Climate Disruptions Hitting More and More Tribal Nations

Associated PressKivalina, Alaska is one of several Native villages that are compromised by rising waters.

Associated Press
Kivalina, Alaska is one of several Native villages that are compromised by rising waters.


Terri Hansen, Indian Country Today


Native Americans have long had a close relationship with their lands and waters—sacred places and resources that define their lives. The disruptions wrought by a warming climate are forcing abrupt cultural changes on peoples with a long reliance on a once stable ecosystem.

Among the special issues affecting tribes, the 2013 Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwestern United States (SWCA) cited “cultural and religious impacts, impacts to sustainable livelihoods, population emigration, and threats to the feasibility of living conditions.”

RELATED: Climate Change Hits Natives Hardest

The Hoh, Quinault, Quileute and Makah nations inhabit low-lying land along the west coast of Washington State, and face similar threats as rising sea levels and the other impacts of climate disruptions endanger their villages.

”The area is relatively vulnerable,” Patty Glick, senior global warming specialist and author of a 2007 National Wildlife Federation report, ”Sea Level Rise and Coastal Habitats in the Pacific Northwest,” told Indian Country Today Media Network in 2008. Higher wave action, wave force and destructive storm surges will increase in the coming decade, Glick said, and destructive storms such as the hurricanes will become more frequent.

RELATED: Olympic Coast Tribes Face Rising Ocean Levels

The Hoh road to the beach has washed out, and the ocean has destroyed the homes that once lined their beach. In Quinault, a passing storm tossed gigantic logs onto the school grounds. These events intensified both tribes’ agenda to get higher ground returned from the Olympic National Park beyond their tiny reservation boundaries.

The Makah and the Quinault nations have large reservations, but their seaside villages are at risk, as evidenced by the recent state of emergency at Quinault headquarters in Taholah, which faced an increasingly dangerous situation with sea level rise and intensified storms, which breached a sea wall causing serious damage.

According to Climate Central, which uses data from NOAA and the USGS, there is a greater than one in six chance that sea level rise, plus storm surge, plus tides, will raise sea levels by more than one foot before 2020 along the coastline and in the Puget Sound region, where another eight tribes are situated. The Shoalwater Bay sits nearly out to sea in southwest Washington.

Rising sea levels will affect Washington’s shoreline habitat for vegetation, animals, birds and fish, according to Glick’s report. Marshes, swamps and tidal flats will be significantly affected, and salmon and shellfish habitat are expected to be significantly affected, Glick reported.

Along Alaska’s northwestern coast, melting sea ice has reduced natural coastal protection. Increased coastal erosion is causing some shorelines to retreat at rates averaging tens of feet per year. In Shishmaref and Kivalina, Alaska, severe erosion has caused homes to collapse into the sea, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, forcing these Alaska Native Village populations to relocate in order to protect lives and property.

RELATED: Alaskan Native Communities Facing Climate-Induced Relocation

Moving inland, “Climate change is slowly tipping the balance in favor of more frequent, longer lasting, and more intense droughts,” states the SWCA. The Navajo Nation is experiencing annual average temperatures warmer than the 1904-2011 average, cites a climate report released in March 2014. Latest figures show their drought continuing beyond 2010 studies into July 2013, indicating the drought continues.

RELATED: New Report Aims to Help Navajo Nation Cope With Climate Change

Perhaps among the worst of those impacts are the runaway sand dunes it has unleashed, which extend over one-third the 27,000-square-mile reservation. During the 1996-2009 drought period the extent of dune fields increased by some 70%. These dunes are moving at rates of approximately 35 meters per year, covering houses, burying cars and snarling traffic, degrading grazing and agricultural lands, contributing to the loss of rare and endangered native plants, and when they occur contributing to poor air quality, a serious health concern for many of the reservation’s 173,667 residents.

RELATED: Climate Change, Drought Transforming Navajo’s Dunescape to a Dust Bowl

Intertribal organizations around the U.S. are recognizing climate change and variability as a significant factor that can impact tribal resources, livelihoods, and cultures, cites the latest tribal climate report. The National Tribal Air Association notes that “perhaps no other community of people has experienced the adverse impacts of climate change more than the nation’s Indian tribes.”

The struggle will soon come to more tribes. Sea level rise projections do not bode well and may already be a cause of concern for the tribes along Louisiana’s Gulf of Mexico—the United Houma Nation, the Atakapa-Ishak Nation, Pointe-au-Chien Tribe, and the Biloxi-Chitimacha’s Isle de Jean Charles Band, Grand Caillou/Dulac Band and Bayou Lafourche Band. In Florida—the Miccosukee, and some locations of the Seminole Indian Reservations. Ocean residing tribal nations in California include the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla, Cahto, Chumash, Hoopa, Karok, Kumeyaay, Luiseño Bands of Indians, Maidu, Miwok, and some bands of the Pomo Nation. Some are more at risk than others.

RELATED: 6 Tribal Nations Taking a Direct Hit From Extreme Weather



Report: Climate Change Likely To Reduce Hydropower In The Northwest

A new climate report projects reductions in hydropower of up to 20 percent by 2080. | credit: Sam Beebe Ecotrust/Flickr

A new climate report projects reductions in hydropower of up to 20 percent by 2080. | credit: Sam Beebe Ecotrust/Flickr


By Cassandra Profita, OPB

A national report released Tuesday says climate change will make it increasingly difficult for the Northwest to generate hydropower and protect salmon at the same time.

The Northwest gets 75 percent of its electricity from dams. As climate change reduces summer stream flows, the Northwest Climate Assessment report says the result will likely be less hydropower production from those dams – with reductions of up to 20 percent by 2080.

The reductions would be necessary to preserve stream flows for threatened and endangered fish, according to Amy Snover, director of the Climate Impacts Group and co-lead author of the Northwest report. Snover says with climate change leaving less water in rivers during the summer, what’s left will have to be divided between storage for hydropower and flows for fish.

“It will be increasingly difficult to meet the two goals of producing summer and fall hydropower and maintaining sufficient flows in the river for protected and endangered fish,” she said. “You can reduce some of the negative impacts on hydropower production but you can’t do that and maintain the fish flows.”

Snover says her report’s projections are based on the way the Northwest operates hydroelectric dams right now. But that could change. Regional power managers say climate change is leading them to reconsider how they will operate dams in the future.

John Fazio, an analyst with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, says climate change is going to shift demand for electricity in the region, too.

Winters will be warmer, so people will need less power than before at a time of year when there’s lots of water in the rivers. And as summers get hotter, there will be more need for power to cool people off at a time of year when there’s less water available to generate hydropower.

Fazio has been thinking about the best way to manage the hydro system under these climate change scenarios. He’s suggested using other sources of power in the winter to make sure the system’s reservoirs are full of water by summertime.

“My suggestion would be during the summer we could pull more water from reservoirs to make up for decrease in summer flows and then going into the winter, use generation from other sources to meet our (power) loads and let the reservoirs refill,” he said.

Fazio’s ideas are outlined the council’s latest 20-year plan for meeting the region’s demand for power.

“It would call for a change in the whole approach to how we operate the hydro system,” Fazio said. “So far it hasn’t gotten any traction anywhere. It’s a complicated issue, but we’re trying to tackle it.”

Bonneville Power Administration, which manages 31 dams in the Columbia River Basin and distributes most of the electricity in the Northwest, has been pondering the issue of climate change as well. It’s developed a road map for adapting to climate change and launched pilot projects to model the effects of climate change on stream flows in the Columbia River Basin.

9 Tribal Nations Taking a Direct Hit From Climate Change

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated PressThe dried-out bed of Lake Mendocino, California, in February 2014. The state is gripped in its worst drought in recorded history, and a new study has found that climate change is to blame.

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press
The dried-out bed of Lake Mendocino, California, in February 2014. The state is gripped in its worst drought in recorded history, and a new study has found that climate change is to blame.


Terri Hansen, ICTMN


It is no secret that American Indian communities are at the forefront of climate change. From low-lying nations facing sea-level rise, to villages located on melting permafrost, to drought-plagued lands, these are some of the more dramatic examples of American Indian tribes that are taking a direct hit from extreme weather events likely linked to climate change. Although several tribes, including some on this list, are already adapting or laying out plans for the inevitable, this list highlights those that are seeing dramatic, tangible changes.

RELATED:  8 Tribes That Are Way Ahead of the Climate-Adaptation Curve

1. Hoh Tribe

The Hoh road to the beach has washed out, and the ocean has destroyed the homes that once lined their beach. In 2009, Hog tribal officials told a U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., that they face constant threats from floods and the Hoh River.

RELATED: Hoh Indians Head for Higher Ground

2. Quinault Indian Nation

Seaside villages up and down the Pacific coast are at risk, from rising sea levels. Some stark evidence of this came with the recent state of emergency declared by the Quinault Indian Nation. Earlier this year, its headquarters in Taholah faced an increasingly dangerous situation with sea level rise and intensified storms. The situation came to a head with the breach of a sea wall that caused serious damage.

