Understanding Glaciers through Indigenous Cultures

Climate change is viewed as an economic, political, and physical problem. But a study in WIREs Climate Change by Elizabeth A. Allison (found here) shows that there is a mental aspect to climate change that is being ignored by the major communities invested in the issue: the spiritual and religious importance of glaciers to mountain cultures.

Glaciers are bound to the culture of humans who have lived in harmony with them for centuries, the study found. According to Allison, evaluations made by bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underestimate the true cost of climate change by overlooking the emotional, spiritual, and psychological connections that people assign to changing conditions.

Understanding climate change without the implications it has on culture silences the voices and perceptions of minority communities, Allison found. These are the people who are the most affected by climate change. To diminish the cultural loss of these communities is an injustice not only to the communities involved directly but also to our shared cultural understanding of climate change, she wrote. As part of her research, Allison looked at communities in order to better understand their connection to the glaciers they live alongside.

On the west coast of North America such indigenous cultures as Alaska’s Tlingit people and First Nations people of the Yukon understood glaciers as snake-like beings. These creatures were thought to have particular preferences and requirements. According to an indigenous observer in 1904, “in one place Alsek River runs under a glacier. People can pass beneath in their canoes, but, if anyone speaks while they are under it, the glacier comes down on them. They say that in those times the glacier was like an animal, and could hear what was said to it.”

Dancers at the Qoyllur Rit'i festival
Dancers at the Qoyllur Rit’i festival. Courtesy of AgainErick wikipedia/commons

In the Peruvian Andes, the Quechua who live near the declining glacier on Mt. Ausangate believe that the disappearance of the glacier is associated with the mountain god’s departure. It used to be that during the annual Qoyllur Rit’i festival (meaning Snow Star), honoring an appearance of the Christ child, nearly 70,000 people traversed the Sinakara glacier. Ritual leaders would communicate with the glacial god and cut out large blocks of glacial ice thought to have magical healing properties.

Concern for the receding glacier prompted changes in local custom. In 2000 local leaders set regulations along with installing guards, disallowing ice to be removed from the glacier. Even pilgrims lighting candles at the edge of the glacier in prayer have begun to use smaller candles in an effort to preserve the glacier. Once having relied on the glacier to protect and heal them, this community now sees to the well-being of a god that to them, appears dying.

Bolivian Glacier. Courtesy of Jonathan Lewis wikipedia/commons
Bolivian Glacier. Courtesy of Jonathan Lewis wikipedia/commons

In Bolivia, the people depend on glaciated mountains to provide water for agriculture and day-to-day survival. They see them as life-giving deities, on whom they depend, calling them Achachilas. Within a few decades 80% of Bolivia’s life-sustaining glaciers are expected to be gone. A Bolivian charitable foundation called Fundación Solón, has stated that the loss of glaciers would be a loss for Bolivians surpassing that of the Twin Towers in the 9/11 attacks.

In Tibetan Buddhist communities in the Himalayas, people have begun avoiding cooking or eating certain odorous foods (such as garlic and onions), burning meat, experiencing strong emotions, breaking vows, or physically fighting for fear of unleashing the wrath of mountain deities. On April 18, 2014 when 16 Sherpas climbing Mount Everest were killed by a falling block of ice, locals believed it to be the result of an angered mountain deity feeling disrespect due to the accumulated trash, fighting, helicopters, and the attitude of foreigners.

Mingyong Glacier
Mingyong Glacieris one of the most rapidly receding glaciers in the world. Courtesy of Chen Zhao/Flicker.

Mingyong Glacier is one of the most rapidly receding glaciers in the world. Located below Mount Khawa Karpo in the Meili Snow Mountain Range in northwest Yunnan at the Tibet border, it is among the most sacred mountains to Tibetan Buddhists. Local cultures do not allow foreign scientists to step out onto the ice of the Mingyong Glacier, out of concern for observed loss of glacial mass, instead allowing scientists to measure glacial recession only through repeat photography. A number of different reasons have been offered up by the locals for the glacial decline: lack of proper prayer on behalf of the local citizens, disrespectful tourists, and the incline of global material greed. Even though the scientific findings indicate an increasingly doomed outlook for the glacier, the locals believe it’s impossible for the glacier to die because their existence is intertwined with that of the glacier.

Aspects of climate change include more than an economical or physical understanding, but an understanding of the cultural importance of the effects of a changing climate such as glacier loss. Allison’s research found that people are more likely to accept and incorporate discussions of environmental and scientific issues, when issues match their own preconceptions. She suggested that scientists could be more effective in educating the public about climate change if they included local conceptualizations of glaciers in their reports, rather than relying purely on scientific data and technical language.

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