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An Ancient People With a Modern Climate Plan

After a brutal storm in 2006, the Swinomish tribe off the coast of Washington state launched a strategy to deal with the effects of a warming planet. Now, 50 other native tribes have followed suit.

For 10,000 years, the Swinomish tribe has fished the waters of northwestern Washington, relying on the bounty of salmon and shellfish not only as a staple of its diet but as a centerpiece of its culture. At the beginning of the fishing season, the tribe gathers on the beach for a First Salmon ceremony, a feast honoring the return of the migratory fish that binds the generations of a tribe that calls itself the People of the Salmon.

At the ceremony’s conclusion, single salmon are ferried by boat in four directions — north to Padilla Bay, east to the Skagit River, south to Skagit Bay and west to Deception Pass — and eased into the water with a prayer that they will tell other salmon how well they were treated.

In recent years, though, the tribe’s harvest, diminished by vanishing habitat and warming waters fueled by climate change, hasn’t been sufficient to feed the hundreds of people who come to pay homage to their ancestors and to the fish that sustained them.

“We don’t have that abundance anymore,” said Lorraine Loomis, an elder who has managed the tribal fishery for 40 years. “To get ceremonial fish, we buy it and freeze it.”

For the Swinomish, perched on a vulnerable, low-lying reservation on Fidalgo Island, the effects of a warming world have been a gut punch.

The tribe has responded with an ambitious, multipronged strategy to battle climate change and improve the health of the land and the water and the plants, animals and people who thrived in harmony for generations. In 2010, the Swinomish became one of the first communities to assess the problems posed by a warming planet and enact a climate action plan. An additional 50 Native American tribes have followed, creating climate strategies to protect their lands and cultures, ahead of most U.S. communities.

The Swinomish see the tasks beyond addressing shoreline risk and restoring habitats. They look at climate adaptation and resilience with the eyes of countless generations. They recognize that the endangered “first foods” — clams, oysters, elk, traditional plants and salmon — are not mere resources to be consumed. They are central to their values, beliefs and practices and, therefore, to their spiritual, cultural and community well-being.

Loomis is 80. Every member of her family, from her grandfather to her nine great-grandchildren, has fished the tribe’s ancestral waters. She has watched over the decades as the salmon disappeared and her family turned to crab, geoduck and sea cucumbers. She’s seen the salmon season drop to only a few days per species from the eight months — May through December — of decades past in order to protect populations. The Skagit River is the last waterway in the United States that’s home to all five species of Pacific salmon.

Progress has been slow; some researchers say it could be 90 years before the salmon recover. Loomis is taking the long view. “If I didn’t believe we would recover [the fishery], I guess I wouldn’t still be working on this,” she said.

In recent years, the tribe has fostered salmon recovery through a variety of projects. It has restored tidelands and channels, planted trees along streambeds to cool warming waters, and collaborated with farmers to increase stream setbacks to improve water quality.

Restoring salmon populations is just part of an ambitious climate action plan to blunt the effects of increased flooding, ocean acidification, rising river temperatures, more-destructive storms and habitat loss.

The Swinomish are rebuilding oyster reefs for the native Olympia oyster. They’re planning the first modern clam garden in the United States on the reservation’s tidelands, reviving an ancient practice. They’re monitoring deer and elk populations through camera traps to understand the climate change pressures and to inform hunting limits. And they have ongoing wetland restoration projects to explore preserving native plants and to help naturally manage coastal flooding.

“They’re doing really innovative climate adaptation,” said Meade Krosby, a senior scientist with the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington. “They were way ahead of the curve. And that really shouldn’t be surprising, because the tribes have shown tremendous leadership in climate adaptation and mitigation.”

While the Swinomish have been pioneers, they are among an increasing number of Indigenous communities across the country that have created climate plans guided by science and culture.

The Tulalip tribes, neighbors to the south, are relocating nuisance beavers from urban areas to streams with salmon to improve water quality and lower the temperature, reduce sediment flowing into streams and mitigate the effects of increasingly intense storms. The Karuk tribe of Northern California has a 232-page plan that calls for prescribed burning to reduce increasing wildfires and removing dams to help decreasing salmon and eel populations.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes of Montana have a resilience plan that calls for prescribed burns and restoring whitebark pine, a key part of tribal culture. They plan to identify trees resilient to blister rust — a fungus exacerbated by climate change — collect their seeds and eventually plant 100,000 seedlings on their lands.

And in Alaska, a partnership of 11 tribes has formed to identify harmful algae blooms so that it’s clear when shellfish can be safely harvested.

Native Americans acutely feel the effects of the changing climate because they were forced onto the most vulnerable lands, places that were of little use to others, said Nikki Cooley, co-manager of the Tribes and Climate Change Program for the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals.

“There’s that big push to address climate change because we’re feeling the effects more so than other places,” said Cooley, 40, who grew up without electricity or running water, herding sheep in the sprawling Navajo Nation reservations of the Arizona desert.

