This story is part of “Sacred Water,” EHN’s ongoing investigation into Native American struggles — and successes — to protect culturally significant water sources on and off the reservation.
Tulalip, Washington — The flat-bottom boat weaves across bends in the broad, mud-colored Qwuloolt Estuary, scaring up squawking blue herons and geese along the sloping banks of muck. Scattered log booms poke out.
Get our free emails
“A little more than a year ago we were driving cars out here,” says Francesca Hillery, a Tulalip Tribes spokeswoman, tucked tightly in a raincoat and baseball cap to protect against the early autumn drizzle blowing in from the Sound as the skiff glides across the water.
In August 2015, the U.S. Army Corps cut the levee, and water from the Ebey Slough poured in, flooding 354 acres of farmland. The breach marked an end to centuries of diked-up farming. The estuary is part of the Snohomish River flood plain and about three miles from where it empties into the Puget Sound.
This spot is the crown jewel of the Tulalip Tribes’ effort to restore salmon habitat.
“The whole premise of salmon recovery is returning things to a natural state,” says the boat’s pilot, Todd Zackey, Tulalip Tribes’ marine and near-shore program manager.
Zackey drives the boat up onto the soft mud shore. Sitting in the bow I start taking pictures — not exactly sure of what. The landscape looks like a giant flood plain bordering a suburban neighborhood.
Zackey helps me out. “Now that’s what we want,” he tells me, directing my lens to a spot where replanted Sitka spruce have taken hold.
The value of estuaries takes some explaining to me, a lifelong Midwesterner. I was here in the rain and the muck as part of my investigation into water, injustice and rebirth.
Struggles are easy to find across the United States. On the Crow reservation in Montana I spoke to a mother who couldn’t give her daughter tap water for fear it’d make her sick. I visited Chief Plenty Coups spring, a sacred source for drinking and spiritual rejuvenation after traditional sun dances. Today it’s so full of poop bacteria it can’t be used.
I also traveled to northeast Wisconsin to meet Menominee tribe members fighting a proposed open pit mine that would sit next to buried ancestors and potentially poison their namesake river. I stood on the banks of that industrial river as Menominee Indian children — in colorful dresses, flanked by mothers and grandmothers — clutched copper jugs of river water in ceremony to protect it.
All the while a battle rages in North Dakota as the Standing Rock Sioux and ally tribes — including both the Crow and the Menominee — protest the Dakota Access pipeline.
The Puget Sound tribes were supposed to be my success story — a strong, united band of tribes here in the Northwest using legal muscle, science and culture to protect the salmon runs so crucial to their people.
But tribal water conflicts are more nuanced than convenient bins of “solution” or “struggle.”
The Tulalip are one of dozens of Pacific Northwest tribes — both in Washington State and British Columbia — intertwined by their reliance on and reverence for salmon. This cultural icon is under assault from development, pavement, pollution, farming and a changing climate.
There are about 624 populations of salmon in Washington State, grouped by where the fish spawn. Each river and watershed — 19 major watersheds drain into Puget Sound alone — has a different trend. But the overarching theme is constant and ominous: Salmon populations have declined roughly 90 percent over the past three decades, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In response to this, since 1985, tribes have reduced salmon harvests by an estimated 80 percent. And that loss has rippled through the region’s Native American culture.
This is the “struggle” part of the story.
Traditional foods are “spiritual foods also,” says Larry Campbell, tribal historic preservation officer and elder at the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. More than physical health is at stake when resources are sullied or disappear: Without salmon, members cannot teach harvest practices to children, and the connection to the rivers and bays where harvests take place thins and breaks.
The tribe, says Campbell, is losing the ability to “feed the spirit.”
And that’s what I saw across the nation. Tribes are in a constant struggle to retain tradition, culture and rights in the face of development, pollution and climate change. The Menominee Indians of Wisconsin are entrenched in battle over a proposed open pit mine near burial grounds along the Menominee River, where their creation story begins. The Crow Nation in Montana cannot drink water from their taps due to bacteria and heavy metals; the solution — a reservation-wide water treatment system — is still a decade out. In North Dakota, the Standing Rock Sioux and allies continue to camp near, pray over and protest the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline carrying Bakken oil to market near their reservation.