RELATED: Quinault Nation Declares State of Emergency After Taholah Seawall Breach

Quinault Nation President Fawn Sharp has since traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby for more flood protection.

RELATED: Quinault President Fawn Sharp Heads to D.C. to Lobby for Flood Protections

Climate Change Is Real, Let’s Fight It Together

3. Quileute Tribe

The Quileute are squeezed on a sliver of land between the Pacific Ocean and the Olympic National Forest. Rising sea levels and a river’s changing course through the reservation has exacerbated not only fears of flooding, but also of what could happen if an earthquake occurred powerful enough to wreak the damage that was seen in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. Just a couple of years ago a tribal school attended by 80 children was just a foot above sea level. A powerful storm surge threw car-sized wood trunks into their schoolyard. But now the Quileute are relocating an entire village.

RELATED: Haida Gwaii Quake Brings Home the Importance of Quileute Relocation Legislation

Quileute Is Moving to Higher Ground

4. Alaska Native Villages

Along Alaska’s northwestern coast, melting sea ice has reduced natural coastal protection. Increased coastal erosion is causing some shorelines to retreat at rates averaging tens of feet per year. In Shishmaref and Kivalina, Alaska, severe erosion has caused homes to collapse into the sea, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, forcing these Alaska Native Village populations to relocate in order to protect lives and property.

RELATED: BBC News Magazine Profiles Disappearing Kivalina, Alaska

Galena, Alaska Struggles to Rebuild After Yukon River Ice Jam Causes Devastating Flood

5. Navajo Nation

“Climate change is slowly tipping the balance in favor of more frequent, longer lasting, and more intense droughts,” states the 2013 Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwestern United States (SWCA). The Navajo Nation is a prime example, with a drought that pre-dates the one that has crippled parts of California. From runaway sand dunes, to dying horses, the Navajo Nation is suffering from a lack of water.

RELATED: Horses Dying as Navajo Nation Declares Drought Emergency

Navajo President Ben Shelly Signs $3 Million Drought Relief Bill

Drought Hits Navajo Nation Ranchers Hard

6. Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla

The Agua Caliente, hit last year by wildfires, got the double whammy after the charred remains of its Indian Canyons became prone to flash flooding, forcing their closure for several months.

RELATED: Agua Caliente Band Closes Indian Canyons Indefinitely After Flash Flooding

7. Biloxi-Chitimacha Tribe

Sea level rise is washing away the land of this small tribe in Louisiana. The Biloxi-Chitimacha moved to the Isle de Jean Charles on the Gulf Coast in the 1840s and made a way of life there. The island—along with the rest of Louisiana’s coastline—is disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico at a speed almost visible to the eye, reported Truthout in April.

“There was land on both sides of the bayou,” tribal member Chris Chaisson told Truthout. “Now, it’s just open sea.”

While the tribe faces a multitude of problems, sea level rise remains at the root of the tribe’s most pressing.

8. Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation

An April 2014 study by scientists at the Utah State University has linked this year’s California drought to global warming, the Associated Press reported. That brings us to two tribal nations that issued drought state of emergencies. The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation declared a drought emergency in April, calling upon its members to cut their water use by 20 percent.

Tribal chairman Marshall McKay put out a statement that said, “The drought threatens how we eat and drink everyday, how we manage our businesses, how we protect our environment and how we plan for our families’ futures.”

Related: Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation Declares Drought Emergency as California Water Shortage Continues

9. Hoopa Valley Tribe

The Hoopa Valley Tribe had declared a drought state of emergency two months before the Yocha Dehe, in February. The Hoopa began formulating a drought mitigation plan that would plan out water use for three to five years, with measures such as storing water from the mountains that is currently not being tapped, beefing up fire prevention initiatives and shoring up backup water systems.

Related: Hoopa Valley Tribe Declares Drought Emergency as California Dries Out



When Cowboys and Indians unite — Inside the unlikely alliance that is remaking the climate movement

Tribal leaders gather at Reject and Protect in Washington, D.C., last week. (WNV / Kristin Moe)

Tribal leaders gather at Reject and Protect in Washington, D.C., last week. (WNV / Kristin Moe)


By Kristin Moe, May 2, 2014. Source: Waging Nonviolence

It began with a dream, and a memory.

Faith Spotted Eagle slept. In her sleep, she saw her grandmother, lying on a table, wrapped in a blanket with her white braids on her chest.

Her sister appeared. “What’s going on?” Spotted Eagle asked.

“I don’t know. They told us to come.”

A door opened; a room full of people, ancestors, stared silently. She felt in their stares a sadness, but also a strength. Another door opened to another room with the same scene. She knew that if she were to keep opening doors, all the rooms in the house would be filled with those watchful, silent ancestors.

Spotted Eagle closed her eyes, unsure of what do to, but knowing that it was impolite to stare back. Then her grandmother’s voice came to her.

“Look at the treaties. There’s something in the treaties.”

That’s when she woke up.

Spotted Eagle is a Dakota/Nakota elder of the Ihanktonwan tribe in South Dakota. She wears skirts that brush her ankles, and her white braids hang over her shoulders like her grandmother’s — but when she puts on sunglasses, she looks like a badass.

She didn’t know exactly what the dream meant, but she believed it was the answer to a problem she’d been thinking about for some time: How to prevent the Keystone XL pipeline from going through Lakota traditional territory, sacred land.

“Who will be able to stand with us?” she thought. “We have to stand with somebody.”

She prayed. And then she remembered the 1863 treaty between the Ihanktonwan and the Pawnee that was the first recorded peace treaty between tribes. She also remembered that, throughout the last several decades, alliances of natives and non-natives in the northern Plains had formed and re-formed to defeat threats to land and water. Recently, Lakota elders had made moves to resurrect a new Cowboy Indian Alliance – this time, to take on Keystone XL.

In late January of 2013, exactly 150 years after the signing of that first treaty, Spotted Eagle and other activists convened tribal representatives from across the continent on the Ihanktonwan reservation. Their purpose was to ratify the International Treaty to Protect the Sacred from Tar Sands and Keystone XL, a document based on that first 1863 peace treaty. It represented unprecedented unified action from North American indigenous people, with one new addition: This new treaty also included a few of the ranchers from the Great Plains, who feel their lands are also threatened by the tar sands pipeline.

Spotted Eagle told the visitors of how landowners and tribal members had come together in the past, and how they had successfully driven industry off their land. This was a version of the cowboy-Indian story these cowboys hadn’t heard.

Meanwhile, Jane Kleeb — an organizer of landowners with Bold Nebraska — was also looking for support for her small but somewhat isolated band of dissidents back home. Phone calls flew back and forth between South Dakota and Nebraska. Kleeb brought ranchers north to meet with Spotted Eagle and other indigenous leaders; the visitors were nervous and polite, unfamiliar with tribal customs – yet it became clear that they were connected by this pipeline, as well as everything they stood to lose if it went through. An alliance looked promising.

Since then, the alliance has developed, tentatively, through shared purpose. Last week, from April 22-27, members of the budding Cowboy Indian Alliance joined with activists and representatives from tribes across North America in a five-day convergence on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., called Reject and Protect. Wearing moccasins and dusty boots, they ate and prayed together, protested, danced, met with elected officials, and led a 5,000-person march through the streets, beginning each day with ceremony. Their message hung clearly on a banner by the circle of tipis: “No Damn KXL.”

A radical departure

While native/non-native alliances have been forming in various places to prevent all kinds of industrial projects, it is Keystone that has galvanized the environmental movement in a way not seen since the anti-nuclear campaigns of the 1980s. The fight has sparked hundreds of marches, rallies and legal challenges, as well as one of the largest mass civil disobedience actions in the history of the environmental movement.Time magazine wrote in 2013 that it was turning out to be a watershed, the Selma and the Stonewall of the climate movement. That remains to be seen. What’s certain is that the campaign against Keystone has already altered the political landscape.

The environmental movement has long come under criticism for being led by the so-called Big Greens — largely white, middle class membership groups whose interests don’t often represent those actually living in the frontline communities where the pipeline will be built. But the coalition of cowboys and Indians offers a radical departure from this history. Moreover, it is a model of relationship-based organizing, rooted in a kind of spirituality often absent from the progressive world, and — given the role of indigenous leaders — begins to address the violence of colonization in a meaningful way. It may be that these so-called unlikely alliances offer the only chance of forging a movement strong and diverse enough to challenge a continent’s deeply entrenched dependence on fossil fuels.

When TransCanada, the pipeline company, began claiming the right to run the Keystone XL through private property, ranchers and landowners said they finally understood, in some small way, what it might have felt like for Native Americans to lose their land. In speaking of the ranchers, Casey Camp-Horinek, an activist and elder of the Ponca tribe, said, “They, too, are suffering under things like eminent domain. They, too, have had their lifestyles impinged upon by these major corporations.”

