Our Duty to the Tribes

Kaila Valenzuela

The  European Settlement of the Pacific Northwest has affected many indigenous people in more ways than one. If you were a Native American in this society and had most of your cultural traditions taken away from you in a blink of an eye, how would you feel?  The construction of the 5th Avenue dam on the Deschutes river impacted more than just the ecosystem; it impacted the overall cultural traditions and the natural resources of the Squaxin Island Tribe.

Olympia was one of the first sites of settlement in Washington State. The Medicine Creek Treaty was created in 1854 in an effort to eliminate sovereignty within each tribe including the Squaxin Island Tribe. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, sovereignty refers to the ideal of every people to be self-governed. The Medicine Creek Treaty was created in efforts for the Washington Tribes to have the choice of giving away their fishing and hunting rights on certain parts of reservations.  From the book, Native Peoples of the Olympic Peninsula written by Jacilee Wray, The Squaxin Island Tribal people share their opinions, “Our tribal family seeks to maintain the pride, honor, and dignity that is our traditional way. Through art, singing, ceremonies, fishing, vocations and traditional medicine, we celebrate the individual abilities and talents, which have made us the people we are today”. (Wray, 84).  The Medicine Creek Treaty was used in a way to protect their resources such as fishing and hunting although their land was taken. The Squaxin Island Tribe wanted to maintain their pride within their community as well as their sovereignty with their land. The dam is obstructing their traditional ways of life by not allowing them to use the river for ceremonies and to fish.

The 1951 construction of the 5th Avenue dam is an example of  failure from the Washington State community to uphold the Medicine Creek treaty created over 100 years ago.  This decision illustrates how settlers have a pattern of taking land which they do not have rights to. In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass, she explores the  idea of sovereignty from a different perspective. Kimmerer advocates for the sovereignty of all species rather than just one. Towards the end of the second chapter she states, “Maybe a grammar of animacy could lead us to whole new ways of living in the world, other species a sovereign people, a world with democracy of species, not a tyranny of one– with moral responsibility to water and wolves…” (Kimmerer, Page 57-58). Here Kimmerer argues  that society should not have allowed the settlers to have power over land that was not theirs. The common theme throughout Kimmerer’s book was  animacy, the idea that humans living in a modern society must realize that the non-human world is alive and therefore can be understood as self governed.

The construction of the dam failed to uphold the treaty rights for tribal fishing in rivers and holding ceremonial practices. The Europeans took complete control and had all of the authority when it came to making the dam that created many problems for the tribe such as not being able to practice traditional ceremonies. The tribe relied on the water from the Deschutes River as their main source of food which is salmon and shellfish, however today there is a significant decline of salmon and shellfish life due to damage to their habitat.  Jaclyn Wray writes: “The sea and its salmon runs were highly respected, as were the berries, clams mussels, crab and other delicacies offered from the heart of the heart. The aquatic creatures that sustained the ancestors and gave them life offered much more than mere physical nourishment” (Wray, 85). As stated in the quote above, their resources serve more than one purpose. The importance of the salmon and other aquatic creatures is very high to each tribal member therefore they do not fish the small amounts that are left in the Deschutes River.

Our duty as neighbors of the Squaxin Island Tribe is to realize our mistakes and try to right these wrongs. We need to realize the value of animacy and the importance of democracy and self-government for not just this tribe, but for all the surrounding species.  Citizens within Western Washington should make every effort to help the Squaxin Island Tribe and Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team remove the 5th Avenue dam. If we were able to convince the U.S. Congress to supply funding and support for the removal of the dam, it could be removed and the Squaxin Island Tribe could enhance their relationship with and access to their sacred waters. In order to create a more just and sustainable society in Western Washington, citizens should vote and advocate for dam removal. The restoration of the estuary will help the tribe to restore their cultural practices and care for their ancestral waters along the Deschutes river. If we remove the dam, we are not only respecting the sovereignty of the tribes, we as witnesses are also respecting the sovereignty of the water and the fish.

Works Cited

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants. Milkweed Editions, 2013.

Ruby, Robert H., et al. A Guide to the Indian Tribes of the Pacific Northwest. Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2010.

Wray, Jacilee. Native Peoples of the Olympic Peninsula: Who We Are. University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.