April 13, 2024

A 600-year plan to tackle climate change

Around the year 1300, the great chief Huhugam Siwani ruled a powerful city near what is now Phoenix, Arizona. His domain included pyramids of adobe and stone that rose several stories above the desert; an irrigation system that watered 15,000 acres of crops; and a large castle. The O’odham descendants of the Huhugam tell in their oral history that Siwani “harvested very large harvests with his two servants, the Wind and the Storm Cloud.” In Siwani’s time, Huhugam farms and towns had thrived in the Sonoran Desert for nearly 1,000 years. But then the weather refused to cooperate: drought and floods destroyed the city and Siwani lost his incredible power, driven out by an angry mob.

Siwani was one of many leaders in North America in the 13th and 14th centuries who, in part due to climate change, faced the destruction of the civilization they ruled. Starting in the 13th century, the Northern Hemisphere underwent dramatic climate change. First came drought, then a period of cold, volatile weather known as the Little Ice Age. At its depths, the average annual temperature in the Northern Hemisphere may have been 5 degrees cooler than in the previous Medieval Warm Period. It snowed in Alabama and south Texas. The famine killed perhaps 1 million people worldwide.

Native North Americans and Western Europeans responded very differently to the changes. Western Europeans duplicated their pre-existing ways of life, while Native Americans devised entirely new economic, social, and political structures to adapt to climate change. A common stereotype of Native Americans is that, before 1492, they were primitive people who lived in tune with nature. It is true that in the 1400s, the indigenous people of what is now the United States and Canada generally lived more sustainably than Europeans, but this was not a primitive or natural state. It was a purposeful response to the rapid transformation of their world – a response that has implications for how we confront climate change today.

Both Native Americans and Western Europeans took advantage of the Medieval Warm Period, which began in the 10th century and ended in the 13th century, by farming more intensively. Compared to previous centuries, the era brought a relatively predictable climate and a longer growing season that allowed new crops and large-scale agriculture to spread across colder climates: from central Mexico to what is now the United States, and from the Levant and Mesopotamia to Western Europe, Mongolia and the Sahel region of Africa.

In both North America and Western Europe, agricultural expansion enabled population growth and urbanization. Native Americans built large cities on the scale of those in Europe. Its ruins still exist across the continent: the stone structures of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico; the complex irrigation systems of Huhugam, Arizona; the great mounds of Cahokia and other Mississippi towns on the rivers of the eastern half of the United States. Many groups formed hierarchical class systems and were ruled by powerful leaders who claimed supernatural powers—not unlike the kings who ruled by divine right in Europe.

But then the mood reversed. In response, Native American societies developed a deep distrust of the centralization, hierarchy, and inequality of the previous era, which they blamed for the famines and disturbances that hit cities hard. They turned away from omnipotent leaders and the cities they ruled and built new ways of life on a smaller scale, probably based in part on the way their distant ancestors lived.

The oral histories of many native nations tell of revolutions and escapes from the cities. Cherokee oral history recalls how “the people rose up” and destroyed “a hereditary secret society, since then no hereditary privileges have ever been tolerated among the Cherokees.” The descendants of Chaco Canyon recount how the witches corrupted some leaders, so their people fought against the rulers or simply left to establish more egalitarian societies. O’odham oral tradition tells that after their ancestors’ revolt, they built smaller settlements and less centralized irrigation systems in what are now the Phoenix and Tucson basins.

The cities that Native Americans left behind during the Little Ice Age—ruins such as those at Chaco Canyon and Cahokia—have led both European explorers and modern archaeologists to imagine social collapse and the tragic loss of a golden age. But the oral histories of the generations that followed the cities’ demise generally described what came after as better. Smaller communities have allowed for more sustainable economies. Determined not to depend on a single source of sustenance, people supplemented their agriculture with increased hunting, fishing and gathering. They expanded existing trade networks, transporting large quantities of goods across the continent in canoes and on commercial roads; These routes provided a variety of products in good times and a safety net when drought or other disasters put pressure on supplies. They developed societies that encouraged balance and consensus, in part to mitigate problems caused by climate change.

