“Being Frank” Climate Change is Damaging Treaty Rights

By Lorraine Loomis, Chair, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commissiont

Climate change isn’t happening to some of us. It’s happening to all of us, and it’s going to take all of us to meet its challenges.

A recent report from the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington brings the issue of climate change home. Home to the ocean, beaches, rivers and forests that support our treaty-protected rights and resources.

Tribes are closely connected to the natural world and we are seeing the increasing effects of climate change throughout the region: Higher air and water temperatures, disappearing glaciers, decreasing summer streamflows, rising sea levels and stronger winter storms.

Climate change worsens factors that are already affecting our resources, such as the continued loss of salmon habitat faster than it can be restored. When we add projected population growth to the mix, the future looks grim.

Climate change is the most significant environmental event of our lifetime. That’s why we want to focus attention and work together with local, state and federal governments and others to address its effects.

We applaud the state of Washington for leading the nation by using the state Clean Air Act to establish a cap on carbon pollution that is the main cause of climate change.

We think Gov. Inslee’s call for a carbon tax is a good idea. It could provide a big boost to clean energy, forest health and other solutions to address climate change.

The tax would be levied on any company that generates or imports electricity, natural gas or oil, such as power plants and refineries. It would be the first of its kind in the nation, and would encourage other states to follow Washington’s lead.

In the meantime, tribes are conducting vulnerability assessments and implementing adaptation plans to protect tribal communities and resources from the effects of climate change.

Many of the actions needed in salmon recovery also reduce the effects of climate change. Stream buffers, functioning floodplains and adequate instream flows cool waters and protect water supplies. They help create resilience in salmon and other species by helping them adapt to climate change.

Tribes have always lived along the coast and in the watersheds of western Washington. We know these lands and waters better than anyone else.

We are committed to sharing centuries of traditional knowledge combined with today’s science to help others identify, track and adapt to climate change trends across the region and throughout the world.

To learn more about climate change, how it affects tribes, and what the tribes are doing about it, visit us on the web at nwtreatytribes.org/climatechange.

For Tulalips, protecting treaty rights means restoring habitat

From a research boat on Oct. 12, Tulalip Tribes treaty rights commissioner Terry Williams points out a steep hillside near Mission Beach that has been gradually eroding for years. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

From a research boat on Oct. 12, Tulalip Tribes treaty rights commissioner Terry Williams points out a steep hillside near Mission Beach that has been gradually eroding for years. (Ian Terry / The Herald)



By Chris Winters, The Herald, Oct 22, 2016


TULALIP — From the deck of a 30-foot research boat owned by the Tulalip Tribes, Terry Williams pointed out the remnants of a bulkhead along Mission Beach where not long ago there was a string of beach houses.

In 2013, the leases on the tribal property weren’t renewed and the homes were removed. The main concern was erosion of the beach and the bluffs overhead damaging the fragile marine environment below.

Williams, who is the Tulalips’ treaty rights commissioner, said increased rainfall and stronger windstorms would saturate the sandy bluffs and cause them to slide down onto the houses below.

“It gets to the consistency of a milkshake and tends to fall,” Williams said.

On a bright fall day, several parts of the bluff showed clear evidence of slides. Houses were visible above.

Coastal landslides tend to silt up the nearshore environment, which is considered a critical piece of the salmon ecosystem.

“Those areas are really important for forage fish for threatened and endangered salmon,” said Joshua Meidav, the Tulalip Tribes’ conservation science program manager.

The beaches were created and rejuvenated over millennia by the gradual erosion of the bluffs. Development along the shore, including bulkheads, docks and clifftop homes, interrupted that natural process.

Now when the bluff slides, it tends to come down all at once, Williams said.

“The reality is that this is all changing,” he said.

An issue of rights 

Climate change is a concern to Williams and the Tulalips in ways that go well beyond the usual worries about flooding and slides. It’s an issue of treaty rights.

While treaty rights are most commonly understood in the context of dividing the salmon harvest, their reach extends beyond the fishing grounds to tribal relationships with local, state and federal governments, said Ray Fryberg Sr., the Tulalips’ Executive Director of Natural Resources.

Most commonly that manifests in cooperative work with federal, state and local governments, and even private landowners, on many kinds of projects designed to restore salmon habitat.

On other occasions, the tribes have sought redress in the federal courts when they felt government wasn’t living up to its obligations.

“We’re like the last vanguard,” Fryberg said. “They have policies and procedures but there’s no enforcement.”

Most recently, that manifested in the “culverts case.”

In 2001, 21 tribes argued successfully that Washington state violated their treaty rights because culverts that carried streams under roads harmed salmon runs.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision in June, and ordered the state Department of Transportation to replace or fix 818 culverts at an estimated cost of $2.4 billion over the next 17 years.

It was a significant advancement of treaty rights into the realm of habitat restoration.

“The culvert case is the case that says there has to be a restoration so that ongoing harm doesn’t continue,” said Robert Anderson, a law professor and the director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington.

In this case, the state of Washington was found to have damaged habitat for salmon, and was ordered to make repairs.

Habitat protection and restoration were key elements in the second phase of a landmark decision by U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt.

In 1974, the first phase of the Boldt decision provided the basis for the co-management system, in which tribal and non-tribal fishermen divide the salmon harvest each year. The second phase, decided in 1984, focused on the habitat for the salmon.