Bob Allpress rides his horse on the National Mall at Reject and Protect. (WNV / Kristin Moe)

The nightmare that’s fostering kinship

The day after Nebraska rancher Bob Allpress rode through the nation’s capitol on horseback in a cavalry contingent of ranchers and tribal members, he was a little stiff. He doesn’t ride much anymore. But Allpress, with his bandana, boots and well-groomed mustache, still looks every inch the cowboy.

When the pipeline route through Nebraska was changed in 2012, ostensibly to avoid the ecologically sensitive Sandhills, the newly proposed path now cut straight through the Allpress’ alfalfa field. If built, the pipeline would lie just 200 yards from their house.

This is no ordinary pipeline, just as tar sands is no ordinary oil. According to aNatural Resources Defense Council report, tar sands oil is 3.6 times more likely to spill than regular oil. It is also highly corrosive and nearly impossible to clean up. Residents who live near the path of Keystone 1 — a smaller, already existing tar sands pipeline operated by TransCanada — know this story already. They saw 14 spills — along its route from Canada to refineries in Oklahoma and Illinois — during the pipeline’s first year of operation.

The southern portion of the Keystone XL has already been built through Texas, in spite of grassroots resistance; now, the last northern section remains. Allpress fears that a tar sands spill would contaminate his land and water, rendering it unusable for years to come.

TransCanada used what Allpress calls “the old slap and tickle” when it notified him that the pipeline would go through his land: a nice offer of some compensation up front, but a warning that under the law of eminent domain, the pipeline would go through no matter what.

“TransCanada’s been nothing but deceitful and a bully the entire time,” he said. And in the words of his wife, Nancy, “We felt like we were the sacrifice.”

But cowboys don’t like to be pushed around. So they told TransCanada to shove it, and joined Bold Nebraska, a four-year-old organization led by Jane Kleeb that has emerged as one of TransCanada’s most formidable obstacles. When Bold Nebraska began partnering with tribes in South Dakota, the Allpresses were on board. They’ve since attended their first tribal council meetings, gone to rallies and public hearings, and written op-eds to Nebraska papers, refuting what Allpress calls TransCanada’s massive public relations campaign.

Environmental activism isn’t exactly what the Allpresses had in mind when they returned to Nebraska to retire from careers in government and the military, and investing what they had in their land.

“I’m a redneck Republican,” Allpress joked. He and his wife are both ex-military. “Standing there in cowboy boots and a hat next to people in peace necklaces and hemp shirts” is a little outside his comfort zone. “It’s been — an experience. A good experience. We’ve enjoyed the hell out of it.”

As the sun set on the first evening of the Washington, D.C. gathering, folks sat under a white tent, eating dinner on paper plates and taking refuge from the tourists who swarm the camp, saying, “Look! Real Indians!”

In one corner, the Allpresses were getting advice from fellow rancher Julia Trigg Crawford from Texas. She’s been fighting Transcanada for years — despite having to concede temporary defeat when the pipeline was installed and began pumping oil through her family’s property. Crawford filed suit and is now waiting for the Supreme Court of Texas to take up her case.

“I’m going down swinging,” she said.

The pipeline fight may be these people’s worst nightmare, but it has fostered a sense of kinship. All along its path, communities are uniting under a shared narrative of fossil fuel exploitation and resistance. Similar patterns are coalescing along the paths of the other tar sands pipelines around the continent, from Vancouver, British Columbia to Portland, Maine.

Like the Cowboy Indian Alliance, partnerships between natives and non-natives have emerged to fight tar sands — and it’s part of a larger trend right now across regions and environmental issues. Zoltán Grossman, a professor of Geography and Native Studies at Evergreen State College, has written extensively about such alliances, pointing to examples of tribes and fishermen who prevented dams and logging in the Northwest, as well as Western Shoshone and ranchers who fought bomb testing in Nevada. In recent years members of the Unist’ot’en clan in British Columbia have invited busloads of non-natives from all over Canada to help prevent a slew of tar sands and gas pipelines from crossing their land. The Cowboy Indian Alliance isn’t alone.

Fossil fuel fights are also bringing together tribes within the indigenous community, some of whom have never had a formal relationship. The tar sands cover parts of Alberta which various First Nations call home, and Crystal Lameman’s Beaver Lake Cree First Nation is among them. Lameman spent much of the week in Washington flanked by Faith Spotted Eagle and Casey Camp-Horinek, two of the leaders who are mobilizing their tribes along the length of the pipeline.

Camp-Horinek is a member of the Ponca tribe, which was forcibly relocated from Nebraska to Oklahoma in 1877. The pipeline, which originates near Lameman’s reserve, will carry tar sands along the very same path as the Ponca Trail of Tears. Camp-Horinek sees this as a direct affront to her people’s memory. And each of the women consider the tar sands a threat to their sacred land.

Camp-Horinek wears her graying braids down over her shoulders, a black shawl, and earrings, round like suns. Lameman is perhaps 30 years younger, with lipstick, outrageously long eyelashes and hair down to her waist. Despite the age difference, they’re both emblematic of the indigenous women leaders who are serving as mentors, organizers and spiritual leaders to their communities. They speak deliberately, as if their words matter. They do not say “um” or “like.” They sit up straight and laugh often.

Both women’s tribes — along with the Cowboy Indian Alliance — are some of the signatories to the International Treaty to Protect the Sacred from Tar Sands and Keystone XL. In a show of defiance and unity, several tribal councils in the United States have also passed individual resolutions condemning the Keystone XL. And Idle No More, a grassroots indigenous rights movement that sprang up suddenly in Canada during the winter of 2012, now has 700 chapters in eight countries. Thanks in part to the rise of digital networks, indigenous peoples today are reaching out to each other in ways that were unthinkable even 15 years ago.

Tipis were set up during daytime hours at the Reject and Protect encampment on the National Mall. (WNV / Kristin Moe)

Creating a spiritually integrated environmental movement

Each morning, the Reject and Protect encampment opened with a ceremony around the sacred fire, which was kept burning throughout the week. As smoke drifted up into the morning sun, the circle of participants — indigenous, white, young and old — would stay quiet as an elder offered a prayer.

What most don’t realize is that this would have been impossible until fairly recently. Native ceremonies were illegal for most of the 20th century as part of the U.S. government’s effort to hasten assimilation by suppressing native culture. American Indian spiritual practices were only protected by federal legislation in 1978.

The tribal elders have brought ritual to the Cowboy Indian Alliance, rooting every gathering in native ceremony. Faith often makes progressives uncomfortable; the environmental movement, to be sure, has remained stubbornly secular in the interest of inclusivity and scientific rationality. But here, people don’t seem to mind. They’re solemn; it gives each day a rhythm, a ritual, a reminder that they’re all connected to ancestors, earth and each other.

Since many of history’s most powerful social movements — from civil rights to anti-apartheid — have gained strength from a firm grounding in faith, it begs the question of whether something has been lost by remaining steadfastly irreligious. And in a country where 80 percent of the population claims some spiritual affiliation, there’s a preexisting organizational network that’s largely untapped by the environmental movement. It’s possible that the Cowboy Indian Alliance offers a glimpse into what a spiritually integrated environmental movement might look like, honoring diversity while resisting cooptation.

Part of embracing ceremony is slowing down to a more human pace of organizing — one where priority is given to relationships. Naturally, the alliance organizes on conference calls and on smart phones, but they make time for in-person gatherings, some of which last for several days, where time is given to sitting around and just talking. Telling stories, introducing their grandkids, spending time out on the land. They know that an alliance like this, tenuous and young, lives or dies by the strength of its relationships.

Jane Kleeb, Bold Nebraska’s fearless leader, says that these relationships are a part of the strategy. The early alliance meetings were about “sharing stories and building trust, so that whatever TransCanada tries to do, we were a stronger alliance that they couldn’t break.” Since the alliance lacks TransCanada’s bottomless bank account, she laughed, “The only thing I can do is build those relationships.”

By supporting native rights, the Cowboy Indian Alliance is beginning the dialogue not just about broken treaties, but about the long history of colonization, the effects of which are ongoing among some of the United States’ poorest populations. Clayton Thomas-Muller, an indigenous organizer from Canada, said that the alliance “represents an important step towards reconciling America’s bloody colonial history.”

This is perhaps why the scene on that first sunny morning of Reject and Protect was so symbolic. In accordance with custom, the alliance leaders gathered before the Chief of the Piscataway Tribe, Billy Red Wing Tayac, and formally requested permission to enter Washington, D.C. — what was originally considered Piscataway territory.

And so it was that Bob Allpress, a fourth-generation rancher, born and raised on what was once Lakota land, found himself presenting an offering to Chief Tayac, encircled by a throng of photographers. The weight of history bore down on them all — the forced removals, the outlawing of native traditions and ceremony, the theft of land guaranteed by treaties the U.S. government never really intended to keep. With the Capitol dome looming pale behind him, Chief Tayac accepted the handmade blue-jean blanket and said, “We welcome you, and we welcome all cowboys in the fight against the pipeline.”