To support their new economies, Native Americans instituted decentralized government structures with a variety of political checks and balances to prevent dictatorial leaders from seizing power and to ensure that all members of a society had a say. Power and prestige reside not in the accumulation of wealth, but in ensuring that wealth was shared wisely and that leaders gained support, in part, by being good suppliers and wise distributors. Many political systems established councils of elders and balanced power through the union of leaders, such as the war chief and the peace chief; creation of male and female councils; and operating under family clans that had members in several cities. In the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, for example, female clan leaders chose male representatives for the Confederation Council and could replace them if they did not do what was right by the people. In most North American societies, everyone – both women and men – had some say in important decisions, such as choosing a new leader, going to war, or making peace. As Anishinaabe historian Cary Miller wrote in her book Ogimaag: Anishinaabeg Leadership, 1760-1845Native American non-hierarchical political systems were “neither weak nor random, but highly organized and deliberate.”

Ogimaag Leadership – Anishinaabeg, 1760-1845

Per Cary Miller

Underlying the structural changes was an ideological shift toward reciprocity, an ideal of sharing and balance that underpinned the economy, politics, and religion across much of the continent. The O’odham, who live in the Sonoran Desert, for example, have developed a today, or “way of life,” which taught that people should share with one another according to what they have, especially the needs of food, water, and shelter. Reciprocity is not just generosity; donating a surplus is an investment, a guarantee that others will help in your time of need. “Connecting with others improved the chances of overcoming some calamity or disaster that might befall the individual or group,” wrote Lumbee legal scholar Robert A. Williams Jr. Joining Arms: Visions of Law and Peace from the American Indian Treaty, 1600-1800.

Joining Arms – Visions of Law and Peace from the American Indian Treaty, 1600-1800

Per Robert A. Williams

In the late 1400s, the civilizations of what are now the United States, Canada, and northern Mexico were more different from Western Europe than might have been predicted during the Medieval Warm Period. From Russia to England, Europe has moved in the opposite direction in response to climate change. When the dry season and then the Little Ice Age arrived, hundreds of thousands of Europeans starved to death, and the famine left people more susceptible to the Black Death, which hit cities especially hard. Western Europeans, like North Americans, looked for a system of government that could better keep people fed and safe, but they took the opposite approach.

In general, as Western Europe recovered from the devastation of the Black Death and the end of the Medieval Warm Period, it became more centralized under the rule of hereditary absolute monarchs. Europe’s rulers accumulated military power at home and abroad, building large armies and investing in new military technologies, including firearms. Militarization diminished the status of women’s work and, unlike the complementary gender structures that developed in native North America, patriarchy was the basis of power in Western Europe, from the pope and kings, lords and priests, to the husbands within families. Through mercantilism and colonization, Europeans sought natural resources abroad in order to increase their power at home. This impulse brought them into contact with Native Americans, whose history of adaptation they could not see. Nor could they see how Native Americans had intentionally decentralized their systems of governance.

Native Americans who visited European cities or even colonial cities were shocked by the inequality and lack of freedom. Muscogee Creek chief Tomochichi, for example, visited London in 1734 and expressed surprise that the British king lived in a palace with an unnecessarily large number of rooms. An Englishman recorded that Tomochichi observed that the English “knew many things that the men of their country did not know” but “lived worse than them.” In turn, there were Europeans who wondered how North American societies could exist with dramatically fewer restrictions – and have less poverty – than their own. They generally labeled Native American societies as primitive rather than recognizing them as complicated adaptations. However, human choices have created these striking contrasts in response to the same climate change.

The descendants of the big cities of North America began to see value in the very act of trying to live together better. What if, instead of redoubling the way we have been living, we did what the Native Americans of the 13th and 14th centuries did, and developed more balanced and inclusive economic, social and political systems to adapt to our changing climate? What if we put our highest priority on spreading prosperity and distributing decision-making more broadly? It seems unprecedented, but it has happened before.


This article is adapted from Kathleen DuVal’s upcoming book, Native Nations: A Millennium in North America.

Native Nations – A Millennium in North America

Per Kathleen DuVal


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