UW Graduate School

Jessica Hernandez: Climate change, Indigenous communities, and “taking back” Thanksgiving

Jessica Hernandez

Jessica Hernandez, PhD student, College of the Environment 

Jessica Hernandez is both a scientist and indigenous Zapotec and Ch’orti’. Through her initial research for her doctorate work, she looks to bridge these two communities – scientists and Indigenous peoples – to help us  better understand the effects of climate change.

Indigenous communities have been identified by the scientific community as one of the most vulnerable populations to climate change, in part, Jessica says, because “many of the traditions of Indigenous groups are very place-based.” For example, coastal tribes – the focus of Jessica’s research – suffer because ocean acidification is contributing to a decline in fish populations, leading to food insecurity and displacement among these communities.

These problems are exacerbated when scientists and Indigenous communities can’t communicate.

“Sometimes when we as scientists explain research, we tend to talk down to people, and use a lot of jargon,” Jessica says. In collaboration with the Nature Conservancy, Jessica looks to survey Indigenous communities in the PNW, gauge their perceptions of climate change and use this feedback to make the scientific literature on climate change more culturally-appropriate. This may include giving narratives of climate change in Indigenous communities a “local lens,” she says. The current scientific literature presents a national view of climate change “as though we (Indigenous communities) are all experiencing the same impacts of climate change, and that’s not the case,” she explains.

On Thanksgiving, Jessica is joining the American Indian Student Commission for “Taking Back the Dinner” at the wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ – Intellectual House. While the event is open to all, it’s an opportunity “for us to celebrate the decolonization of what is considered Thanksgiving as a community of Indigenous people,” Jessica says.

For Jessica, the idea of “taking back the dinner” is a way to recognize the impacts of climate change, displacement and intergenerational trauma on Indigenous communities. “With declines of foods security and access to our traditional foods, we are reminded during our traditional gatherings  or western holidays that climate change is drastically impacting our communities.”  It’s also about “reclaiming this part of history,” Jessica says, “like we reclaimed Columbus Day.”

Published November 23, 2017