Rancher Bob Allpress at the opening ceremony with Chief Tayac. (WNV / Kristin Moe)

Standing on the shoulders of earlier alliances

“Unprecedented” is a word that’s heard often in the Cowboy Indian Alliance. What most don’t realize, however, is that there is a long history of successful alliances between natives and non-natives, particularly around industrial projects that residents see as a threat to land and water.

This is actually a later incarnation of an alliance that was first formed in 1987 to prevent a Honeywell weapons testing range in the Black Hills, one of the most sacred sites in Lakota cosmology – where, in the 1970s, alliances successfully fended off coal and uranium mining. In 1980, a rancher, Marvin Kamerer, hosted 11,000 visitors at a Black Hills Survival Gathering to learn about native rights, sustainable living and clean energy. According to Native Studies scholar Zoltán Grossman, similar alliances prevented a toxic waste dump on Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in 1990, a hog farm and coal trains in the early 2000s, and Kevin Costner’s resort complex in 2002 — to name a few.

Although the alliances have generally dissolved after each campaign, each one set a precedent for future collaboration. And while they haven’t been easy, they’ve been remarkably effective.

Alliances like this go unreported, Grossman believes, because “they’re more dangerous to the status quo” than stories of conflict — that is, because they might inspire people to work together.

“The Keystone pipeline effort is standing on the shoulders of earlier successful efforts at alliance-building,” he said. “So I’m not surprised that it’s been as powerful as it has been.”

In August of 2011, 1,253 people were arrested at the White House protesting Keystone. Indigenous activists came from all over North America, going to jail side by side with non-native activists. Thomas-Muller, who also organizes with Idle No More, said that — one of the major facilitators of the action — made the move to reach out to the indigenous community and that “resulted in the biggest civil disobedience since the Vietnam War.”

The choice to focus on the pipeline came after a spectacular failure of a political strategy in which Big Green threw all of its weight behind the climate bill — officially known as the American Clean Energy and Securities Act. After the bill failed in the Senate, there was widespread disenchantment with the political process, a sense that the one chance for federal legislation had been lost, that the influence of the fossil fuel industry in Congress was too great. What resulted was a shift in focus away from Washington and toward local fights over coal, oil and natural gas — and a recognition that a movement isn’t really a movement unless it’s led by its grassroots base.

Enter Keystone. This was everything the climate bill was not: concrete, and easy to understand and get behind.

“You’re either for it or against it,” said Jason Kowalski, Political Director of, which helped support Reject and Protect. “The oil either flows, or it doesn’t.”

And by physically connecting impacted communities in America’s red state heartland from Alberta to Texas, it also offered a way to connect them through shared opposition — and, ultimately, shared values.

Since then, some mainstream environmental organizations have begun to step back and allow environmental justice organizations to come to the fore, something that Kowalski says hasn’t always happened.

“The indigenous people who are here have been doing this longer, and in a more heartfelt way, than any of us can imagine, on the frontlines of this fight,” Kowalski said.

Ultimately, though, there’s only one person who will make a decision on Keystone: President Obama. And so on Wednesday, April 23, nine leaders from both the cowboy and tribal contingents met with three staffers from the Obama administration to ask the president to reject the pipeline.

There was a buzz in the air at the encampment when they returned— Camp-Horinek, Faith Spotted Eagle and their compatriots were still charged from the encounter.

Each had taken a turn in the meeting telling their stories to the three staffers, in an effort to demonstrate that, in Camp-Horinek’s words, “We’re part of a devastating pipeline story that is as clear and as connected as they want Keystone XL to be.”

But the representatives of the administration, she said, remained “100 percent stone-faced.”

These were the presidents of the Rosebud and Oglala Sioux nations — sovereign nations whose treaties entitle them to meet with similarly ranked heads of state, she noted, before asking, “Where was the President of this nation to meet with us?”

So they walked out.

Tribal relationships with the United States government have, for obvious reasons, been fraught with bad feelings. Centuries of land theft, racism, genocide and forced assimilation cannot be erased overnight.

The cowboy contingent stayed, wanting to take advantage of this chance to tell their stories – hoping that some part would make its way up the ladder. But they left feeling equally discouraged. The distance between Washington and Nebraska seemed great indeed.

The White House couldn’t be reached for comment. But, according to the meeting attendees, there was something good that came out of it: assurance that the Obama administration had taken note of the coalitions, the “very different people that are coming together” around the pipeline, said Camp-Horinek. “They’re paying attention.”

Casey Camp-Horinek and Faith Spotted Eagle (WNV / Kristin Moe)

The elephant in the room — or, in this case, the tipi — is the problem of land ownership. What happens when a rancher speaks of “my land” or “my private property” to a room full of people who believe that the land was stolen, and never really belonged to them in the first place? How to begin to address the competing claims to land that is central to the identity and culture of both groups?

The Cowboy Indian Alliance doesn’t seem ready to address this in public just yet. There are speeches, expressions of gratitude, fortitude, even love. The wounds of history are alluded to, but obliquely. For now, at least, these questions are secondary to the urgency of fighting the pipeline. “The land doesn’t belong to us — we’re just caretakers” is a sentiment that’s frequently heard.

Behind closed doors, however, at the first meeting of the alliance, the tribal elders laid it all out.

“We pulled no punches with them,” Camp-Horinek said. “About how the land that they live on now became land that they could buy and sell. It was our blood.”

She also insisted that “It’s part of their history as well as ours. And it has to be brought out and spoken of, or else there isn’t an alliance.”

As much as the alliance represents a step towards healing old wounds, it remains just that — a step. As a movement, said Thomas-Muller, “we need to develop an organizing framework that effectively addresses racism, oppression, misogyny and colonialism.” That work is beginning, he believes, but there’s a long way to go.

While any real dialogue about colonialism has been set aside for the moment, it has by no means disappeared. Grossman, in his study of history’s successful alliances, writes that this may not be a bad thing; that the “conventional wisdom” which tells coalitions to emphasize sameness, to downplay the native rights issue in favor of unity, is ultimately self-defeating.

“I’ve concluded that the conventional wisdom is largely bullshit,” he writes. “Emphasizing unity over diversity can actually be harmful to building deep, lasting alliances between native and non-native communities. History shows the opposite to be true: the stronger that native peoples assert their nationhood, the stronger their alliances with non-Indian neighbors.”

Grossman has a warning. “There’s always going to be an effort either to prevent alliances from coming together,” he said, by exploiting racial or class conflicts between groups. Often, that means corporations will make concessions benefiting only the privileged group in the hope that they’ll take what they can and leave. According to Grossman, alliances need to plan in advance for the inevitable divide and conquer tactics that are “as old as colonialism.”

“And the response should be: we’re not going to go home until everyone has their demands met,” he said.

Maybe their next meeting at the White House will be with Obama himself. And maybe then, if they decide to walk out, they’ll walk out together.

It’s more than property rights

In 1882, Bob Allpress’ great-grandfather built his homestead on a patch of land south of the Keya Paha River on what was then Lakota land. The land rolls under a wide sky, the hills curving like muscles of the earth.

In 1886, the Lakota signed a treaty with the U.S. government, and were relocated to reservations on the other side of the river. According to family lore, though, Allpress’ family maintained good relations with their Lakota neighbors. His great-uncle and grandfather both spoke fluent Lakota.

One hundred and thirty years later, the Allpresses invited members of the budding Cowboy Indian Alliance, including Faith Spotted Eagle, to their farm. Allpress thought there might be sacred sites somewhere on it; he’d found beads and arrowheads. Spotted Eagle, gazing over the rolling landscape, pointed to the highest ridge and told the others what she knew: that this was a burial site, sacred ground.

The pipeline, Allpress said, would “cut right down the middle of that ridge.”

He looked down at his hands for a moment before continuing. “I keep trying to tell them, but they don’t seem to care. That’s what pissed me off. They don’t care.”

This, of course, is what brings these cowboys and these Indians together: land. For some landowners it’s merely a problem of property rights. For most, though, it goes far deeper, down below the grass and soil to the very roots of their identities as either cowboys or Indians, to a sense that they are irrevocably tied to this land, that if you poison it, that they will be poisoned too.

This is why a concurrent event — to Reject and Protect in Washington — took place in Red Shirt, S.D.: a three-day nonviolent direct action training, preparing participants to physically block TransCanada’s bulldozers. It was part of a series of trainings in Lakota territory called Moccasins on the Ground that have been happening for over a year in anticipation of Obama’s pipeline decision.

“We cannot sit and wait for his decision,” the website says. “We must act now and be ready to protect our sacred water, our lands, our families.” Keystone XL — and industrial projects like it — have truly engendered a unity among indigenous peoples across North America that is unprecedented in any era.

Members of the Cowboy Indian Alliance march through Washington, DC last week. (WNV / Kristin Moe)

Meanwhile, when the tipis were rolled back up and the week-long event came to a close, landowners like Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska, weren’t thinking about a vacation. They’ve got plans too.


On June 20, TransCanada’s pipeline permit will expire in South Dakota – which means that, along with Nebraska, it will be the second state where regulatory holdups are delaying the pipeline. She’s got a long list of rallies, political campaigns and court cases to organize around. For the moment, Obama’s decision has been delayed until after the November elections. For Kleeb, this is more time to grow the movement. But mostly, she wants to build.