For much of the past year, Environmental Health News has investigated these Native American efforts to reclaim their culture by, in part, fighting to preserve important cultural touchstones like water and salmon. Here in the Pacific Northwest, this sacred water once held strong runs of salmon. But the health of the streams, sloughs, estuaries and sea no longer proves adequate for the fish or the tribes.
“Collapsing fisheries are mirroring collapsing habitat,” says Fran Wilshusen, director of habitat services for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission based in Washington State.
Estuaries are not sexy. They smell. They suck your boots off. They get used as dumping grounds. But they are crucial refuges for salmon.
If such estuaries aren’t available, juvenile fish will sometimes go straight from the river to the ocean, where they confront predators and other threats — fishing pressure, temperature swings — prematurely, while still developing. The estuary is like middle school for the fish before they head off to the big high school of the Pacific Ocean — that is, if in high school the seniors ate the freshmen.
Just 17 percent of original estuary area remains in the Snohomish River delta, due largely to stream diversions such as diking and tidal gates. Qwuloolt — meaning “marsh” in the Lushootseed language of several Native American tribes along the Puget Sound — is one small piece in a massive restoration puzzle.
The Tulalip are one of 20 Washington State tribes grouped together as Coast Salish peoples who, along some First Nation Canadian counterparts, share a common history along the interconnected coastal waterways from Olympia, Wash., up to West Vancouver, Canada. The waterways, together referred to as the Salish Sea, have long provided physical and spiritual nourishment for the tribes along its coasts.
By treaty, Washington State tribes are entitled to half the harvestable fish each year. When it comes to decision-making, their science — on fish abundance, habitat, degradation — stands equal to data compiled by the state and feds. They’ve unified, largely through an annual Coast Salish Gathering and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, to integrate and amplify their voice. Along the Puget Sound alone there are 17 recognized tribes.
“There is no place on the Puget Sound not under some tribes’ authority,” Wilshusen says.
A landmark 1974 court decision, which spurred development of well-run and influential natural resource departments within the tribes, has propelled the tribes to a level of standing in state natural resource management largely unprecedented in the United States.
And this is where the solution part of the story starts.
Tribal restoration projects dot the Sound’s western edge and on inland rivers. Before Qwuloolt, the face of this effort was on the Lower Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula — the largest dam removal in U.S history. The dam blocked salmon migration and denied the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s fishing rights for more than 100 years.
Tribes also flex legal muscle — most recently the “culvert case” forcing the state to remove salmon-hampering culverts. Their victory is emblematic of the evolving nature of fishing treaty rights.
I’ve been overwhelmed by the often amorphous history of U.S. treaties and Native sovereignty. Tribes have consistently ceded land and rights. Each treaty forces an adjustment to their lives and ways based on the whims and demands of the majority white society and our current government.
Take the Tulalip. Today, the tribe counts about 4,000 members. It was officially formed in response to the Treaty of Point Elliot of 1855. Forced to give up large swaths of land, the tribes told treaty negotiators they wanted the reservation to be at Tulalip Bay because it had plenty of timber, creeks and fish. It was full of healthy salmon populations.
Salmon populations ebb and flow for a variety of reasons. However, recent trends are concerning. In the Snoqualmie and Skokomish rivers, which converge to form the Snohomish River just south of the Tulalip reservation, wild spawning chinook are down 45 percent and 53 percent, respectively, compared to 1990 numbers.
Some of the slack has been taken up by hatchery fish, in an effort to continue living as “salmon people.”
“Whether it’s funerals, weddings, the birth of new children, we eat salmon,” says Debra Lekanoff, intergovernmental affairs liaison with the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. “We signed treaties to keep living the lives that make us who we are as Native people.”
Wild spawning chinook of the Skagit River, which empties into the Skagit Bay just south of the Swinomish reservation, are down 40 percent since 1990.
Four decades ago widespread, conspicuous civil disobedience rocked the region as the Coast Salish fought to protect treaty rights. The tribes tussled with police and state natural resource officials in the “Fish Wars” of that era. Native Americans refused to adhere to state-imposed fish regulations and continued harvesting salmon off-reservation with fishing nets. In the most dramatic example, police raided a camp along the Puyallup River in 1970 with tear gas and arrested about 60 people.
