The Swimonish are Native Americans who live in the southeastern part of Fidalgo Island in northern Puget Sound, about 110 kilometers north of Seattle.
They’ve been doing interesting things about climate change and ecosystem restoration. So have other tribes:
• Jim Morrison, An ancient people with a modern climate plan, The New York Times, 24 November 2020.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.