A 600-Year-Old Blueprint for Weathering Climate Change

Around the year 1300, the Huhugam great chief Siwani ruled over a mighty city near what is now Phoenix, Arizona. His domain included adobe-and-stone pyramids that towered 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 “reaped very large harvests with his two servants, the Wind and the Storm-cloud.” By Siwani’s time, Huhugam farms and cities had thrived in the Sonoran Desert for nearly 1,000 years. But then the weather refused to cooperate: Drought and flooding destroyed the city, and Siwani lost his awesome power, driven away by an angry mob.

Siwani was one of many leaders across North America in the 13th and 14th centuries who, in part because of climate change, faced destruction of the civilization they ruled. Beginning in the 13th century, the Northern Hemisphere experienced a dramatic climatic shift. First came drought, then a period of cold, volatile weather known as the Little Ice Age. In its depths, the annual average temperature in the Northern Hemisphere may have been 5 degrees colder than in the preceding Medieval Warm Period. It snowed in Alabama and South Texas. Famine killed perhaps 1 million people around the world.

Native North Americans and Western Europeans responded very differently to the changes. Western Europeans doubled down on their preexisting ways of living, whereas Native North Americans devised whole new economic, social, and political structures to fit the changing climate. A common stereotype of Native Americans is that, before 1492, they were primitive peoples 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 no primitive or natural state. It was a purposeful response to the rapid transformation of their world—one that has implications for how we navigate climate change today.

Both Native North Americans and Western Europeans had taken advantage of the Medieval Warm Period, which began in the 10th century and ended in the 13th century, by farming more intensively. Compared with the preceding centuries, the era brought relatively predictable weather and a longer growing season that allowed new crops and large-scale agriculture to spread into colder climes: 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 allowed population growth and urbanization. Native Americans built grand cities on the scale of those in Europe. Their ruins still stand across the continent: the stone structures of Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico; the complex irrigation systems of the Huhugam, in Arizona; the great mounds of Cahokia and other Mississippian cities on rivers across 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 kings who ruled by divine right in Europe.

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

The oral histories of many Native nations tell of revolutions against and flights from cities. Cherokee oral history recalls how “the people rose up” and destroyed “a hereditary secret society, since which time, no hereditary privileges have ever been tolerated among the Cherokees.” Descendants of Chaco Canyon narrate how wizards 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 revolted, they built smaller settlements and less centralized irrigation systems throughout what today are 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—led European explorers and modern archaeologists alike to imagine societal collapse and the tragic loss of a golden age. But oral histories from the generations that followed the cities’ demise generally described what came later as better. Smaller communities allowed for more sustainable economies. Determined not to depend on one source of sustenance, people supplemented their farming with increased hunting, fishing, and gathering. They expanded existing networks of trade, carrying large amounts of goods all across the continent in dugout canoes and on trading roads; these routes provided a variety of products in good times and a safety net when drought or other disasters stressed supplies. They developed societies that encouraged balance and consensus, in part to mitigate the problems caused by their changing climate.

To support their new economies, Native North Americans instituted decentralized governing structures with a variety of political checks and balances to prevent dictatorial leaders from taking power and to ensure that all members of a society had a say. Power and prestige lay not in amassing wealth but in assuring that wealth was shared wisely, and leaders earned support in part by being good providers and wise distributors. Many polities established councils of elders and balanced power by pairing leaders, such as the war chief and the peace chief; setting up male and female councils; and operating under family-based clans that had members in multiple towns. In the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, for example, female clan leaders chose male representatives to the Confederacy Council and could replace them if they didn’t do right by the people. In most societies across North America, all of the people—women as well as men—had some say in important decisions such as choosing a new leader, going to war, or making peace. As the Anishinaabe historian Cary Miller wrote in her book Ogimaag: Anishinaabeg Leadership, 1760–1845, Native American nonhierarchical political systems “were neither weak nor random but highly organized and deliberate.”

Underlying the structural changes was an ideological shift toward reciprocity, an ideal of sharing and balance that undergirded economics, politics, and religion across much of the continent. The Sonoran Desert–living O’odham, for example, developed a himdag, or “way of life,” that taught that people are supposed to share with one another according to what they have, especially the necessities of food, water, and shelter. Reciprocity is not merely generosity; giving away a surplus is an investment, insurance that others will help in your own time of need. “Connection to others improved the chances of overcoming some calamity or disaster that might befall the individual or group,” the Lumbee legal scholar Robert A. Williams Jr. wrote in his book Linking Arms Together: American Indian Treaty Visions of Law and Peace, 1600–1800.

By the late 1400s, the civilizations of what today is the United States, Canada, and northern Mexico were more different from Western Europe than one would have predicted during the Medieval Warm Period. From Russia to England, Europe moved in the opposite direction in response to the changing climate. When the period of droughts and then the Little Ice Age hit, hundreds of thousands of Europeans starved to death, and the famines left people more susceptible to the Black Death, which hit especially hard in the cities. Western Europeans, like North Americans, searched for a ruling system that could best keep the people fed and safe, but they opted for 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. Rulers in Europe amassed military power at home and abroad, building large armies and investing in new military technologies, including firearms. Militarization decreased the status of women’s labor, 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 to lords and priests, down to husbands within households. Through mercantilism and colonization, Europeans sought natural resources abroad in order to increase their power at home. That impulse brought them into contact with Native North Americans, whose history of adaptation they could not see. Nor could they see how intentionally Native Americans had decentralized their systems of governance.

Native Americans who visited European cities or even colonial towns were shocked at the inequality and lack of freedom. The Muscogee Creek headman 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 his Country men did not” but “live worse than they.” In turn, there were Europeans who wondered how North American societies could exist with dramatically fewer strictures—and have less poverty—than their own. They generally labeled Native American societies primitive rather than recognizing them as complicated adaptations. Yet human choices had created these striking contrasts in reaction to the same changed climate.

The descendants of North America’s great cities came to see value in the very act of trying to get along better. What if, instead of doubling down on the ways we have been living, we were to do what 13th- and 14th-century Native North Americans did, and develop more balanced and inclusive economic, social, and political systems to fit our changing climate? What if we put our highest priority on spreading prosperity and distributing decision making more broadly? It sounds unprecedented, but it has happened before.

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

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