Indigenous nations in America have lost nearly 99% of their historical land use over time. In Washington state, tribal communities occupy just 7% of land or 3.2 million acres of nearly 50 million acres. Due to the Dawes Act of 1887, much of this land remains unsuitable for farming or other uses, often located in or close to deserts.
A multiyear study, published in Science in 2021, further illustrates how this loss of land makes Indigenous peoples more vulnerable to climate change. We see this through the effects of extreme heat, increased wildfires and decreased precipitation.
Fourteen species of Pacific Northwest salmon are now listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The release of Atlantic salmon in local waters highlighted the threat of pen-raising fish in our ecosystem, and that threat is not going away any time soon. The advent of invasive species has become one of the biggest dangers to native ecosystems, with the European green crab being the latest invader. The closing of beaches for shellfish harvesting is becoming more common due to the rise in temperature of the Salish Sea.
Past policies and other actions have also caused additional strain. For my tribe, a clerical error caused us to lose federal recognition and we spent nearly 30 years working to regain it. We continue to reclaim and restore much of our land, piece by piece.
As the climate crisis takes hold, it is time to build increased trust with Washington’s regional tribes through improved collaboration. Only when we work together can we adequately address the environmental and human impacts brought on by climate change.
We have the knowledge and practices needed to scale up climate action because protecting our land and sea is in our DNA. It is estimated that Indigenous peoples safeguard an estimated 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. This is perhaps because we view the protection of our national environment more holistically than most. Our land is a direct link to our ancestors, our culture, our health, our livelihoods and the commitment we make to future generations.
The opportunities to exchange ideas, collaborate on solutions and good practices to build climate resilience are endless. Since 2021, the Samish Tribe has been working actively with the San Juan National Historic Park to conduct plant surveys, specifically analyzing concentrations of plants the Indigenous people use for first foods, first medicines and cultural purposes. The park will incorporate the information the Samish Tribe has gathered to inform efforts for their master vegetation planting and guide restoration and weed management efforts.
As a canoe tribe in culture, we are stewards of the Salish Sea. We continue to partner with the city of Anacortes to monitor water quality around Fidalgo Bay and participate in regular oil spill safety drills. We pay close attention to the management of Atlantic salmon farmed in local waters and the current state of southern resident killer whales. We also employ a full-time dive team to study kelp beds and Oregon spotted frogs, partnering with outside organizations to restore habitats and populations.
Our tribal neighbors throughout the Salish Sea are also doing their part. One example is the Muckleshoot Tribe’s Habitat Protection program, which works with other tribes, state, and federal entities to preserve and enhance habitats necessary to sustain the fish stocks upon which Indigenous peoples rely.
I know I speak for many when I say that we do not live in bitterness of the land that we have been given. Instead, we feel a deep honor to treat our tribal land with the same respect that our previous generations have taught us to do. We must give back to the land before we take from it, by preserving, protecting and restoring natural resources important for now and future generations.
We are living examples of how the land can be preserved for another 13,000 years while providing the needs for all our people. While we are already doing the work to preserve and protect our lands, we invite all to join us in partnership to do the same.