“Phase II said that there’s not going to be a treaty resource of the salmon unless the environment is protected,” Fryberg said. “We get a certain amount of say-so in that.”

The part of the Phase II Boldt decision that obligated the federal government to restore habitat was overturned on appeal. However, the federal appeals court still said that the state of Washington and the tribes needed to take steps to protect and enhance the fisheries.

What those steps should be was left unstated.

“It’s difficult to argue that the federal government has an obligation to restore the ecosystem to, say, pre-treaty conditions, or treaty-time conditions,” Anderson said.

Some of the damage to habitat had already been done by that time, he said. Also, it’s a lot harder to assess the damage done by small changes, such as a single tide gate on private land, compared with the cumulative effects of the state’s culvert construction.

Momentum for restoration work can be created, however, when treaty rights are considered in tandem with the Endangered Species Act’s listing of various populations of salmon and steelhead.

“I think there’s a strong argument with the federal government to take steps to restore habitat,” Anderson said. “Maybe not a legal argument, but a treaty trust obligation to do it, and that they should do it.”

A seat at the table 

In practical terms, that means that the tribes have been aggressive in forming partnerships to pursue environmental projects.

Representatives from the Tulalips and the Suquamish Tribes were included in last week’s announcement of a new governmental task force to identify goals to protect Puget Sound.

Tribes also have broad leeway to take on projects of their own that help restore habitat, or at least halt the progress of degradation.

It’s not a blanket authority to do anything anywhere, but it means tribes have a seat at the table whenever a treaty trust resource is affected.

As a coordinating body among the 20 treaty tribes of Western Washington, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission has a role supporting restoration programs to have a greater impact.

A lot of the commission’s work focuses on the marine nearshore environment, said Fran Wilshusen, the NWIFC’s habitat services director. That also means studying how the marine environment interacts with estuaries, river systems and the upland watersheds.

“We’re trying to pull the lens back and look at how the whole system is connected,” Wilshusen said.

That includes small projects, such as the Tulalips’ 2013 pilot study to release beavers in the western Cascades, where their activity of building dams is expected to help return the upper reaches of streams to their natural state, which happens to be better spawning territory for salmon.

Larger efforts include the Tulalips’ restoration of the 400-acre Qwuloolt Estuary in Marysville. A similar project was restoration of the 762-acre estuary in the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge outside Tacoma by the Nisqually Tribe.

The ongoing Nearshore Restoration Project focuses on restoring beaches and marine environments damaged by beach erosion. It’s a Snohomish County project, and local tribes have a place at the table, serving on the boards of several organizations that provided money for the project, including the county’s Marine Resource Committee and the Northwest Straits Commission.

One project under way is an agreement between the Tulalip Tribes and the U.S. Forest Service to maintain a 1,280-acre tract in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest as a source of wild huckleberries.

There aren’t that many places left in the mountains that are accessible by road that still provide habitat for the berries, which are important to tribal culture, said Libby Halpin Nelson, a senior environmental policy analyst with the Tulalips.

“They are healthy and they are a traditional food that is always looked for in ceremonies,” Nelson said.

The project includes removing small conifers that could “shade-out” the berries. In essence, the tribe is mimicking the effect forest fires used to have before fire suppression became standard response, she said.

Rights at risk 

For all the work that’s been done to protect and restore salmon habitat, the fish runs continue to decline.

In spring, projections of low numbers of returning salmon, especially coho, led to a breakdown of negotiations between the tribes and the state. Tempers flared and fishermen protested when tribes were given permission to catch a small number of spring Chinook while the non-native sportsmen had to wait.

July report from the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission’s “Treaty Rights at Risk” initiative pointed out just how dire the situation was for many watersheds, including the Snohomish and Stillaguamish rivers: Habitat was being lost faster than it could be replaced and nearly every single indicator of the health of salmon populations was trending downward.

The challenges looming on the horizon are even more formidable.

A poster on Fryberg’s office wall has a picture of the late Nisqually leader Billy Frank Jr. and his warning to all Native American tribes: “As the salmon disappear, so do our tribal cultures and treaty rights. We are at a crossroads, and we are running out of time.”

With each new study, it becomes clearer that changes are elapsing at an increasing speed.

“Ten, 15 years ago, what we said would happen in 50 years is already happening,” Fryberg said.

The Tulalip Tribes hosted two summits this year, one in April concerning rising sea levels, and another in September that looked at adapting to climate change in general. Fryberg said the tribe is planning a third focused on the state of salmon recovery.

“Collectively, we have to be making some effort,” Fryberg said. “We have a responsibility to the future to try and do something.”

The quote from Billy Frank was from an essay he wrote in 2012, and it’s the next sentence that points to what needs to be done: “That’s why we are asking the federal government to come to align its agencies and programs, and lead a more coordinated recovery effort.”

Williams’ entire career has been focused on building bridges between tribal, state and federal governments.

Shortly after the Boldt decision, he was involved in setting up the co-management regime in the state, and then negotiating the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada and its First Nations, backed by research developed by Tulalip staff scientists.

In the 1990s he was tapped to open the Indian Office in the Environmental Protection Agency. But many efforts to restore salmon runs were coming up short.

“We were putting tremendous amount of money into restoration and we were losing ground,” Williams said.

