Iyall: Nisqually take lead in environmental stewardship

Cynthia Iyall
7/16/10

Despite the occasional token outreach, the mainstream leadership of this country hasn’t looked our way too often for guidance. But a new wind suggests that is about to change.

When President Barack Obama signed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009, he said we would no longer “take our forests, rivers, oceans, national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas for granted; but rather we will set them aside and guard their sanctity for everyone to share.”

Finally, someone’s been listening.

Ironically, on March 4, 2010, the Obama administration released a Roadmap for Restoring Ecosystem Resiliency and Sustainability on the Gulf Coast, specifically in Louisiana and Mississippi. The report emphasized the need for collaboration between the administration’s working group, the states, local governments – and tribes.

This was ironic, of course, because a little more than a month later, on April 20, an off-shore oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers. Two days later, when our nation celebrated the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the U.S. Coast Guard found a massive oil leak, which continues to spew millions of gallons of toxic crude into the Gulf of Mexico.

What’s really tragic about this is that we knew commercial practice – drilling, fishing, damming, shipping – in that region were unsustainable even before this disaster, just as we know that commercial practices are similarly unsustainable in nearly every corner of the country.

Environmental stewardship means that we carefully consider the consequences of our actions on the world around us.

Environmental stewardship means consideration of our inaction, as well.

Nothing has changed for Indian country. Our relationship to the earth is not just our cultural heritage; it is part of our spirit and our being.

What has changed, however, is the readiness for others to listen and learn. And we can act on this opportunity to engage in a process that had once shut us out.

My tribe, the Nisqually, will host a summit of Washington state tribal leaders in September with state Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark. We will talk about the state’s natural resource management and the tribes’ role in it.

Tribal leaders in other regions could take similar steps to build bridges and bring their voices back to the circle. Federal, state and local leaders coast-to-coast are in the mood to hear us, and they are seeking guidance.

We can no longer retreat to our reservations and practice traditions on our own land, while the country around us continues with reckless and misguided management of America’s natural resources.

We – the tribes, federal, state and local governments, and private landowners – are bound together by the land and water. What we do on one side of the fence affects the other.

The Nisqually have been able to use our fortune to strengthen our society, support cultural activities and pursue a mission that preserves our heritage and ancient values.

The Exxon Valdez destroyed natural coastal resources for all, just as the oil gushing from the Deepwater Horizon continues to plague the Gulf Coast.

Timber cutting affects all regional wildlife. Upstream waste contaminates surrounding watershed and downstream estuaries.

Here in Washington, toxic waste from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation threatens all tribes who depend on the Columbia River salmon for their livelihood.

The Columbia River is a perfect example of why tribes should unite in defense of the environment. Underneath the vast reservoir of the Grand Coulee Dam lay Kettle Falls, the ancient fishing grounds and gathering spot for the Colville, Tulalip, Blackfoot, Nez Perce, Yakima, Flathead and Coeur d’Alene people.

To feed an increasing appetite for electricity, irrigation and navigation, dozens of dams were constructed against tribal appeals and warnings. More than a half century has passed and we all are still trying to nurture the salmon population to recovery.

The Nisqually, like many modern tribes, have had the good fortune of recent economic development and stability. We have been able to use our fortune to strengthen our society, support cultural activities and pursue a mission that preserves our heritage and ancient values.

The most important of those values is preserving our relationship with the earth.

We recently made an agreement with the City of Olympia, Washington state’s capital, to re-open access to the headwaters of Medicine Creek, a historically spiritual site we call She-nah-num. We have also created unique inter-governmental partnerships with the state and our surrounding county to manage and maintain public parks.

It took the Nisqually tribe more than a decade working diligently with Ducks Unlimited and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore more than 900 acres in a nearby estuary. The tribe was also awarded $600,000 last month from the Environmental Protection Agency for research in the Nisqually Delta.

We are entrepreneurial while building a reputation for our environmental stewardship programs. On our reservation in Thurston County, Washington, the tribe has literally made the care and management of natural resources our business.

One of those businesses, Nisqually Aquatic Technologies, has been working with federal officials to clean derelict fishing gear and other debris from Puget Sound. In addition, NAT has created a certified oil-spill response team that uses state Department of Ecology equipment to tackle oil spills.

Just this spring, the tribe purchased a 120-acre shellfish harvesting property on Henderson Inlet in the South Puget Sound. The inlet has seen better days. And returning the old Yamashita Oyster farm to a working, quality shellfish-producing operation will take work. But we are more than committed. Tribal leaders have already begun fostering relationships with our new neighbors, as well as reaching out to communities upstream. Together, all of us will clean up the adjacent land, thereby cleansing the creeks feeding this estuary, and ultimately returning the property to its original pristine condition producing exceptionally high-quality oysters.

The Nisqually people are proud of a heritage espousing environmental activism and stewardship not only as our cultural mission, but as a viable enterprise. Other sovereign tribes have similar opportunities.

Tribal members can get excited about these conservation projects and new enterprises because they fulfill the basic promises of stewardship that our ancestors made to us – and the promise we make to our children. Native American communities, our values and traditions, are finding a new sense of appreciation in the movement toward a greener future for the United States.

Cynthia Iyall is chairman of the Nisqually Indian Tribe in Washington state. Among her priorities, Iyall has focused on growing and diversifying the tribe’s interests; providing tribal members with better services, raising awareness and visibility of the tribe and its accomplishments; and solidifying its relationships with the community.

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