Opinion | The Lummi Nation’s Secret to Saving Fragile Ecosystems


One afternoon this August, I boarded the Salish Sea, a crabbing boat named after the inland ocean that gives the Washington State coastline its defining divot. Dana Culaxten Wilson, one of the most prolific fishers in the Lummi Nation, and his crew of two were on their final outing of a 30-hour “crab opening,” a period approved for tribal commercial crabbing. That morning, they had dropped another round of 30 baited pots; now they rushed to locate and haul them up one last time.

In the distance, we could see the Lummi reservation and Lummi Island — as well as Cherry Point, home to two oil refineries and a shuttered aluminum smelter. Here, in the tribe’s ancestral territory, the summer had begun with a stretch of unfathomably hot days that killed dozens of people and millions of oysters, mussels and clams. The heat melted ice and snow on Mount Rainier and Mount Baker, blackening their slopes. And on the water, a constant queue of cargo ships and tankers, struggling to meet spiking demand during the pandemic, trailed noise, fumes and wakes tall enough to topple 60-foot fishing boats.

But on that day, near the Canadian border, the open water seemed pristine. Colorful buoys marking crab pots dotted the sound. Mr. Wilson and his crew — his grandson and an old friend — used a pulley to hoist the pots, then shook their skittering contents into a bin; they sorted the red-orange heap and transferred larger crabs into a barrel for sale.

“When they’re out here,” Mr. Wilson said, pointing to the other two men, “they can’t wipe the smiles off their faces. It’s where they belong. It’s who they are.”

The Lummi, whose fishing grounds include most of the Salish Sea, count more commercial fishers among their 5,320 members than any other Indigenous nation in the Northwest. Their relationship to this catch, though, is more than financial: Like all Coast Salish tribes, the Lummi identify as “salmon people,” fluent in the chinook, sockeye, chum, coho and pinks that are born in freshwater rivers, migrate to sea as they enter adulthood, then return to spawn and die.

Yet over the past century, global warming, habitat destruction, pollution, shipping traffic and other factors have decimated the Pacific salmon population. So Lummi fishers have turned, with some reluctance, to crab and shellfish for sustenance and income. “We should be out fishing salmon right now,” Mr. Wilson said.

Words like adaptation and resilience are often used to discuss our response to accelerating climate change. They also describe, and terribly understate, what the Lummi and other Native peoples have had to do to survive.

Time and again, the Lummi have confronted existential threats and built broad, unlikely coalitions with environmental activists and white fishers. In a recent campaign against the fossil-fuel industry, the Lummi showed that it’s possible to stop the march of industry and extraction — of growth at all costs. But there is always a new threat in the congested waterways of the Pacific Northwest: The tribe must now convince the Canadian government not to expand a shipping port into the Salish Sea.

Lummi citizens speak of life “pre-contact”: the land, community and traditions their ancestors enjoyed before colonization in what is now Washington and British Columbia. The bloody history of settlement broke up this way of life, but the Lummi did everything they could to retain their right to fish.

For more than 10,000 years, the Lummi and other Coast Salish people lived seasonally, experiencing the region “not as an area with clearly defined boundaries, but as a series of sites to be occupied at certain times of the year,” Vine Deloria Jr. wrote in his history of the tribe. In the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855, the Lummi, not yet devastated by smallpox and fur trappers and sawmills, gave up their lands in exchange for political sovereignty, reservations, and fishing and hunting rights in their “usual and accustomed” places — the latter, an expansive promise of the treaty.

For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, however, the federal and state governments acted on behalf of white businessmen and fishing interests to chop up reservation lands and arrest Native people who fished in their usual and accustomed fishing grounds. “There was one point when my dad walked out of the house with a shotgun to go fishing,” Ellie Tah-Mahs Kinley, a 58-year-old Lummi fisher and activist, recalled, adding, “It was nasty out there.”

Then in 1974, a landmark court ruling known as the Boldt decision put Washington tribes on equal footing with state officials in deciding how much salmon the ecosystem could part with in a given week or season. The ruling also allocated 50 percent of that volume to Indigenous fishers.

The decision drew many Lummi back home from far-flung cannery jobs and military postings — but salmon and herring stocks were already in free-fall, thanks to overdevelopment and pollution from farms and the oil refineries along Cherry Point. All this raised a grim question: What good was a right to fish without the fish?

“There weren’t enough salmon for our people to make a living,” Lawrence Si’alheleq Solomon, the Lummi chairman, told me. He explained that a beloved uncle had succumbed to addiction when he couldn’t go out on the water.

In response, the Lummi partnered with state and federal agencies to bring the salmon back. They repaired wetlands and rivers and nurtured marine life in tribal hatcheries. The alliance has not always been easy, given the historical mistrust, but local watersheds and salmon species have seen improvement. More recently, the tribe has invoked its treaty rights and used creative forms of advocacy to face down major corporations.

In 2011, SSA Marine and Pacific International Terminals, with financing from Goldman Sachs, proposed a deepwater coal port called the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, near the Lummi reservation. It would receive 48 million metric tons of coal per year, via rail, from the Mountain States and ship it to China, making it the largest such terminal in North America.