“It takes out a lot of you to be fighting all the time — to be in the ‘warrior stance,’” she said from her car, on her way to a meeting with reporters. According to Kleeb, the focus, post-Keystone — no matter the decision — will be on constructing small clean energy projects, like the Build Our Energy Barn, constructed by volunteers in the path of the pipeline and powered by wind and solar. “Farmers and ranchers and tribes are very self-reliant,” she said, and will want to generate their own energy that doesn’t rely on imported fossil fuels.

Prophesying victory

There is an old Lakota prophecy of a black snake, a creature that would rise from the deep, bringing with it great sorrow and great destruction. For many years, the Lakota people have wondered what the prophecy meant and when it would come to pass.

When they heard news of this pipeline – this tube, immeasurably long, that would pump black oil through the heart of this country — some Lakota people began to wonder if the snake appeared at last.

These cowboys and Indians believe they will win. But what then? Will this alliance fall apart, as others have in the past? If they defeat this black snake, what happens to the other black snakes, in other back yards, to the network of pipelines that are spreading across the land like veins? Will the relationships last?

“No doubt,” said Kleeb. She’s received messages from landowners saying that the week in Washington “touched them to their very core. One of the landowners said that it gave them a deep, emotional respect for their fellow landowners and ranchers but also for the tribes, which they didn’t have before.”

Casey Camp-Horinek said that she’s not privy to the future. “But the people that we are aligning ourselves with,” she said, “I really believe they’re going to help us uphold those treaty rights.”

There is another prophecy that is also spoken of by tribal elders from different nations: the prophecy of the Seventh Generation, which, loosely put, foretells a time when young people would lead an uprising, joining with other peoples to defend land and allow humans to continue living on the earth.

Far from her homeland, in the middle of the National Mall, flanked by monuments to a colonizing nation, Camp-Horinek spoke of the work before her, and for her sons and their children, who are also here. Joining with cowboys, she said, “fulfills not only the prophecy, but it fulfills a sacred duty that we were born with.”

Climate Change is Real, Let’s Fight It Together



President Fawn Sharp of the Quinault Indian Nation says she is happy to participate on the Carbon Emissions Reduction Task Force Governor Jay Inslee created by executive order yesterday [April 29], but advises that “genuine state-tribal cooperation, communication and government-to-government relations will be essential to the success of any effort to address the many challenges posed by climate change.”

Sharp, who is also President of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, encompassing six Northwest states, and Area Vice President of the National Congress of American Indians, is the only tribal member of the Governor’s task force.

President Sharp said, “Climate Change is the greatest environmental disaster of our generation and its impacts are felt both near and far. The fact is that tribes have preceded other governments in addressing climate change issues, and it is time for our words to be heard, our warnings to be acknowledged and our programs to be recognized.”

She said the reason tribes have moved forward with programs to address the effects of climate change while other governments have been stymied is that it is embedded in the tribal culture to care for the land in a sustainable manner. “Stewardship of our natural resources and environment is something we learn at a young age. We understand the big picture—the economic, policy, environmental and cultural values of sustainability and the responsibility we all have to our children and future generations. Those are the values that must be prioritized if we are to meet the climate change challenge.”

In signing the order, the Governor outlined a series of steps to cut carbon pollution in Washington and advance development and use of clean energy technologies, and said, “This is the right time to act, the right place to act and we are the right people to act. We will engage the right people, consider the right options, ask the right questions and come to the right answers — answers that work for Washington.”

“Whether it’s the warming of the Pacific Ocean, Hurricane Sandy, the tornadoes across the country or the Oso landslide, the melting of our Mt. Anderson Glacier or the breaching of our Taholah seawall, the link to climate change is clear to us. It has been for a long time. And so is the absolute need to take action,” said Sharp.

“It’s a primary reason why I have agreed to work with the Governor on his Carbon Emissions Reduction Task Force. It’s a key reason why we have taken a strong stand against the proposal to build oil terminals in Grays Harbor and substantially increase the number and frequency of oil trains and tankers. It’s why we are reaching out to strengthen alliances with neighboring communities and entities of all kinds and it’s why we have been so heavily engaged in the effort to resolve the climate change challenge for many years — through political, education and habitat-related programs.

“Quinault is a nation of people who, like their ancestors for thousands of years, fish, hunt and gather. The core of our economy is based on health and sustainable natural resources—a clean and vibrant ecosystem. We are also a nation blessed with thousands of acres of forest land. We do not manage our forests to the detriment of our fishing and hunting, but the other way around. Managing holistically, with respect for our descendants, and their needs is the key. These are the lessons of our ancestors, lessons that oil tycoons and timber barons never learned to appreciate.

We are a people who are determined to practice good stewardship. Sometimes that means doing habitat work in the Quinault River, something we have done extensively for many years. Sometimes it means taking part in international climate change summits—providing a leadership role in such efforts as the United Nations’ Conference of Parties (COP 14) in Poznan, Poland in 2009 or the First Stewards Summit in Washington D.C.,” said Sharp.

Quinault Nation established a comprehensive set of climate change policies in 2009, before Congress considered introducing its national policies. We have advocated and advanced our climate change-related interests locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. “We have asked the President and Congress to understand the connection between climate change and such impacts as the decline of our Blueback salmon run and the destruction that is now occurring with shellfish and other species in the ocean due to acidification and hypoxia. Other tribes have worked alongside us, pushing for action by the State of Washington, the United States and the United Nations, for many years. It is our heritage, and right, to do so,” said Sharp.

“We believe it’s time to call to end the nonsensical debate in the Legislature and in Congress about whether it exists. It does, and it is very serious.

“Year in and year out we are all facing the deadly consequences of a century of environmental contempt, and ignoring that fact will not make the challenge go away. It is time for people to treat our natural environment with the respect it deserves,” she said.



Mass scallop die off a ‘red flag’ for the world’s oceans, and climate change is to blame


By Jacob Chamberlain. Source: Common Dreams

An increase of acidity in the Pacific Ocean is quickly killing off one of the world’s most beloved shellfish, the scallop, according to a report by the British Columbia Shellfish Grower’s Association.

“By June of 2013, we lost almost 95 per cent of our crops,” Rob Saunders, CEO of Island Scallops in B.C. told Canada’s CTV News.

The cause of this increase in acidity, scientists say, is the exponential burning of fossil fuels for energy and its subsequent pollution. Oceans naturally absorb carbon dioxide, a byproduct of fossil fuel emissions, which causes acidity to rise.

An overdose of carbon in the atmosphere subsequently causes too much acidity in the world’s oceans, Chris Harley, a marine ecologist from the University of British Columbia, told CTV News. Overly acidic water is bad for shellfish, as it impairs them from developing rigid shells. Oyster hatcheries along the West Coast are also experiencing a steep decline,CTV News reports.

“This is a bit of a red flag,” said Harley.

And this red flag has a much bigger impact than one might imagine. “Whenever we see an impact at some level of the food chain, there is a cascading effect at other levels of the food chain,” said Peter Ross, an expert in ocean pollution science.

A recent study warned that ocean acidification is accelerating at a rate unparalleled in the life of the oceans—perhaps the fastest rate in the planet’s existence—which is degrading marine ecosystems on a mass scale.

“The current rate of change is likely to be more than 10 times faster than it has been in any of the evolutionary crises in the earth’s history,” said German marine biologist Hans Poertnerupon the release of a recent study published in the journal Nature.

Ocean acidification has been referred to as the “evil twin” of climate change.

Poertner says that if humanity’s industrial carbon emissions continue with a “business as usual” attitude, levels of acidity in the world’s oceans will be catastrophic.

Get Real: Climate Change Scientists Cut Through Bluster in Blunt Report



Forget about reading, writing and ’rithmetic. Reality, risk and response are the new three Rs, scientists say, and the situation is dire.

The incremental changes taking place in the global climate will in the not-too-distant future add up to irreversible damage, says a new report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Compiling all that is known to date about the changes taking place in Earth’s air, water and land, the U.S.’s top scientists are trying to get humanity to listen up.

“This new effort is intended to state very clearly the exceptionally strong evidence that Earth’s climate is changing, and that future climate change can seriously impact natural and societal systems,” said James McCarthy, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography at Harvard University and one of three chairs of a panel that issued the 20-page report, What We Know: The Reality, Risks and Response to Climate Change. “Even among members of the broader public who already know about the evidence for climate change and what is causing it, some do not know the degree to which many climate scientists are concerned about the risks of possibly rapid and abrupt climate change.”

McCarthy is one of 13 panelists offering expertise on the matter via lectures, testimonials on a new website accompanying the report, and outreach to fellow professionals, the AAAS said in its media release.

“We’re the largest general scientific society in the world, and therefore we believe we have an obligation to inform the public and policymakers about what science is showing about any issue in modern life, and climate is a particularly pressing one,” said AAAS CEO Alan Leshner in the group’s statement. “As the voice of the scientific community, we need to share what we know and bring policymakers to the table to discuss how to deal with the issue.”