This culminated with a landmark court decision called the Boldt Decision — named after the judge, George Hugo Boldt. The finding reasserted the rights of Washington tribes to co-manage fish with the state and continue traditional harvesting. The Boldt Decision not only protected fishing rights but mandated the tribes get their “fair share,” which Boldt interpreted as 50 percent of the harvestable fish.
“That was a really important moment for the tribes,” says Julia Cantzler, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of San Diego. “They’d been fighting for recognition of treaty rights, and had been systemically marginalized because of state law.”
You don’t see the public clashes on the scale of the Fish Wars anymore. But the undercurrent of anger and friction is once again upwelling.
This year, the tribes and the state of Washington couldn’t come to an agreement for salmon harvesting — the first such dispute in 40 years — because the tribes wanted more stringent protections for coho and chinook. The state and many non-tribal angling groups disagreed.
As talks dragged this spring, tribes and the state closed almost all fisheries to coho because of their languishing numbers.
This was the first year that a “zero option” — meaning no fishing — was discussed, says Tony Meyer, division manager at the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
In early summer, the parties eventually came to a compromise, one that included closing salmon fisheries early in a number of rivers and on Puget Sound piers.
This may be the new normal — and sign of strife to come.
“This is a clear denial of treaty rights,” says Jim Peters, a habitat policy analyst with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and a member of the Squaxin Island Tribe.
Commercial Salmon Fishing: “An Expensive Hobby”
Jason Gobin — tall, broad-chested, heavily bearded — has lived on Tulalip land “since he was a baby.” He’s seen both sides of the salmon issue — not only as the fish and wildlife director for the Tulalip, but also as owner of two commercial fishing boats.
He’s weathered back-to-back coho runs with “lows we haven’t seen since the 1950s, at least in the Snohomish [River],” he says. “I’ve started to say commercial salmon fishing is just an expensive hobby.”
Gobin laughs and shakes his head, but the smile fades quickly. In the Snohomish watershed wild spawning coho were down a whopping 95 percent last year compared to 15 years ago.
The Tulalip have a salmon ceremony every June — cedar fires, drumming, singing. The celebration is to honor the first King, or chinook, salmon to return to local waters to spawn. Tribal elders bless Tulalip fishermen and share a traditional meal with friends and guests.
Planning starts months before — families start sharing meals and stories of salmon, singing songs, teaching dances. The ceremony was revived in the mid-’70s.
This annual cultural event is now entirely dependent on hatchery-raised fish. “If Tulalip didn’t have a hatchery raising fish, we simply wouldn’t have a ceremony,” Gobin says. About 75 percent of the salmon caught in the Puget Sound are hatchery fish, according to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Coho and chinook salmon are two of the most popular species, but there are also chum salmon, pink salmon and sockeye salmon (as well the close salmonid cousins steelhead, bull trout and coastal cutthroat trout). Puget Sound chinook are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, as are steelhead.
“One big issue is armoring the shorelines” says Jeanette Dorner, salmon ecosystem recovery director with the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency central hub of hundreds of organizations, groups and tribes invested in the Sound.
“People love shoreline property, once they own those properties, and get too close to shoreline, they worry about erosion,” Dorner says. “So they armor it … this does significant damage to shoreline habitat for salmon and fish that salmon eat.”
Deforestation is another huge driver. Between 2006 and 2011 forest cover in the Puget Sound watershed declined by about 153 square miles, a footprint larger than the city of Seattle. Forests along streams, which help keep water cool and clean for salmon, declined 2 percent over the same time. A lot of this is driven by population growth.
In addition to habitat concerns, pollution — legacy and ongoing — is contaminating water and the fish. Banned polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), still plague salmon, especially chinook that remain in the Sound their whole life, which leaves them with higher loads of the chemical. Earlier this year scientists also reported that Puget Sound salmon were full of drugs such as Prozac, Advil, Benadryl, Lipitor and even some cocaine thanks to wastewater discharge.
“Turn on any televised sporting event here like Monday Night Football, they show Pike Place [Market] in Seattle, and people throwing around fish,” Peters, of the Squaxin Island Tribe, says. “It looks beautiful, but that doesn’t show what’s going on, fish are full of poisons.”
And climate change is compounding these impacts. Seawater was not only warmer than average in 2015, but some water temperatures were the warmest on record, according to Puget Sound 2015 report released by the Puget Sound Partnership.