To the coal-rich Crow tribe in eastern Montana and construction workers in the area, the $665 million project held promise. But in Lummi country, already home to two of the five oil refineries in Washington State, the project posed unacceptable danger. The terminal would sit atop an ancient Lummi village and cemetery, a hallowed place for many members of the tribe. It would increase congestion and toxic runoff in the Salish Sea, further endangering salmon and orcas.

Lummi citizens protested, cementing alliances with nontribal fishers and environmental groups like the Sierra Club and RE Sources. Connecting with nontribal fishers, long rivals of Indigenous fishers, was especially significant.

“I now sit on the Whatcom Commercial Fishermen’s Association because they really wanted a Lummi tribal member. And if you know anything about fishing before the Boldt decision, that is coming so far,” Ms. Kinley told me. The Lummi government submitted a formal objection to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose approval was required for the project to go forward, arguing that the terminal would jeopardize usual and accustomed fishing rights. In May 2016, the Army Corps denied the project a construction permit.

This angered local fossil-fuel companies, business owners and the Laborers Union Local 292, which represents refinery workers. The president of Pacific International Terminals called the corps’ denial “inconceivable” and “political,” and emphasized the terminal’s “substantial benefits through economic development, the creation of family-wage jobs, and the generation of significant taxes.”

But by then, the falling price of coal had unexpectedly bolstered the case against the terminal, and eco-friendly candidates won seats in local government. Officials in Whatcom County, which includes Cherry Point, took the Army Corps decision as a cue to pass a series of emergency moratoriums against any new facility that would export coal or other unrefined fossil fuels.

In time, the Laborers Union along with BP and Phillips 66, which own the existing refineries, gave up on trying to resuscitate the export terminal. Better to move on to greener technologies and “support creating here, not just shipping out,” Trevor Smith, Local 292’s political director, explained. In effect, the tribe had exercised its treaty claim to the benefit of an entire community.

This July, following years of negotiation, the Whatcom County Council made the emergency moratorium permanent — and went further still. Drawing on its zoning powers, it banned future coal, oil or gas terminals, piers or wharves at Cherry Point and imposed strict permit requirements in an effort to curb the expansion of existing refineries — the first such ordinance in the United States.

Had it not been for the Lummi victory before the Army Corps, this ban would not have come about, and the community might have further locked arms with the fossil-fuel industry. “Now we need Skagit County to do it, and L.A. County and then maybe Harris County, Texas,” Todd Donovan, a Whatcom County council member, told me.

On the gray, rocky beach where the coal terminal would have been, I met with Raynell Squil-le-he-le Morris, a Lummi elder who worked on Native affairs in the Clinton administration. I asked her: What were the lessons of Cherry Point?

“It’s been put on us to bring an Indigenous framework to this Western way,” she said. “With local governments, county governments, state governments, federal governments and agencies, we have to ensure that the framework of Indigenous traditional cultures are valued — at the same level as science.”

The Lummi-led victory marked a high point of recognition, but extinguished only one project in the Salish Sea. Another such fight would require the same respect from the Canadian government.

Ottawa is reviewing a $3 billion proposal for the construction of a new causeway and an artificial island to increase the Port of Vancouver’s capacity by 2.4 million shipping containers a year. Without the project, port officials have said, trade to the West Coast over the next two decades will slow, and the local economy will be deprived of some 12,400 jobs.

Environmental reviews of the project, known as Roberts Bank Terminal 2, began in 2013, and Canadian law requires special consultation with Indigenous groups. But because the Lummi and other Coast Salish tribes are based primarily in the United States, they do not qualify. Jonathan Wilkinson, Canada’s environmental minister, recently said that Indigenous nations south of the border can participate only if invited by “their relations,” that is, “other Coast Salish nations located in Canada.”

In the Roberts Bank review, the Lummi forced their way to the table. In 2019, Lummi representatives went to British Columbia to testify about the likely effects of the Roberts Bank project: noise, pollution, oil spills, and ruined fishing nets and crab pots, as well as less territory for fish and killer whales. Among the speakers was Ms. Morris. “We need to stop the stressors. Stop the bleeding,” she told regulators.

To date, the Canadian government has failed to recognize the special standing of “U.S. tribes.” But the law may be shifting.

In April, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a member of the Colville tribes in Washington State, whose ancestral land extends across the border, should have the rights of a First Nations citizen. The Lummi Nation intervened in that case, submitting evidence on the Colville man’s behalf. “We have usual and accustomed areas in Canada. The treaty says, from the mouth of the Fraser River to the environs of Seattle, as far as you can see from Mount Constitution,” near the Canadian border, Mr. Solomon, the Lummi chairman, told me. A final decision on the Roberts Bank project is expected in the next few months.

The Lummi challenge to the project takes aim not only at Canadian authorities but at all of us living through the climate crisis. It demands a basic shift in perception: from a focus on growth and individual needs to communal endurance.

As a former attorney for the Lummi told me, the question can no longer be how to make more money or ship more things; it must be what the ecosystem can bear. “I’ve never thought about global warming more in my life than I have in the last two months,” Mr. Wilson, the Lummi fisher, told me. “We, as Native people and Native fishermen, we have such an intimate relationship with the water,” he added. “I don’t know how to put that into words. We’re on the front lines here.”

This article was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism nonprofit.



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