The institute has consulted with more than 300 of the 574 tribes in the United States, Cooley said. It’s natural that Indigenous people who have lived with the land for generations, attuned to the cycles of nature, would be leaders in adapting to climate change and marrying that to culture and health. “We’ve always been taught and are still being told we have to preserve for the future generations,” she added.

‘A symbiotic respect’

An 1855 treaty established the Swinomish Reservation, a 15-square-mile skinny rectangle on Fidalgo Island with 2,900 acres of tidelands and 7,450 acres of uplands. The tribe, which has about 1,000 members, owns a casino, an RV park and a golf course on the island 80 miles north of Seattle. It leases 420 acres of the reservation to a planned community of 2,000 people.

The hydrology of the area has been radically altered over a century, destroying critical habitat for fish and wildlife. For example, the Swinomish Channel, once a complex waterway on the eastern edge of the reservation, was dredged and 900 acres of tidelands were diked and drained in 1937, blocking the way for young salmon to reach the tidal channels critical to their development as places to feed, grow and rest.

In early 2006, a 100-year storm struck the island, causing damaging flooding. Later that year, another storm downed trees and power lines, isolating the residents and causing evacuations. Those extreme weather events helped spur the tribe to examine a future imperiled by climate change.

Their plans merge traditional and academic resources. When looking at ways to protect wetlands, Todd Mitchell, the tribe’s director of environmental protection, discovered that knowledge about traditional plantings passed down through the generations was lost. So he turned to the University of Washington, which had archived notes by ethnographers and anthropologists who had interviewed tribe elders in the 1950s and 1960s.

A tribal member who earned a geology degree from Dartmouth College and a master’s degree at Washington State University, Mitchell returned to work for the tribe 20 years ago. “I think the missing piece — and I’ve been working on it ever since I got here — is how to take this straight-up science in the academic sense and put it together with traditional knowledge.”

One way the tribe’s approach differs from others is an innovative focus on community health. While the health effects of a changing climate have become a focus in recent years, the Swinomish, typically, have developed a broader view.

Jamie Donatuto, the tribe’s environmental health officer, and Larry Campbell, a 71-year-old tribal elder, have created a tool, Indigenous Health Indicators, that goes beyond typical morbidity and mortality measures and considers ecosystem health, social and cultural beliefs, and values integral to a community. “It’s a very different way of thinking about health,” she said.

Seen through that lens, restoring “first foods” is important not just for diet and nutrition but for nourishment of the soul. Living somewhere for a long time fosters a sense of place, and a sense of place fosters stewardship.

“It’s a different worldview,” said Donatuto, who has a doctorate in resource management and environmental sustainability from the University of British Columbia. “The salmon and the crabs and the clams are relatives. They’re living relatives. They’re not just resources. And so you treat them with a symbiotic respect. They feed you because you take care of them. It’s a very different way of thinking about why these areas are important.”

Donatuto and Campbell have created an index of six health indicators: cultural use, community connection, self-determination, resiliency, transferring traditional knowledge across generations, and natural resource security.

“We believe that if we can go back to the foundation of our teachings, the foundation of what our elders knew, that it would help us in the long run,” Campbell said, adding that merging traditional knowledge with Western science is “the best of both worlds.”

Plans for the clam garden exemplify the intersection of community health and climate adaptation. Donatuto and Campbell surveyed tribal members about three possible sites on the west side of the reservation. They discovered that one, which had been returned to the tribe after years in private hands, had a meaningful history. Elders told stories about growing up playing on the beach all day. It had been a popular clam-digging spot and place to net fish from the beach. But for years, members had been chased off the tidelands by the property owners.

Creating the garden at that spot would not only provide first foods — including the return of native littleneck clams that were once a Swinomish staple — but symbolize community health.

A clam garden requires tribal members to work together to build and maintain a low rock wall at the shoreline. Once in place, the garden will create a spot for elders to share stories, passing on tribal knowledge. It will supply a first food while serving as an example of the tribe’s resilience, self-determination and cultural stewardship, all health indicators.

Krosby said the tribe’s outreach is a lesson. “When we engage communities and when we incorporate their knowledge and concerns into climate planning, you wind up with a more equitable and robust outcome,” she said. “You wind up with the backing of the community. You end up with the benefit of their knowledge and expertise. And that’s especially important for front-line communities.”

Mitchell and Shelly Vendiola, a tribal elder, are chairs of the Protect Mother Earth Committee, working on involving the community in the plan’s update and creating a climate change curriculum for schoolchildren and adults that marries an introduction to tribal lore with climate science.

The idea is to interest members in exploring science, going away to study and perhaps returning to help develop and implement future climate adaptation.

“Climate change,” Mitchell said, “is going to last for a long time. So what we set up now builds the foundation.”

Consider it newly traditional knowledge to pass down across the generations.