He realized that many federal and state agencies operated in their own silos, and often they might set regulations that aren’t in line with each other or broader goals.

“It’s the authority of each individual agency, federal, state or local, that gives them the ability to create rules and standards,” Williams said. “Eleven agencies have independent programs and authorities in Puget Sound. Most are not geared toward Puget Sound recovery goals.”

At the climate change summit in September, Williams noted the decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies to temporarily halt work on the Dakota Access Pipeline after months of protests at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. He said that was recognition that regulators were out of alignment with the Obama Administration’s agenda.

While a court has allowed some of that work to start up again, the government’s order came with an announcement that the federal government would consult with tribes on major infrastructure projects in the future.

The consultation process already existed since President Obama created a cabinet-level position to coordinate government-tribal relations, Anderson said.

“Here the Obama Administration seems to be signaling that, ‘Hey, maybe we ought to be doing more,’” he said.

That may lead simply to more federal agencies talking to each other and more often with tribal governments, which is still a step forward.

From the Tulalip research boat, Williams pointed out a section of Hermosa Point where he’s lived since the 1970s. Here too, the bluffs have slid, and some of the houses are perched on the edge, hanging over the lip.

“When I bought my house we were looking at getting closer to the bluff, but decided that wasn’t a good idea,” he said.

If stronger regulations are enacted, it would prevent some houses from being built, and that would translate into lower insurance costs for government. That would also help protect fragile ecosystems.

“The more we can understand it, the better we can prepare,” Williams said.

“What we’re seeing in climate impacts right now is just the beginning.”


An eroding hillside near Hermosa Point on the Tulalip Reservation. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

An eroding hillside near Hermosa Point on the Tulalip Reservation. (Ian Terry / The Herald)


Evidence of a recent slide along a hillside near Arcadia Road on the Tulalip Reservation on Oct. 12. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Evidence of a recent slide along a hillside near Arcadia Road on the Tulalip Reservation on Oct. 12. (Ian Terry / The Herald)


Fishermen in Tulalip Bay with the Olympic Mountains looming in the background. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Fishermen in Tulalip Bay with the Olympic Mountains looming in the background. (Ian Terry / The Herald)


Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

Being Frank: Hatcheries Bridge Gap Between Habitat, Harvest




By  Lorraine Loomis, Chair, NWIFC


Despite their unbreakable connection, salmon harvest and habitat restoration continue moving down separate roads in western Washington. Many people either don’t see or choose to ignore the fact that habitat determines harvest, and that we continue to lose habitat faster than it can be restored.

Indian and non-Indian harvest has been cut to the bone this summer because of expected historically low returns, especially coho. Yet habitat loss and damage – the root of the problem – continues every day throughout our watersheds and nearshore marine waters.

Poor ocean survival conditions certainly played a role in the low salmon returns of the past several years. But even when we can restore or protect salmon habitat, we aren’t helping ourselves enough.

You might be surprised, but fish really do grow on trees. Trees keep water temperatures low, the way salmon like it. Their roots help to prevent soil erosion that can smother salmon eggs. When they fall into a river, trees provide diverse rearing habitat for fish. When the salmon spawn and die, their nutrients feed the trees.

Yet from 2006 to 2011 we lost the equivalent of two Seattle-sized forests or about 170 square miles, according to the treaty tribes’ 2016 State of Our Watersheds Report. The report can be viewed at nwifc.org/sow.

When we lose habitat, we also lose the natural production of salmon it provides. The collapse of our fisheries is simply mirroring the collapse of the eco-systems that support them.

For more than 100 years, hatcheries have tried to make up for that loss, but hatchery salmon depend on the same declining habitat as naturally spawning salmon.

About half of the salmon harvested in western Washington are hatchery fish. Continued habitat loss means we will have to depend on hatcheries for as long as lost and damaged habitat continues to restrict natural salmon production and threaten treaty rights.

Hatcheries are simply a tool. Some provide fish for harvest while reducing harvest pressures on weak stocks. Others serve as nurseries to protect threatened salmon stocks. All are essential to salmon recovery and should be integrated in our salmon recovery efforts for every watershed. We need every tool in the box to reinforce remaining salmon populations as we work to restore habitat.

The importance of this tool should be reflected in its funding, but as the need for hatchery fish has increased, state funding for hatcheries has declined or remained flat. Treaty tribes have stepped up to fill the gap in recent years and provide more salmon for everyone by picking up the costs at a number of state hatcheries where production was threatened by budget shortfalls.

The connection between harvest and habitat is clear. We cannot expect to harvest salmon – either hatchery or naturally spawning – as long as we continue to destroy salmon habitat. In the meantime, hatcheries must continue to help bridge that gap and be included as the essential part of salmon recovery that they are.





Lorraine Loomis is the chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.


Quinault Indian Nation hosts crude oil protest rally

When tribes stand together is when we are strongest


Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp, along with many tribal members and Grays Harbor community member rally in protest of crude oil in their county. Photo/Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News 


By Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News

Grays Harbor County is the vacation destination for Washingtonians who are looking for a relaxing affordable getaway. Grays Harbor is the home to popular beach towns like Ocean Shores, Seabrook, and Westport. Hikers and nature lovers who visit the Hoh Rainforest and Lake Quinault frequently admire the northern borders of the county because it shares the Olympic Peninsula with Jefferson and Clallam Counties. This county with breathtaking views almost everywhere you look is in danger of jeopardizing its greatest tourist attraction: it’s natural resources.

