Tribal nations adapt to being at ‘ground zero’ of the climate crisis

‘Tribes are on the front line of fixing things, using our resources, setting good public policy [and using] good science.’


Students from Quileute Tribal School paddle traditional canoes during an educational field trip.

This story originally appeared in Indian Country Today and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

At any moment, on any school day, the entire future of the Quileute Tribe is at risk.

The Quileute Tribal School is located within a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean, which has been a source of life for the Quileute people since the beginning of time. The Quileutes regularly harvest fish and shellfish off the coast of northwest Washington, and their ancestors hunted whales and traveled in ocean-going canoes from Alaska to California for trade.

But the ocean is increasingly becoming a threat.

“To be standing in the school yard when there’s a high tide is intimidating,” said Susan Devine, project manager of the Quileute Tribe’s Move to Higher Ground/Tribal School Project.

“A tsunami would be catastrophic. People say that happens only once every 300 years on average. We’re well beyond the 300 years. Even bigger than that are the severe winter storms that happen several times a year — every year — which cause flooding and bring heavy debris into the school yard and impact the bulkhead in the marina.

“A tsunami is a big catastrophic event, but it’s all the other 100-year storms that are happening at a pace that’s never been experienced. And then you add a king tide, which is a natural high tide but a high tide with a rain event, that becomes a flood event.”

Such stories are familiar throughout Indian Country, where cultures are tied to land and water. The Quileute Tribe plans to relocate the school and the rest of the tribal government to higher ground about 2.5 miles away, and construction of the new school has already begun.

Forty miles south along the Washington coast, the Quinault Nation is making similar plans. Ongoing risks of landslides in the capital of Taholah threaten to cut off reliable road access to police, fire, medical and other public services.

In Alaska, the Native communities of Akiak, Kivalina and Shishmaref are relocating homes away from eroding coastlines and river banks.

“We relocated six houses from the river this summer,” said Mike Williams Sr., Yup’ik, chief of the Akiak Native Community. “Permafrost is melting, villages are sinking in the tundra. A couple of years ago, because of the extreme heat, there were dead salmon floating down on the river. That was sad to see on the Kuskokwim River. The wildlife — everything – is being impacted [by climate change]. We’re at ground zero.”

In early 2020, Kivalina was joined in filing a complaint with the United Nations by four Indigenous bands in Louisiana whose lands have been lost to rising waters.

The complaint blames the U.S. government’s lack of climate change action for the “loss of sacred ancestral homelands, destruction to sacred burial sites and the endangerment of cultural traditions, heritage, health, life and livelihoods.”

Climate change, it states, is “breaking apart communities and families.”

For Indigenous people threatened by climate change, the choice is not an easy one: Move away from a place to which families have been tied for centuries, or stay and remain at risk.

Quinault’s Taholah Village relocation plan

Rising temperatures and shifting weather patterns are causing oceans to rise and storms to become more intense, bringing drought, flooding, wildfires and devastating hurricanes, scientists said. The Quinault Nation predicts sea levels will rise as much as 2.6 feet by 2100, pushing storm surges higher and moving wave action farther upriver.

For the Quinault Nation, ocean encroachment has washed away chunks of coastal lands since the 1970s, and the distance between the open waters and Taholah is diminishing substantially, Tribal Treasurer Larry Ralston told Indian Country Today.

“To further complicate matters, our narrow highway between the ocean and land is succumbing to the forces of nature,” Ralston said. “We have three ongoing slides south of Taholah and it is just a matter of time before we lose State Route 109 into our village of Taholah. This highway is also the only way out and we depend on this route for the health, safety and welfare of our membership.”

“To further complicate matters, our narrow highway between the ocean and land is succumbing to the forces of nature.”

The Quinault Nation adopted the Taholah Village Relocation Master Plan in 2017, and design work is now underway for the Upper Village – 200 acres of higher ground about a half-mile from the existing village center.

When completed in 2030, the Upper Village will have a variety of housing types, a K-12 school, a park and trails, a community center, and WenɑsɡwəllɑʔɑW (Generations Building), which will house the elders program and early childhood education.

The next challenge is funding the project. Quinault received a federal Administration for Native Americans grant to help cover the costs of developing its relocation master plan. But tribal nations in flood and tsunami zones are paying the bulk of the costs for lack of U.S. government policy addressing human actions that are exacerbating climate change.