The first new R is Reality, the AAAS said.

“Climate scientists agree: Climate change is happening here and now,” the AAAS said, emphasizing that 97 percent of climate experts agree.

“The second [R] is Risk—that the reality of climate change means that there are climate change impacts we can expect, but we also must consider what might happen, especially the small, but real, chance that we may face abrupt changes with massively disruptive impacts,” the association said. “We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts.”

That leads to the third R.

“The third R is Response—that there is much we can do and that the sooner we respond, the better off we will be,” the AAAS said. “The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost.”

Inaction, however, could exacerbate extreme weather conditions and cause, for example, crop failure and thus famine. Although many factors—ranging from variations in the Earth’s crust, to changes in orbit and tilt toward the sun—can cause climate changes, this time human activity is the main driver, the AAAS report said.

“Decades of human-generated greenhouse gases are now the major force driving the direction of climate change, currently overwhelming the effects of these other factors,” the AAAS report said. “Many studies show that the combined effects of natural drivers of climate cannot explain the temperature increase observed over the past half century.”

The full AAAS report is available for download, along with a huge volume of information, at the What We Know website.

“Climate change is already happening. More heat waves, greater sea level rise, and other changes with consequences for human health, natural ecosystems, and agriculture are already occurring in the United States and worldwide,” said the AAAS report, released on March 18. “These problems are very likely to become worse over the next 10-20 years and beyond.”



‘Snapshots in time’: Yurok Tribe receives grant for sea level rise research


Will Houston/The Times-Standard

Feb 22, 2014

To aid in the Yurok Tribe’s climate change research on Klamath River wetlands, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded the tribe part of a $1.5 million grant this week.

Klamath River Estaury Wetlands

Klamath River Estaury Wetlands

Environmental protection specialist Suzanne Marr — who previously ran the agency’s wetlands program — said the Yurok Tribe’s application came complete with successful research.

”It’s a very competitive program, and not easy to get funded,” Marr said. “The Yurok Tribe has a strong program, and has competed very well over the years.”

Wetlands specialist Bill Patterson of the tribe’s environmental program said the $135,000 award is the fourth two-year grant the tribe has received from the EPA program. Each grant, Patterson said, has funded a variety of wetlands research projects spanning nearly eight years and different regions of the Klamath River.

”What we’re trying to do is expand on the previous data that we’ve had that includes an inventory baseline of wetlands species and water quality parameters,” Patterson said. “This cycle we’re looking at specific species that may be threatened in the face of climate change impacts, in particular sea level rise.”

The research project will collect baseline data on the wildlife and conditions of coastal estuaries near the lower Klamath River, which Patterson said can be useful for future research.

”The inventories are very useful in that they’re snapshots in time,” Patterson said. “For something like sea level rise, if the estuary is going to be 6 feet underwater in 25 years, you can look back at how it was impacting them in 2014.”

Patterson said that while past research with the tribe’s fisheries program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services has focused on mapping, water quality and restoration efforts in both upper and lower regions of the Klamath, efforts to analyze sea level rise are critical due to its substantial effects on coastal estuaries.

”If you want to talk about the future of climate change, what you’re potentially going to see with sea level rise is increased salinity,” Patterson said. “The saltwater levels rise, and that can significantly change the plant community and the species that rely on that community.”

With wetlands disappearing at an alarming rate, Patterson emphasized the importance of assessing the local wildlife that rely heavily upon the fragile ecosystem.

”It’s a really rare habitat, because it’s in a coastal climate, and is significant to a lot of species,” Patterson said. “People often overlook these areas.”

The Environmental Protection Agency’s current wetlands program coordinator Leana Rosetti said it is important to help tribes and local governments protect and improve their wetland programs. The application period for next year’s grants are still open, she said.

”We encourage folks to develop plans to compete for grants to fund their own wetlands program,” Rosetti said. “The more applicants, the better.”

On the Web: For information on the EPA grant, visit

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504 or Follow him on

Coal-Hungry World Brings Tough Choices For Native Americans

Jewell Praying Wolf James addresses a crowd gathered in September in Olympia, Wash., to protest coal exports. (Lynne Peeples)

Jewell Praying Wolf James addresses a crowd gathered in September in Olympia, Wash., to protest coal exports. (Lynne Peeples)

By Lynne Peeples, Huffington Post, Updated Feb 7, 2014

Inside a ceremonial longhouse in northern Oregon last September, the sun’s rays spilling between the high-peaked beams, Davis Yellowash Washines was seated in full ceremonial dress — yellow headband, red sash, beaded shoes. A rawhide drum rested in his hand, and to his left sat four teenage boys, each with his own drum and mallet. One wore a black Chevrolet T-shirt. They thumped their instruments and called out native songs as an organized smattering of young children bounced rhythmically counter-clockwise around the dirt floor. Two dozen fellow members of the tribal community, seated in folded metal chairs, looked on.

“This longhouse is used for lots of occasions,” Washines said between songs. “But this one is significant.”

This ceremony aimed to ward off coal.

Celilo Indian Village, Ore., separated from the Columbia River by only a highway and some railroad tracks, is one of many tribal communities that sit in the path of what could soon become America’s coal-export superhighway. If government agencies grant approval to three export terminals proposed for Oregon and Washington, up to 100 million metric tons of coal per year could soon be shuttled in open rail cars from mines in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, along the shores of the Columbia River and the Puget Sound, and through ranches and reservations like this one. The coal would then be loaded onto ships destined for Asia’s proliferating fleet of coal-fired power plants.

Many activists currently fighting the plan see the impacts of burning coal on the global climate as their primary motivation. But for the Yakama, Lummi and other tribes, as well as communities in the path of these shipments, it’s the local effects that worry them most. There are the potential traffic delays and disturbances to cultural sites. Then there’s the very real prospect of toxic coal dust wafting off the passing trains, fouling the air, poisoning local waterways and even contaminating key food resources — such as the salmon on which many local tribes, including those living in the tiny Celilo Indian Village, depend.

While the U.S. has seen a steady decline in coal use in recent years thanks to tighter federal regulations and the expanded viability of natural gas and renewable energy, the rise of burgeoning, coal-hungry economies in China, India and other fast-developing nations means the Celilo tribes — like many communities across the Pacific Northwest — now find themselves wedged squarely between a domestic abundance of the combustible rock and its most promising international market.

The potential expansion of coal exports elicits differing opinions among tribes and communities here. What may be an environmental or public health imposition for one is seen as a desperately needed opportunity for another. The coal industry, for example, argues that exports could inject welcome economic activity into struggling Northwest towns and reservations. By itself, the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed at Cherry Point on the Puget Sound would add approximately 1,250 permanent jobs, including induced jobs such as restaurant and healthcare workers, as well as 4,400 temporary construction jobs, according to an analysis by an industry consultant. Annual local and state tax revenues would amount to about $11 million.

The dispute over the coal trains is playing out in television advertisements, on the streets and inside boardrooms, town halls and courthouses from Washington, D.C., to Seattle. A series of hearings and protests over the last few months have attracted thousands of people — some donning makeshift respirators, others wearing “Beyond Coal” T-shirts, and some even rappelling from a bridge over the Columbia River as a symbolic blockade to the shipments. Still, nowhere are the tensions so acute as on the hardscrabble reservations that either sit atop valuable coal — an estimated 30 percent of U.S. coal reserves west of the Mississippi are located on native lands — or lie in the path of the trains that would haul it to port.

Just outside the walls of the longhouse where Washines and his fellow drummers were singing out in opposition to the coal shipments, a 22-foot totem pole lay on the bed of a white truck. The carving, which depicted five salmon, two kneeling men and a hungry child, was touring towns, churches and reservations across the Pacific Northwest as part of an effort to consolidate tribal opposition to the proposed coal shipments. (The totem’s last stop, in late September, would be across the border in the Tsleil-Waututh Nation of British Columbia, where it now stands erected as a display of solidarity with that tribe’s parallel struggle over a tar sands oil pipeline.)

“Mother Earth doesn’t have a voice,” said Karen Jim Whitford, a tribal elder, as she stepped shoeless into the center of the longhouse floor. A couple of her tears disappeared into the dirt. “So we must speak for her.”

“I vote we stand up,” exclaimed another elder, Lorintha Umtuch, referring to the totem’s symbolic call for Native Americans to get off their knees and “Warrior Up!” for future generations. “Indian people need to stop this, or else corporations will trample us.”

Not all tribes stand on the same side of the coal-export battle line. CJ Stewart, a senator of the Crow Nation, said in a phone interview in October that his tribe desperately needs to develop its coal reserves to improve its economic fortunes and lift its people out of poverty. In November, the Crow Nation signed a joint resolution with the Navajo Nation in support of each other’s coal development. “We rely on coal just as they rely on salmon,” Stewart said, referring to the Yakama and other tribes represented in Celilo. “All tribes share one common enemy, and that enemy is poverty.”