Westway Terminal is seeking to build and operate oil terminals in Grays Harbor. The company wants to bring in large amounts of oil via train, store it on the shoreline, and ship it out of the harbor in tanker vessels. Westway is the third company attempting to bring crude oil business into the Grays Harbor community in recent years. Imperium Terminal Services and Grays Harbor Rail Terminal have both attempted and failed largely due to the communities’ opposition. Westway argues that the company will create thousands of job opportunities in a community that is economically struggling, and that Washington State has one of the best oil spill prevention and response teams in the country, so if a spill were to ever occur, the damage would be significantly less than other states.


Photo/Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News

Photo/Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News


Grays Harbor recognizes the point the company is trying to make and although some citizens find the possibility of an economic boost appealing, the majority of Grays Harbor feel the risk is greater than the reward. The Quinault Indian Nation (QIN) is the most prominent among the many active voices in the community regarding this issue.

QIN hosted a march and rally in the city of Hoquiam on Friday July 8, protesting crude oil in Grays Harbor County. Hundreds of tribal and community members united in an effort to save the county from Westway’s purposed oil terminals. The rally began when traditional canoes docked at the Hoquiam River. Once everybody was ashore the protesters, with banners raised high, marched onto Hoquiam City Hall.



Photo/Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News


“Our ancestors gave up so much when signing the treaties. They worked to ensure that our generation, and we are the seventh generation since the Quinault Nation signed our treaty in the 1800’s, would be secured by treaty rights. This generation is standing up for our treaty rights to ensure that our natural resources are preserved for the next seven generations to come,” stated QIN President, Fawn Sharp, as the large crowd began to chant “No crude oil!”


Photo/Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News

Photo/Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News


President Sharp commissioned an economic study in regards to what would happen to the community if the county approves the oil terminals. The study found that in the case of an oil spill, approximately 10,000 jobs would be threatened including 700 tribal fisherman, 400 non-tribal fisherman, and over 4,000 tourism based jobs. According to the study, more jobs would be lost in the community in the event of a spill than the jobs that would be created by approving Westway’s move to the harbor. Not to mention the damage a spill would cause the environment.

Sharp stated, “We are at a critical place in Grays Harbor. A decision is going to be made soon. The future of this harbor is going to go in one direction or the other. We need it to go in the direction of no crude oil forever!”

Several community leaders gave testimonies opposing Westway at Hoquiam City Hall that afternoon. Tribal leaders from Lummi, Neah Bay, and Quileute were in attendance to show support for Quinault. With the majority of the community on the same page, the purposed oil terminal seems to facing a losing battle. The QIN’s effort to preserve its natural resources for it’s future tribal members is a battle that the Nation is always prepared for. The protection of treaty rights is a fight that all tribes throughout Native America are familiar with, and when tribes stand together is when we are strongest. No crude oil!


Photo/Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News

Photo/Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News


Photo/Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News

Photo/Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News

A sign of progress for the recovery of salmon habitat

Billy Frank Jr. stands on top of a culvert in 2008. photo/Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

Billy Frank Jr. stands on top of a culvert in 2008. Photo/Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission


U.S. 9th District Court of Appeals rules in favor of the tribes in culvert case 


By Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News 

A culvert is a tunnel carrying a stream or open drain under a road or railroad. Currently, there are hundreds of culverts in the state of Washington that are in need of repairs. This issue has been an on-going problem for the tribes of Washington State for a large amount of time. The reason this is an issue for northwest Native Americans is because the blocked culverts are preventing salmon from swimming into spawning areas and from swimming back to the ocean, thus diminishing the salmon runs in Washington.

The original case began over 15 years ago; in 2001 the 21 federally recognized tribes of Washington filed a complaint against Washington State in the U.S. District Court regarding the damaged culverts. In 2007 the court ruled that building the culverts put the state in violation of the treaties the state signed with the tribes, and in 2013 the court made it a requirement for the Department of Transportation to replace the culverts with more efficient and salmon friendly culverts. The court gave Washington 17 years to replace the culverts making this the second victory for the tribes regarding this issue.

Washington State found this ruling a bit harsh and filed an appeal stating that the ruling was too expensive. The estimate given by The Department of Transportation was around $1.9 billion for the replacement of approximately 800 estimated culverts over the next 17 years. The court did find these estimations to be over-calculated for both the cost as well as the number of culverts that need to be replaced.

Washington agrees that blocked culverts are one reason why salmon runs are on the decline. The state corrected 23 culverts since the ruling in 2013, and looks to fix several more before the year ends. However, the state did file the appeal claiming that the treaties did not require the state to restore the salmon habitat, there is no minimum requirement of salmon for the tribes, and that the project is too time consuming and expensive. The states appeal was heard in October of 2015.

On Monday June 27, 2016 the U.S. 9th District Court of Appeals ruled yet again in favor of the tribes. The state can still file for a rehearing and petition for the U.S. Supreme Court. Washington State attorneys are currently reviewing the case and deciding whether or not they would like to proceed with a rehearing,

Once the culverts are replaced they will open over 1,000 miles of streams for salmon to pass through. Tribal leaders are looking to Washington for a sit-down to create a co-management plan that is financially realistic as well as time efficient. The decision is definitely a sign of progress for the recovery of the salmon habitat. However, many believe that there is still much work to be done, citing the culverts as just one of many problems. John Sledd, the primary attorney for the tribes believes that this is a major step in the right direction.

