Native rights activist and Chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Billy Frank Jr. (Nisqually, 1931–2014) and Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp. October 2013.

Fawn Sharp: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

Dennis Zotigh

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

My name is Fawn Sharp. I am president of the Quinault Indian Nation, president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, and area vice president of the National Congress of American Indians.

Where is your tribal community located?

The Quinault Indian Reservation is located on the southwestern corner of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. We are bordered by the Pacific Ocean, Olympic National Park, and the Olympic Mountains.

Where were your people originally from?

We are among the small number of Americans who can walk the same beaches, paddle the same waters, and hunt the same lands our ancestors did centuries ago. The Quinault Indian Nation (QIN) consists of the Quinault and Queets tribes and descendants of five other coastal tribes: Quileute, Hoh, Chehalis, Chinook, and Cowlitz.

Our ancestors lived on a major physical and cultural dividing line. Beaches to the south are wide and sandy, while to the north they are rugged and cliff-lined. We shared in the cultures of the people to the south as well as those to the north.

Living in family groups in longhouses up and down the river, we were sustained by the land and by trade with neighboring tribes. Superb salmon runs, abundant sea mammals, wildlife, and forests provided substantial material and spiritual wealth to our ancestors.

What are the criteria to become a member of the Quinault Indian tribal Community?

You have to be one-quarter Quinault, Queets, or one of the other five coastal tribes. Our General Council—which is composed of all voting-age members of our tribe—meets annually the last Saturday in March. Among other agenda items is the determination of whether or not to accept new tribal members.

What is a significant point in Quinault history that you would like to share?

Our history is rich with significant lessons and occurrences. A great store of knowledge about plants and their uses helped provide for our people. The western red cedar, the “tree of life,” provided logs for canoes, bark for clothing, split-boards for houses, and more. We are the Canoe People, the people of the cedar tree. We remember our past while employing modern principles in a marriage that will bring hope and promise to our people now and in the future.

The QIN is a sovereign nation with the inherent right to govern itself and deal with other tribes and nations on a government-to-government basis. By-laws established in 1922 and a constitution approved in 1975 form the foundations of the modern-day Quinault government. The Self-Governance Act of 1988 began as a demonstration project in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1990, we took the challenge, along with six other tribes, to implement self-rule in Indian affairs. This law was amended in 1991 and authorized planning activities in the Indian Health Service. After 150 years of mismanagement by the federal government, it was obvious that tribes could manage their own affairs better and make their own decisions without external interference. This is the basic underlying philosophy of self-governance.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

There are many duties. I am ultimately responsible for the safety and welfare of all our people. As president of the Quinault Indian Nation, I preside over Business Committee meetings and meetings of the General Council. I also supervise all our department directors and represent our nation to the outside world. I work with other members of the Tribal Council to plan our future and keep our heritage alive.

As president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, I preside at all conventions of an organization, which consists of member tribes in six Northwest states. In that role, as well as in various national roles, including area vice president of National Congress of American Indians, I work to help protect the rights of Native American people throughout the country involving issues ranging from climate change response to sovereignty.

How is your tribal government set up?

The Quinault Business Committee, which consists of four executive officers and seven council members, is entrusted with the business and legislative affairs of the QIN throughout the year.

How often does your government meet?

The Business Committee meets every 2nd and 4th Monday. The General Council meets annually, with the exception of occasionally meeting semi-annually, called Mid-Year, which we did in 2015.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

We have been fortunate to have many outstanding leaders at Quinault and among the other tribes of the Pacific Northwest. A few of those who have inspired me have been Joe DeLaCruz, who served as president of the Quinault Indian Nation for 22 years, and Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually tribal member who chaired the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for more than 30 years. Both of these men were key activists in the days when our people’s struggle led to the Boldt Decision (U.S. v Washington) in U.S. Federal District Court. In affirming our fishing rights, Boldt upheld treaties over state law under the Constitution. Joe DeLaCruz and Billy Frank sacrificed much and devoted their lives to improving the lives of Native Americans. Their influence was felt near and far, and their legacies will live on and on. They were both my mentors, and they both had great impact on my life and the choices I have made.

To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.

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