But progress and restoration exist. The feds, state, tribes and organizations spent more than a billion dollars on salmon recovery across Washington State over the past 15 years. Hundreds of organizations in the region focus on salmon recovery.
In the Snohomish River Basin, for example, the Tulalip Tribes and partners restored roughly 860 acres of estuary tidal marsh over the past decade along with 240 acres of riparian habitat.
The Swinomish Tribe this year reported restoration of 33 acres of pocket estuaries over the past decade in the Skagit River Basin, and removal of 179 of 209 culverts on private and state owned forest roads. Also, 80 percent of private and state owned forest roads were repaired or abandoned over that time. Such roads increase erosion and can foment landslides, both of which wreak havoc on salmon habitat.
Such efforts got a boost in October when the Obama Administration, along with the state and tribal leaders, announced that the White House would throw more federal weight behind Puget Sound restoration. The announcement earmarks about $800 million via the state, feds and tribes, which will largely go to restoring estuaries and improve fish passage on rivers where there are dams.
Culture in One Hand, Lawsuits in the Other
Money and partnerships are good, but Washington State tribes long ago realized a need to take their fight to the courtroom.
“We come to the table with our culture in one hand and our legal, policy knowledge in the other,” says Lekanoff, of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. And they’ve clocked some victories.
One of the most important treaty rights decisions in years came this summer. A federal appeals court ruled that the state of Washington must repair culverts, pipes under roads that block salmon from getting to their spawning grounds. Tribes filed the original lawsuit in 2001.
They won a summary judgment on the case in 2007 and again in 2013, which mandated the state spend more than $1 billion repairing culverts and restoring 1,000 miles of salmon habitat.
In the 2013 decision, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez referenced the treaty implications of such development: “Governor Stevens (Washington’s first territorial governor) assured the Tribes that even after they ceded huge quantities of land, they would still be able to feed themselves and their families forever.”
The “Culvert Case,” as the lawsuit has been dubbed, may seem a small step, but Lekanoff says these victories will keep salmon and tribal traditions alive. It’s the latest evolution of a new legal and regulatory framework — embodied by the Boldt Decision — that equates habitat protection with treaty rights.
Just months before the culvert ruling, Pacific Northwest tribes, led by the Lummi, prevailed in a bid to halt the Cherry Point coal terminal because it would impact their treaty-protected fishing rights. In May, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the permit for the new terminal, killing the idea.
And Washington State’s Supreme Court in October started hearings on a lawsuit by the Quinault Tribe, which is suing the City of Hoquiam and the state over a proposed oil transportation and storage hub at the Port of Grays Harbor, which the tribe argues could harm tribal commercial fishing in the area.
“It’s always tug of war, how to make our cultural foundations adapt to today’s problems,” says Campbell, of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. “These foundations were put in place when the population was only tribal people.”
Standing Rock and a Mother’s Hug
In late August, Lekanoff is zipping around the tribal offices. “I’m so sorry, I have to take this,” she says repeatedly as the office phone rang during an interview. She’s helping organize the day of Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby, whose office is decorated wall-to-wall with photos and commemorative memorabilia, including a traditional drum and a picture of him with President Barack Obama.
Lekanoff is also coordinating with folks from Standing Rock — the scene of an ongoing protest led by North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux tribe over a proposed oil pipeline near their reservation. She had just returned from the camp, and talking with her a few days later, the meaning and feel of the movement clearly still resonated profoundly.
Hundreds of tribes — including the Swinomish — have pledged their support to the Standing Rock Sioux. It’s been a national story for months — a fight for sovereignty, a voice, resistance in the face of development.
These are old, constant battlefronts for Native Americans. But the amount of attention from the government and mainstream media is new.
Lekanoff is coordinating with others on getting canoes to Standing Rock to join the protests. When she snaps back to the interview, she talks about what it means to feel home for both Natives and non-Natives.
“Standing Rock felt like a place of being,” she says. “You know that feeling of mom hugging you?”
I put aside my notebook and tell her I’m moving to Sault Ste. Marie, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, soon.
She smiles broadly, holds up one finger, vanishes behind a cubicle wall, and returns with two cans of Swinomish salmon and a heavy wool hat with a whale design made in her native Yakutat, Alaska.
“Where you’re going it’s cold,” she says, patting my hands. “This is for your new home.”