“Treaty fishing rights mean nothing without fish to catch, and you can’t have fish if they can’t get to their habitat to reproduce.  The Court of Appeals made it absolutely clear – the treaties promised the tribes more than the right to set their nets and bring them up empty.  They promised enough fish to meet the people’s needs.  This decision is a big step to fulfilling that promise. It’s a great decision for the tribes, the fish, and everyone who values wild salmon.”

The Choctaw v climate change: ‘The earth is speaking’

In the US, members of the Choctaw nation fight to reclaim their relationship with the land in a world without seasons.


Wilson Roberts, an elder member of the Choctaw nation, believes the earth is out of balance [Nicholas

Wilson Roberts, an elder member of the Choctaw nation, believes the earth is out of balance [Nicholas Linn/Al Jazeera

By Emily Crane Linn, Al Jazeera


Durant, Oklahoma – It’s nearly June. Every day, the Earth brings Darryl “Grey Eagle” Brown closer to the Sun, to heaven, to the Creator. That means it’s nearly time for the Eagle Sun Dance ceremony, a 12-day communal gathering of fasting, thanksgiving and prayer that takes place around the summer solstice, when the Creator is especially near.

Fifty-six-year-old Brown is a member of the Choctaw tribe of Oklahoma and a spiritual leader for a band of tribal members seeking to practise their indigenous religion. He learned the Sun Dance from another Choctaw elder who learned it from a tribe in the northern Great Plains. It is a pan-Indian dance – a blend of traditions and historic knowledge passed between the tribes of the Great Plains.

Brown has held this ceremony on his family’s land outside Durant, Oklahoma, each summer for 20 years. Every year, it seems to get hotter, he says, and the weather less predictable. Some years, they dance on parched ground under a cloudless sky. At other times, they’re nearly blown away by hot, angry winds. Last year, they were drenched in torrential floods. But regardless of what the weather holds, Brown must dance anyway because he feels the Choctaw – and the earth – needs him to.

 “Our ceremonies help keep life in balance,” he says.

‘The earth is speaking, but man won’t listen’


Brown believes that both his people and the earth they inhabit are deeply out of balance, damaging one another as a result. “Man’s pollution has altered the earth,” he says. “The earth is speaking now, but man won’t listen.”

In Oklahoma, the earth seems to be shouting. From 2010 to 2015, the land plunged the state into a punishing drought, bringing the Choctaw nation to the brink of a water crisis. In 2011, it was the second-hottest summer on record, with more than 35 consecutive days of temperatures above 37 degrees Celsius. Then last summer, the missing rains arrived, but in devastating 30cm deluges. The seemingly incessant floods tore through the state all summer long, destroying houses and wiping out crops.

Brown knows the outside world has a term for these catastrophic weather shifts: climate change. He knows there have been summits and debates and policies on the matter. But here in Choctaw nation, Brown doesn’t place much stock in what the federal government or the United Nations have to say. The earth is speaking – speaking through thunderous rains, violent tornadoes and scrambled seasons.

“The seasons aren’t in order any more,” Brown says. “I remember winter in Oklahoma. I remember the ponds freezing up and staying that way for months. Now, we get a few days of cold, but no real winter.”


Volunteers gather their wild gardening tools to cut back and clear out other plant species that are currently out-competing with the fragile river cane for resources [Nicholas Linn/Al Jazeera]

Volunteers gather their wild gardening tools to cut back and clear out other plant species that are currently out-competing with the fragile river cane for resources [Nicholas Linn/Al Jazeera]

Historically, the Choctaw have proved to be adaptive to whatever nature has given them, says Scott Ketchum, a Choctaw member and PhD candidate studying Choctaw cultural history at the University of Oklahoma. “But now, you have a thunderstorm in January that normally marks the change of a growing cycle, and then the next week, you have a snow storm. What do you do with that?”

The earth is out of balance, Brown says, and his people are partly to blame. “It’s written in our teachings, the knowledge of how to take care of the earth,” he says. “We’re out of balance with that teaching.”

The Choctaw cultural identity has always hinged on an intimate connection with the environment, says Wilson Roberts, a tribal elder and spiritual teacher. “In my mother’s teaching, I was always taught that all animals and life-bearing things are just like us,” he says. “We’re a part of them, they’re a part of us. We’re supposed to take care of each other and look out for each other.”

The Choctaw have forgotten this, Roberts says. And what’s worse, they’ve failed to impart their knowledge to the settlers who now control much of their ancestral homeland. The Choctaw were forcibly removed to Oklahoma from their lands in Alabama and Mississippi in 1831. Twenty-five percent of the population died during the journey, and those who remained were converted to Christianity. “The government came in and took away everything,” Roberts says. “I’m talking about everything …. They burned our pipes and whatever we had that they thought might have some sort of ‘energy’, anything that was sacred to us.”

For Roberts, 76, this isn’t some far-flung part of his history – these are his grandparents’ stories.

The removal marked the beginning of the imbalance, Roberts says. “I always tell people that our downfall as a Choctaw nation is that we gave up what the Creator gave us,” he says. “We didn’t fight hard enough to keep it, and because of that, we’ve lost our continuity with the Creator.”