Many tribes along the rail corridor, however, feel it’s not just livelihoods at stake — it’s lives. Jewell Praying Wolf James, the carver of the well-traveled totem and member of the Lummi Nation, expressed sympathy with the coal-dependent tribes during a later stop on the totem’s journey in Olympia, Wash. “We feel bad for the Crow Nation, the Navajo, the Hopi. That’s all they got,” he said. “But we want clean air, clean water. We want salmon restored and our children healthy.”

Davis Yellowash Washines presses his hand against one of the brightly painted salmon encircling the bottom of the totem. “The salmon gave its life for you, just like the tree gave its life for this purpose,” he said. (Paul Anderson)

Dig into Native American history and you will strike coal. As far back as the 1300s, Hopi Indians in what is now the U.S. Southwest used the fossil fuel for cooking, heating and baking clay pottery. In the 1800s, Native Americans made up much of the early mining workforce that would help ignite coal’s long reign as the go-to fuel source for the country’s necessities and luxuries — from transporting goods and running factories to heating homes and powering Playstations.

But King Coal’s grip is slipping. The rise of hydro-fracturing technology in recent years has unleashed torrents of natural gas, a cheaper and cleaner alternative, and left coal-rich states and undiversified coal companies with a serious revenue problem. Many have responded by looking to Asia, where mining local coal, in addition to building wind farms and solar panels, has not created nearly enough energy for the rapidly growing economies there.

Asia’s ready market and America’s still plentiful coal could make a convenient marriage. Proving particularly attractive to Asian buyers is Powder River Basin coal, which is cheap to extract and relatively low in polluting sulfur. Yet plenty of obstacles remain in the U.S. and abroad before coal interests can successfully drive their product to northwestern ports for export. There are the vocal environmental advocates, the newly elected local leaders who’ve made clear their opposition to the plans, the big-money investors who’ve withdrawn support for port builders and, of course, the tribes.

In a July letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency tasked with evaluating the two Washington State coal port projects, the Lummi Nation wrote of its “unconditional and unequivocal opposition” to the terminal planned for Cherry Point, near its reservation. The tribe cited among other concerns “significant and unavoidable impacts and damage” to treaty rights reserved in the 19th century to fish at its “usual and accustomed” areas.

Patricia Graesser, a spokeswoman with the Corps, acknowledged the Lummi letter and said her agency was in government-to-government discussions with the tribe. “We have a responsibility to uphold the nation’s treaty with Native American tribes,” she said.

The Chinese government, meanwhile, is responding to a major air pollution crisis sparked largely by rapid development centered on coal-fired power. In December, Shanghai’s air quality fell to a record low and the country’s smog could be seen from space. But even with leaders in China vowing to slow down the growth of coal use, experts predict global coal consumption will jump up another 25 percent by the end of the decade.

Decisions on the Northwest export terminals could significantly influence the future of coal in Asia. “Opening up this main line of cheap American coal is a pretty important signal if you are a Chinese official thinking about how much to invest in what kind of energy infrastructure,” said KC Golden, senior policy adviser for the non-profit Climate Solutions, which has advocated against the proposed ports.

The effects would span the globe. According to estimates by the Sightline Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Seattle, Pacific Northwest coal exports could create greater national and worldwide environmental impacts, including on climate change, than a Canadian company’s controversial proposal to ferry Albertan tar sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast via the Keystone XL pipeline.

As Jewell Praying Wolf James put it: “Once the coal gets to China, it’s pollution for all of us.”

For more than 11,000 years, Celilo Falls served as the center of trade and commerce for Native Americans of the West. The upwards of 15 million salmon that passed through the mile-long span of rocky chutes in the Columbia River every year functioned as a sort of currency. “Some tribal people call it pre-contact Wall Street,” said Charles Hudson, intergovernmental affairs director with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in Portland, Ore.

Lewis and Clark called it “the great mart.”

But within a few short hours on March 10, 1957, Celilo’s era of plenty came to an abrupt end. Rising floodwaters from a newly completed hydroelectric dam engulfed the rapids. Salmon runs soon shrank to a small fraction of their former numbers.

Davis Yellowash Washines, chief of enforcement for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, was only 5 years old when the Dalles Dam opened and drowned Celilo Falls. “I can still feel its mist. I can still hear its thunder,” he said over dinner the night before the September longhouse ceremony.

Warren Spencer, a Yakama elder, was serving in the military in Germany that year, but he recalled the time-lapse photos of the inundation he received by mail from his mother back home in Celilo Falls. “I sat there on my bunk and cried,” he said.

Now, Spencer is deeply concerned about how this new energy project might affect the futures of his four children, 17 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. The coal push, he said, represents the continued encroachment of the federal government and “white man’s money” on Native American tribes. “It’s turning brother against brother,” he said.

Members of the Lummi Nation bask in the natural light of the Celilo longhouse before the totem pole ceremony in September. (Paul Anderson)

Many of the current and former residents of Celilo belong to the Yakama Nation. Like the Lummi, the tribe put its opposition to the exports on paper. In a November letter to the Army Corps of Engineers and a state official, Yakama chairman Harry Smiskin referenced a “long history of Treaty violations from energy development in the region that permanently and irreparably have harmed my People.” The new energy projects, he said, would add “direct adverse impacts” to the tribe’s treaty rights to fish, hunt and gather food, and do more damage to the already fragile environment, culture and health of his nation.

Dr. Frank James, of the University of Washington School of Public Health, underscored the “disproportionate impacts” of the coal projects facing native people of the Northwest. Much of this vulnerability results, he said, from their traditional dependence on the salmon of the region’s rivers and coastal waters — fish that are now widely listed as threatened or endangered under federal law and could be further spoiled by air and water pollution from mining and transporting the coal, and its burning overseas.

The tribes’ reliance on salmon goes beyond a staple food and a means to make a living. “It is their total way of life,” said James. “Salmon is part of their religion, their culture, their language. To further impact that is an assault on their very existence.”

In a back corner of the Celilo longhouse kitchen, Gloria Jim sat in a folding chair, on a brief break from cooking the ceremony’s Columbia River salmon lunch with other Celilo women. She lamented that they hadn’t had enough salmon to serve for breakfast, too.

“That’s how it used to be here,” said Jim, who wore a white shirt printed with a picture of her deceased son, pink stretch pants and running shoes. She recalled the Forest Gump-like menu of her childhood: Salmon, fried or dried, stuffed or baked, or simply salted.

“My mom didn’t believe in food stamps. We lived on what we caught,” she said. “Now we have no choice. We have to go to the grocery store.”

Her people have been warned, she added, that the salmon they do catch and eat may be dangerously polluted. An estimated 17 percent of pregnant Native American women already have mercury levels high enough to disrupt the healthy development of their babies — much higher than other racial groups.

Deposits of the neurotoxic heavy metal, along with arsenic and other contaminants from coal-fired power plants, can accumulate up the food chain and into salmon. Research further suggests that around 25 percent of the mercury in Northwest American waterways and up to 10 percent of the ozone in the region’s skies is carried by wind currents across the Pacific — from power plants in Asia.

Coal exports could pollute the region in other ways. Perhaps most talked about are the risks of heavy metal-laden coal dust and diesel exhaust blown and belched from trains, terminals and ocean-going tankers. Derailments, such as the one that sent seven cars spilling coal into a British Columbia creek last week, raise further fears, as does the possibility of bunker fuel spills once tankers set out to sea through narrow, rough passages.

In November, Dan Jaffe, an environmental scientist at the University of Washington-Bothell, released preliminary results of a study on the environmental insults of existing coal train traffic. His team monitored 450 passing trains — some carrying coal, some not — from two representative sites. They sampled for about 10 days at a spot on the Columbia River Gorge and for about a month near a Seattle home that butts up against railroad tracks currently used by trains en route to Canadian coal ports. Jaffe said he confirmed elevated levels of diesel exhaust there “on par with the dirtiest air in the Seattle area,” as well as a slight increase in large airborne particles — likely coal dust, he said — when coal trains passed by.

The three proposed terminals would dramatically increase rail traffic, bringing some 35 additional mile-plus-long trains in and out of the region every day. Currently, fewer than 10 coal trains come and go.

Jaffe’s crowdfunded research has yet to be peer-reviewed, a point emphasized by Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, whose lines would host much of the westbound coal. Wallace added that BNSF has spent more than $1 billion on rail cars and locomotives that “achieve the highest EPA standards available,” and result in 69 percent fewer diesel emissions compared to older locomotives.

BNSF has testified that up to 645 pounds of coal dust can escape from each rail car during a 400-mile journey, but Wallace also pointed to findings by the railway that this fugitive dust diminishes as railcars travel farther from the Powder River Basin and toward export terminals.

Several environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, filed a lawsuit in July against BNSF over coal contamination of U.S. waterways. Wallace called the action a “publicity stunt,” but a U.S. District judge denied a motion to dismiss the case this month.

