and the country to preserve the resources they’ve relied on for centuries.

This story is part of a week-long reporting project “Covering Climate Now,” by Maine Public and more than 300 other news outlets around the world. The series comes in advance of the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Monday Sept. 23 in New York. More information here.

Originally published 5:47 p.m. Sept. 17, 2019