Healing the earth


Roberts and Brown believe that the only way to bring healing to both the earth and their tribe is for the Choctaw to reclaim their traditional relationship to their environment – and then spread those teachings to the rest of the US.

In a modest trailer that serves as a government office building, Ryan Spring labours to do just that. As the director of historic preservation for the Choctaw nation, it is Spring’s job to study his tribe’s past, relearn its traditions and help people like Roberts and Brown pass it on.

“The more culture and heritage we give back, the more we become whole again,” Spring says.

For Spring, a good place to start is by re-teaching traditional gardening. Historically, the Choctaw were adept farmers whose ceremonies and gatherings revolved around the growing cycles. Since their removal, however, they’ve become highly dependent on processed foods handed out through state welfare programmes. A return to traditional gardening will help members regain independence from state handouts, reduce their risk for heart disease and stroke brought on from the unhealthy foods they are given – and reduce their imprint on the environment.

There is a growing interest in learning traditional gardening, Spring says, but climate change poses a formidable challenge.

Volunteers join Cain for a day of 'wild gardening' in the Sequoya National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Oklahoma [Nicholas Linn/Al Jazeera]

Volunteers join Cain for a day of ‘wild gardening’ in the Sequoya National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Oklahoma [Nicholas Linn/Al Jazeera]

“The growing seasons are getting more and more unpredictable,” Spring says. “We’ll have longer cold snaps or six-year droughts. There’s no average.”

Spring teaches members to keep small gardens that are easier to manage, regardless of the weather. Brown has one, and he has learned to shift his planting and harvesting year-to-year and season-to-season, depending on what the weather appears to be doing. He can’t depend on regular, consistent cycles like his grandfather taught him to do, but by paying close attention to the weather – by listening to the earth – he can grow his food anyway.

Likewise, he has learned to perform his ceremonies not according to the seasons but according to the cycles of the Sun and Moon. This too is a departure from the Choctaw’s ancestral ways, Ketchum says, which revolved entirely around growing cycles. “You used to know to start a particular ceremony in June when a certain plant bloomed,” he says. “But now, it might be June and the plant won’t bloom at all or maybe it will have bloomed early.”

This sort of creativity and adaptability is a good thing, though, Brown says – perhaps even a divine thing.

“The weather will do what it does and we have to be adaptable,” he says. “We have to get creative, we have to find new ways to keep [ceremonial items] dry, which normally would already be dry or to hold a sweat lodge even when it’s chilly outside. But creativity is part of the [Creator], we have that creativity in us.”

Creativity is an essential feature of religious ceremonies like the one Brown is preparing to host. In preparation for such a ceremony, traditional families would historically have spent weeks weaving beautiful, brightly-coloured baskets to hold food for the dancers and sacrifices for the Creator. There will be no baskets this year, however: climate change and industrial agriculture have all but wiped out river cane, the plant used to make the baskets.

Roger Cain is one of a handful of academics studying river cane. A Cherokee, Cain is working on a project to map what remains of the river cane on Cherokee land [Nicholas Linn/Al Jazeera]

Roger Cain is one of a handful of academics studying river cane. A Cherokee, Cain is working on a project to map what remains of the river cane on Cherokee land [Nicholas Linn/Al Jazeera]

The bamboo-like plant used to cover Oklahoma, growing in kilometre-wide swaths called “cane breaks”. Now, as much as 98 percent of it is gone, says Roger Cain, a river cane specialist from the nearby Cherokee Nation. “We had a massive die-off in 2011,” he explains. “We had two weeks in February where it was below [-17C]. I haven’t seen that kind of weather in my whole life.”

Flooding in 2015 further emaciated the river cane population. “We had floods wipe out entire cane breaks,” Spring said. “It’s grown back some since then; it’s surviving, but not on the level where we can use it to make baskets.”

Cain has worked with the Cherokee nation to declare river cane a culturally-protected plant species and has begun a project to map what populations remain in an attempt to preserve them. He holds regular “wild gardening” sessions where he visits these cane breaks and weeds out any invasive species that pose a threat to the plants. He is hopeful that with time and care, he will be able to restore these cane breaks to a level where tribes can resume regular large-scale basket weaving.

As Brown prepares to host the Sun Dance ceremony, he is keenly aware that everything he is doing is different from the ways of his ancestors. So much has changed. So much has been lost. But he will dance anyway. He will dance with what he has. “[Because] our ceremonies are helping,” he says. “They’re helping the cycles, they’re helping the earth.”

Funding for this article was provided in part by the Earth Journalism Network.

“Being Frank” Cooperation helps us survive


Lorraine Loomis, a Swinomish tribal member, is chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and fisheries manager for the Swinish Tribe.


By Lorraine Loomis, Chair, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission


I am glad that the treaty tribes in western Washington were finally able to reach agreement with the state on a package of conservative salmon fisheries for Puget Sound. It took more than a month of overtime negotiations to make it happen, but cooperative co-management showed us the way.

Western Washington is unique because 20 treaty Indian tribes and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife jointly manage the salmon resource and share the harvestable number of fish returning each year.

That job was a lot easier when there were more fish to go around. But salmon populations have been declining steadily for decades because their habitat is disappearing faster than it can be restored. Salmon returns the past couple of years – especially coho – have taken a sharp turn for the worse.