Blown coal dust and other hazards could be particularly dire around Celilo and the rest of the Columbia River Gorge, where train tracks are sometimes just feet from tribal residences, said Hudson, of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “The winds are reliable and strong — 40, 50, 70 miles per hour,” he said. “There’s a reason it’s the wind-surfing capital of the world.”

Located in rural Montana, the Crow Nation can’t boast a lucrative seafood or wind-surfing tourism market. What they do have is a whole lot of coal. Approximately 9 billion tons of the fossil fuel lie beneath their land, comprising one of the largest coal reserves in the United States.

“Coal is the way we’ve been taking care of our people,” said CJ Stewart, the Crow senator. Yet his people continue to struggle with poverty and an unemployment rate he suggested is upwards of 50 percent. “And the U.S. cries over its 8 percent,” he said.

In June, the U.S. government approved a deal between the Crow and Cloud Peak Energy, a Wyoming company that’s moving to increase its coal exports to Asian markets. The tribe now has the green light to lease its rights to an estimated 1.4 billion tons of coal, more than the U.S. consumes annually. The deal could be worth at least $10 million for the Crow over the first five years. Cloud Peak has also pledged to give preference in hiring, training and promotion to qualified Native Americans, as well as annual scholarships to local native students. A spokesman for Cloud Peak, Rick Curtsinger, said the company is continuing to work through an agreement with the tribe.

Crow Nation chairman Darrin Old Coyote testified in July before the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources that the deal is largely dependent on the fate of coal exports through the Northwest. Such significant coal development, he said, has “unlimited potential to improve the ongoing substandard socioeconomic conditions of the Crow people and the surrounding communities in southeastern Montana.”

“Given our vast mineral resources, the Crow Nation can, and should, be self-sufficient,” he said.

Also in the heart of the Powder River Basin, and also saddled with high unemployment, are the Northern Cheyenne. The tribe has a long history of resisting coal development due to perceived environmental health risks. But like the Crow, the Northern Cheyenne are also recognizing an increasingly tough economic reality.

“We’ve got a lot of coal underneath our land,” said Tom Mexican Cheyenne, director of the Northern Cheyenne’s community health department, who made clear that he did not speak for the tribe. “There’s a split — some on the tribal council are for coal mining and some are against it.”

The Northern Cheyenne’s decision on whether or not to harvest their coal may, too, come down to pending verdicts on the Pacific Northwest ports. No train tracks currently run to their reservation’s coal reserves, though rail lines could be expanded with enough demand.

Mexican Cheyenne believes the council is leaning towards development of the coal. “I see a real desperation to help the economy any way they can,” he said.

Wind energy has also been on the table here for years. But impoverished tribes such as the Northern Cheyenne and the Crow often lack the funds necessary for capital investments and opportunities for outside help, such as tax credits.

Debra Lekanoff, a leader with the Swinomish Tribe of Washington, said the tribes need federal support to find alternative ways to benefit from their resources. “We urge the federal government to help our brothers and sisters with funding, capacity-building and sound science to open up the doors to new opportunities,” she said.

She suggested that the “elephant in the room” in the coal development debate is the challenge of “walking in two worlds” and soundly balancing “economic sustainability and environmental protection.”

The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, which includes the Yakama and Lummi, adopted a resolution in September supporting a pilot project proposed by the Crow Nation to convert some of its coal to liquid fuels such as diesel and gasoline for domestic use. The tribe’s plan, which Stewart said illustrates that the Crow are not entirely reliant on coal exports, also gained support from the National Congress of American Indians this fall. It still awaits federal approval.

The official document from the Northwest Indians, however, notes that their blessing does not “supersede, replace, or rescind” a resolution made by the group in May that opposed all proposals to increase transportation through the region of “fossil energy,” including both coal and unrefined crude oil.

About a week after the resolution’s adoption, Jewell Praying Wolf James’s totem pole pulled up in front of the Washington state capitol building in Olympia for another event opposing coal exports. Much like the other stops on the totem’s journey, this ceremony’s songs and speeches pointed to both the despair and hopes of Native Americans and the deeply complex tensions at hand.

A crowd of some 50 people, many representatives of local tribes, stood in the alternating rain and sun in front of the flatbed truck. Flanking the truck was a yard sign that read, “No coal exports. We can do better.”

Creating alternatives, experts agree, is prerequisite to combating climate change and sustaining resources for future generations — and even to passing judgment on any group that chooses to develop its coal, or buy and burn it.

“At the end of the day, we’re not going to stop fossil-fuel dependency if we don’t have an answer for how to create energy and create better lives,” said KC Golden, the Climate Solutions policy adviser. “The Crow and other folks across the world want a fair shot at the relative prosperity we enjoy. We have to have a better answer than digging up half of Montana and burning it in Asia.”

Everyone’s Problem: Secretary of the Interior holds discussion on the impacts of climate change on the Pacific Northwest


Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell (left) and UW Dean of the College of the Environment Dr. Lisa Graumlich (right) hold a round table discussion at the University of Washington in Seattle with researchers and other program managers to discuss the impacts of Climate Change in the Pacific Northwest. Andrew Gobin/Tulalip News

By Andrew Gobin, Tulalip News

Seattle – The United States Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, along with Dean of College of the Environment at University of Washington Dr. Lisa Graumlich, convened a meeting at the University of Washington (UW) in order to discuss climate change, the data we have already seen in the Pacific Northwest, and what the regional impacts are. Representatives from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), UW faculty, the National Parks Service, Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the North Cascades National Parks Complex, the Olympic National Park, and other organizations attended the February 4th meeting. Impacts on ecology, landscape, development and public planning were discussed, though for Native American Tribes, the implications are much more complex as they affect cultural identities. Although tribes’ interests are more deeply vested, collaboration was highlighted throughout the meeting as key to successfully combating climate change.

Dr. Gustavo Bisbal, Director of the USGS Northwest Climate Science Center, said, “{Tribes} have their finger on the pulse of the land. These communities don’t just worry about ‘oh well we can’t go snowboarding,’ or ‘I cannot go and water my carrots.’ There is a spiritual significance to the resources that they don’t see anymore. There is a danger of cultural erosion with things going away. ‘I can’t do this anymore. I cannot be…I cannot realize my tribal identity.’ That is huge, to understand the significance of how those resources are changing, and are really transforming cultures.”

For many years tribes, especially in Washington State, have led the charge in protecting natural resources. Stemming from the 1974 Boldt Decision, which protected tribal interests and rights to natural resources, tribal sovereignty was realized through the recognition of their authority to co-manage resources with state and federal entities. Today, although tribes remain at the forefront with their survival deeply vested in the preservation of natural resources, it is apparent that everyone has an interest in combating issues that come with climate change.

“I think one big lesson that nature, of course, taught us over time is there’s really no geographic or institution boundaries. When you look at the State of Washington, Department of Natural Resources owns the land, forest land, park land, tribal land, and they’re all impacted,” said Hedia Adelsman, policy analyst for the Department of Ecology and appointed proxy for the governor for the meeting. “Ultimately, how do we then work together to not have this fragmentation.”

These entities historically have worked individually, even in natural resource preservation efforts. DNR, for example, is currently developing a climate change adaptation plan, though it only affects DNR land. The boundaries on the land do nothing to contain environmental impacts. On Mount Rainier

Other entities get wrapped up in whether or not it is their responsibility to preserve natural resources or prepare for climate change.

“A climate catastrophe is not the time to have an identity crisis. From a National Parks Service perspective, I think there are still those many, many people within our population who think of national parks as zoos. Some of us realize the importance of national parks for the baseline information that they can provide regarding climate change. From a policy and legislative perspective, they look at specific species in parks, which a zoo-like mentality, as opposed to looking long range and thinking; well what if Roosevelt Elk actually move out of the park habitat, or what if they’re not doing so well. To what extreme would we go to maintain a population of Roosevelt Elk at the expense of keeping baseline data to inform climate change decisions,” said Sarah Creachbaum, Superintendent for the Olympic National Park.

Creachbaum demonstrated two roadblocks that need to change, one being the perspectives at the decision making level, and the second being the challenges in identity and questions of responsibility. The National Parks Service essentially is at the frontline, observing environmental changes on a daily basis. The potential data they stand to provide, in addition to what they do now, is overlooked because of these roadblocks. Creachbaum said they want to come to the table and be part of the team, but their significance has yet to be realized. That lack of vision in addition to oversight at the policy level creates a gap, consequentially hindering natural resource preservation.

Adelsman said, “We are just at the beginning of starting to look at it as a system. The part that I struggle the most with is we are recipient of the science, and we say we need to consider that in our planning policies, but what does that really mean?”

Climate change affects regions and regional systems beyond the natural environment, including the economy, public health, and population. For tribes, the effects will change tribal identity and culture if there are no longer traditional natural resources to have access to. At the end of the day, it is more than a tribal issue, more than a local or regional issue. In the Pacific Northwest, even speaking locally, climate change is an international challenge, as we share waters and mountains. Climate change impacts everyone and it will take a consorted, multi-national effort to plan for and prevent changes in the Pacific Northwest.


Andrew Gobin: 360-716-4188;