More than symbols: Pasang Yangjee Sherpa on cultural invisibility

A researcher explains Sherpas’ relationship with climate change, in terminology and reality

The mantras on prayer flags, such as these in Namche Bazaar, are believed to absorb into the landscape as the flags' colors fade. Traditionally Tibetan, they have become a symbol of Sherpas and the Himalayas. Philip Milne, Flickr
12 September 2019
Natasha Vizcarra

This article is part of a series on the experiences of Himalayan Sherpas adapting to a warmer world. Read the background story and accounts of a guesthouse owner and glaciologist.

In 2006, Pasang Yangjee Sherpa remembers seeing news reports of possible glacial lake outburst floods in the Himalayan villages, including Jorsale, her mother’s home village about 5 kilometers due south of Namche Bazaar. Then in 2008, she heard about Imja Tsho, a fast-growing glacial lake that also threatened Sherpa villages downstream. She was in Nepal then, conducting field research for her master’s thesis.

“I was talking to people, and that was when I first heard the term ‘climate change.’ I started to worry about what was going to happen in our village,” she recalls. So when it came time to decide on her doctoral thesis focus, Pasang chose to study Sherpa perceptions of climate change, interviewing Sherpa communities in the Himalayan Pharak region over the course of three years.

Now an anthropologist at the Pacific Lutheran University in the northwestern U.S. city of Tacoma, Pasang knew from a young age that she wanted to dedicate her studies to exploring how Sherpa culture was changing. “Little did I know, some of these changes are tied to what happens to the mountains and glaciers and the climate and weather patterns in our villages.”

Pasang at the International Forum on the Cryosphere and Society in August 2019. Jitendra Raj Bajracharya, ICIMOD.
Pasang at the International Forum on the Cryosphere and Society in August 2019. Jitendra Raj Bajracharya, ICIMOD.

Just as she had experienced, Pasang’s research revealed that the term ‘climate change,’ as researchers, government and non-governmental organizations used it, was still a foreign concept for a majority of Sherpas in Pharak. And, like Tenzing’s observations, Pasang’s research noted that the participation of local Sherpas in climate change activities and projects in the region had, unfortunately, been minimal.

Feeling for the future

In her doctoral thesis, she wrote: “In some cases [local Sherpas have been] limited to their symbolic representations to promote institutional agenda… Unless institutions can treat local peoples as equal partners with credible knowledge, capable of making significant contributions, and accommodate to the existing social heterogeneity, institutional responses to the effects of climate change at the local level will not be effective and may be detrimental.”

Her doctoral work completed, Pasang took a lecturer position at Pennsylvania State University in 2013. But what she had learned about climate change and what it could mean for her homeland still affected her emotionally.

“It was really hard,” she says. “After you finish your PhD, the expectation is for you to publish a lot and get a job. But in my case I just couldn’t deal with it because I was so angry, upset, sad and worried, and everything mixed together.”

Pasang was angry about the Sherpas’ lack of representation in climate change projects. “Our future as Sherpas from the Everest region is at stake, and climate change is a big part of why that is the case,” she says.

Pasang has focused much of her research on how Sherpas experience climate change, aiming to change the narrative around Sherpas from a passive culture to active participants in the Himalayan future. Courtesy of ICIMOD
Pasang has focused much of her research on how Sherpas experience climate change, aiming to change the narrative around Sherpas from a passive culture to active participants in the Himalayan future. Courtesy of Pasang Yangjee Sherpa

“This lack of representation not only implies but actually shows that our concerns don’t get picked up or written about or documented in these international assessment reports, national policy reports or policy documents,” she says. “So with climate change, what has happened is the problems are greater than our local space.”

Silent in science

Since then, Pasang has explored other aspects of Sherpas’ perceptions of climate change and collaborated with researchers looking at the human aspect of this phenomenon. “Part of my frustration before was that most of the studies only looked at the natural science side of climate change in the Himalayas,” she says.

Thinking about climate change has also brought an unexpected outcome for Pasang: the moral debate of having children. “I’ve had to think a lot about if that’s something I really want to do,” says Pasang. “And I think that’s a direct effect of climate change on my personal life.”

“And I guess now I’ve come to think that it’s very important, at the end of the day, regardless of how the environment is and how the world is – the most important thing is human connection and that we care for each other,” she says. “I think those are very important things that will help us continue and that give hope. So, I think I really want to have kids.”

Pasang has lived in the U.S. for nearly 15 years, but the connection to her Sherpa village remains strong. “It’s hard for someone like me to think of myself as an individual person,” she says, “because we are more than an individual person. We are members of a community. And my future as a Sherpa woman depends on what happens in the villages back home.”


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