Some say just stop fishing and that will fix the problem. It won’t. From birth to death, habitat is the single most important aspect of a salmon’s life. As the habitat goes, so go the salmon and tribal culture and their treaty fishing rights.

For millions of years, salmon were abundant in western Washington. Their sheer numbers, naturally high productivity and good habitat provided resiliency from the effects of disease, drought and a host of other environmental factors. We must rebuild that resilience.

As salmon populations grow smaller, management becomes increasingly difficult, and the co-managers struggle to divide a steadily shrinking pie. We must make the pie bigger.

The non-stop loss of salmon habitat in western Washington must be halted so that our habitat restoration efforts can successfully increase natural salmon production. In the meantime, we need to rely on hatcheries to provide for harvest and help offset the continuing loss of habitat.

We also must build resiliency in the co-manager relationship created by the 1974 ruling in U.S. v. Washington that upheld tribal treaty-reserved rights and established the tribes as salmon co-managers.

We remember the bad old days of the late ’70s and early ’80s when the tribal and state co-manager relationship was new and mistrust ran deep. We spent a lot of time, money and energy fighting one another in federal court hearings rather than focusing together on the resource.

Things didn’t begin to change until former state Fish and Wildlife director Bill Wilkerson said enough was enough and sat down with the late NWIFC Chairman Billy Frank Jr. The result was the birth of cooperative co-management in 1984 which led to the annual development of agreed fishing plans that allowed the tribes and state to focus on managing the fish instead of fighting each other in court.

This year, for the first time in more than three decades, the tribal and state co-managers failed to reach agreement on a joint package of Puget Sound salmon fisheries within the North of Falcon process timeframe. Instead we developed separate fishing plans for consideration by NOAA Fisheries under their ESA authority.

But in the true spirit of co-management, we kept the door open to further negotiations, and it worked. We weathered the storm together and we are stronger for it.

We know our relationship will be tested again in the years to come. But this year has shown us that we can survive those challenges as long as we keep cooperation at the heart of co-management.

NPLCC Seeks Tribal Climate Change Management Intern 

Special Announcement from the North Pacific LCC

In partnership with the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI) and Indian Affairs Northwest, the North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative (NPLCC) is pleased to announce a tribal climate change management internship opportunity working in our Olympia, WA office.In addition to the NPLCC position, there are 5 other tribal climate change research and management opportunities with ATNI and Bureau of Indian Affairs in Oregon and Washington. These paid internships will last 13 weeks over the summer months and candidates must currently be enrolled in graduate or undergraduate degree programs. Candidates will be considered from a range of academic backgrounds including public affairs, social policy, legal, engineering, environmental science, environmental management, or similar degree.


The intern selected to work with the NPLCC will assist in collaboration with area Tribes and First Nations to understand and adapt to our changing environment. Specific tasks include:

  • Planning and support of a regional Tribe/First Nation Committee gathering
  • Assisting NPLCC Science/Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Communication staff and subcommittees in improving how we connect with our Tribe and First Nation partners
  • Develop strategies that improve coordination between the NPLCC and other forums that engage tribes on climate-related topics
  • And much more!

This partnership offers the NPLCC a great opportunity to strengthen our engagement with Tribes and First Nations and we look forward to choosing a dynamic applicant.

Tribes prevail, kill proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sided with Northwest tribes Monday in a decision to block the largest proposed bulk-shipping terminal in North America at Cherry Point.


Lummi hereditary chief Bill James, on the beach at Cherry Point, says saving it is to preserve "the tribe's very way of life." It's the site of an ancient Lummi village. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)

Lummi hereditary chief Bill James, on the beach at Cherry Point, says saving it is to preserve “the tribe’s very way of life.” It’s the site of an ancient Lummi village. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)


By Linda V. Mapes, Seattle Times 

The Lummi Nation has prevailed in its fight to block the largest coal port ever proposed in North America, at Cherry Point.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency reviewing permits for the deep water port project, agreed with the tribe Monday that it could not grant a permit for a project that would infringe on the Lummi Nation’s treaty-protected fishing rights.

The 34-page decision was celebrated by community groups and tribes all over the Northwest that opposed the coal port.

The developer, SSA Marine of Seattle, declared the decision “inconceivable” and political, rather than fact-based. Bob Watters, SSA senior vice president and director of business development, said the company was “considering all action alternatives.”

But legal experts said far from outlandish, the decisionfollowed federal obligation to protect tribal treaty rights and the habitat that makes those reserved rights meaningful.

“This is based on a long line of precedent,” said Robert Anderson, director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington School of Law. “You can’t have a right to fish without a decent environment.”

Lummi fishing rights and the associated habitat are property rights protected against interference by states, the federal government and private parties, Anderson noted.

Tim Ballew II, chairman of the Lummi Indian Business Council called the decision “a big win for Lummi and for treaty rights and for Indian Country.” The tribe argued the project was a killer for its crab fishery and would thwart rebuilding the herring run that was once the prize of Puget Sound.

The terminal would have brought some of the largest ships afloat into the usual and accustomed fishing waters of the Lummi up to 487 times a year to load and unload bulk commodities, principally coal, bound for Asian ports.

The project touched a nerve on both sides of the border among communities fighting coal and oil transport projects — none larger than the port proposed for Cherry Point, the last undeveloped bit of shore on a deep-water cove, between a smelter and two oil refineries.

The Lummi fought the project from the start. The tribe was opposed not only to increased vessel traffic and risk of pollution from the project, but any disturbance of the site of one of its oldest and largest villages and burial grounds, upland from the proposed shipping terminal.

Promises by the developer to minimize and scale back the landside footprint of the project did not interest the Lummi, who argued the project could not be mitigated.

While SSA voiced shock at the decision, some industry analysts said it merely put a project that was never going to be economically viable out of its misery.

“This is like cutting the head off a zombie; it stopped making economic sense years ago, and now it’s officially dead,” said Clark Williams-Derry, director of energy finance at the Sightline Institute in Seattle. With coal prices in a long slide and no recovery in sight, the project had no financial future, Williams-Derry said.

“They have no market for the coal,” agreed Tom Sanzillow, based in New York as the director of finance for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a nonprofit think tank. Coal-export projects are “wasting a lot of investor capital and people’s time,” he said.

The campaign against the project was hard-fought and its foes implacable. Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in La Conner, called coal “black death,” and vowed tribes would fight the project to the end.

Cladoosby said Monday, “Today was a victory not only for tribes but for everyone in the Salish Sea. I hope we are reversing a 100-year trend of a pollution-based economy, one victory at a time.”

Tribal opposition to the project from around the region was good news for citizens from Seattle to Bellingham and beyond, noted Cesia Kearns, based in Portland as deputy regional director of the Beyond Coal campaign for the Sierra Club. “Protecting treaty rights also protects everyone who calls the Salish Sea home. I feel just an incredible amount of gratitude,” she said.

Mel Sheldon, chairman of the board of directors for the Tulalip Tribes, which also have treaty-reserved fishing rights at Cherry Point, said the port would have taken away a way of life not only for those who fish, but for tribal and nontribal residents who treasure the environment. “This is a journey we are all on.”

The decision was made by the Seattle District commander, Cmdr. Col. John Buck. If in the future the Lummi withdrew their opposition, SSA Marine can restart the permitting process, the corps noted.

But Ballew made it clear that is not on the table.

“We have always made our treaty rights and protection of the Ancient Ones our first priority,” Ballew said. “And we always will.”




Environmental warriors team up for Tulalip Mission Beach project

Photo courtesy of Puget Soundkeepers

Photo courtesy of Puget Soundkeeper


By Kim Kalliber, Tulalip News

The world is beginning to see the physical effects of climate change in the shape of melting ice glaciers, rising sea levels, declines in animal species and changes in weather. Humans, while causing this change, can also be the cure. Through trimming our waste, recycling, and being more energy efficient, we can reduce our carbon footprint.

The folks at Puget Soundkeeper, an environmental group that works to protect and preserve the Puget Sound, teamed up with the Tulalip Tribes and Sno-King Marine Mammal Response, who promote respect of the marine environment, to host a community cleanup at Mission Beach in celebration of Earth Day.

The focus of the April 23 Mission Beach cleanup was to clear debris found along the shore and remove a noxious weed called Scotch broom.

“Each plant can dump thousands of seeds on the ground and they remain viable for 30 years or more. It grows fast and crowds out other native plants,” explained Julia Gold, Tulalip Tribes Natural Resources. “Over the last 3 years since the homes were removed from the beach, tidal action has formed a small dune on the upper beach and native willows, rushes and dune grasses are establishing themselves. But Scotch broom seeds are arriving quickly and have formed 10-foot high thickets in three short years.  So for the Tulalip Natural Resources Department, removal of the Scotch broom is a high priority.  The dune environment is a very important food source for young salmon coming from the Snohomish River. They look for cover in the nearby eelgrass beds and feed near the shore during high tide.”


Photo courtesy of Puget Soundkeepers

Photo courtesy of Puget Soundkeepers


Puget Soundkeeper were looking for a beach clean project, and since the Tribe hosts one or more Earth Day events each year, they chose Mission Beach out of a dozen potential project sites.

Andy Gregory, Pollution Prevention Director for Puget Soundkeeper, explained the devastating affects marine debris has on the world’s oceans and how it impacts habitat and wildlife in critical and sensitive water bodies such as the Snohomish estuary adjacent to Mission Beach.

“Just below the low-tide line at the beach is critical Eel Grass habitat used by forage fish and juvenile salmon,” said Gregory. “Marine debris, and especially micro-plastics, can contaminate this habitat and enter the food chain where they become toxic to fish and the humans or marine mammals that consume them.”

Tulalip tribal members and community members, along with the two environmental groups, worked together to create change, to help the environment and protect its wildlife for us, for Mother Earth, and for our future generations.

Earth Day_mission-1


“With the help of over 20 volunteers we removed 353 pounds of debris and a pile of Scotch broom that was bigger than my VW bus!” exclaimed Gregory.

“This work is both challenging and rewarding, while it can be frustrating to see trash carelessly left on the beach or shoreline, it is very satisfying to see such a group of enthusiastic volunteers happy to do their part to clean up. When we showed up in the morning, it was cold and stormy with a strong wind and intermittent rain. As we began to work, the clouds cleared and the sun came out. One of the girls from the tribe said, ‘The sun came out because our ancestors are happy with the good work we’re doing.’ I am humbled to be part of this important work.”

Earth day-mission-1