Despite the fact that 660 people live in Taholah, and some 150 children attend school within a flood and tsunami zone, federal legislation in 2019 that would have made grants available to Native nations for “further achievement of tribal coastal zone objectives” became stuck in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Quinault officials estimate the infrastructure costs alone for the Upper Village — communications, roads, utilities — at $50.6 million.

“Just this week, I had to declare another Quinault national state of emergency as the ocean breached into our village of Taholah, our headquarters,” Quinault Nation President Fawn Sharp said during a Jan. 19 newscast interview with Indian Country Today. Sharp is also president of the National Congress of American Indians and served on the U.S. Interior Secretary’s Commission on Trust Reform in the Obama administration.

“I had to evacuate two blocks of tribal citizens from our homes, our jail, our courthouse, our community center, the only store in town,” she said. “This season, our fisheries is declining and we can point to climate change.”

Sharp called on President Joe Biden to increase efforts to stop climate change from advancing by holding accountable those who are contributing to it.

“We need public-private partnerships, we need international aid and engagement,” Sharp said. “And so I would like this administration to really know and understand we have melting glaciers and we're on the front lines, and we absolutely have to be at the table for policy discussions.”

Rivers tell the story

The Makah Nation is located on the northwest Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca, gateway to the Salish Sea. The Wa’atch River and numerous streams flow through Makah lands to the Pacific and the strait.

Micah McCarty, a former Makah Nation chairman who has long worked with organizations and Indigenous leaders on issues related to climate change and environmental protection, said rivers are telling the story of climate change.

“One of the things that the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission has been concerned about is [salt water] encroachment in areas of rivers that are important for salmon as they prepare to migrate out,” he said. “Their organs don’t change fast enough to accommodate breathing in salt water. When young salmon get into estuaries, they need a certain dilution of sea water with the river water. With salt water encroachment farther up-river, they have less time to adjust to breathing in sea water.

“Seals and sea lions are going farther up-river than before. They’re going after the salmon,” he said.

With diminished salmon populations, he said, “seals and sea lions are putting more pressure on outward migration and returning adults. It’s literally a catastrophic event happening before our eyes.”

The Wa’atch River is on the Olympic Peninsula and flows north for several miles through Makah lands.

The Makah Nation developed a climate adaptation plan that is informed by climate impact surveys, vulnerability assessment of more than 100 species, and collection of cultural and traditional climate knowledge.

The Swinomish Tribe adopted a Climate Change Initiative in 2010 that informs environmental, land use and emergency planning on the Swinomish reservation, located about 80 miles northwest of Seattle.

Swinomish officials say the reservation has experienced an increase in storm surges, flooding and erosion from wind and wave actions.

The initiative helps the tribe adapt to climate change by addressing shoreline management, inundation of tidelands and shellfish beds, loss of forage and spawning habitat, impacts to wetlands and estuarine habitat, drinking water conservation and storage, emergency preparedness and response, and climate science.

“Tribes are on the front line of fixing things, using our resources, setting good public policy [and using] good science, new and emerging science.”

“Tribes are on the front line of fixing things, using our resources, setting good public policy [and using] good science, new and emerging science,” Sharp said on the Indian Country Today newscast. “But yet we have the least amount of resources. So we're doing more with less every year. That is definitely another part of the inequity in the treatment. But tribal nations are resilient. I believe we have a lot of leverage on our side and we just have to come together and unify our voice around these critically important issues at this critically important time.”

The United Nations has not yet responded to the complaint filed by Kivalina and the Louisiana bands, but a UN council on Indigenous rights documented the impact of climate change on Native people elsewhere in the world.

The report concluded that climate change contributed to the disappearance of a lake in Bolivia that was central to the Uru people's culture; the evacuation of Indigenous peoples from Lake St. Martin, Canada, because of flooding; the relocation of Indigenous people from the inundated Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea to the mainland; and the death of an Indigenous child and more than 2,300 reindeer in 2016 in the Russian Arctic, because of an outbreak of anthrax believed to have been triggered by climate change.

Quileute’s ‘Move to Higher Ground’

The Quileute Tribe’s namesake river, the Quillayute, flows from deep within the Olympic Mountain range, winds along the northern boundary of the reservation, and meets the Pacific Ocean in La Push, the main community on the Quileute Reservation.

Quileute leaders signed the Quinault River Treaty in 1856, ceding more than 800,000 acres of old-growth timberland flush with fish and wildlife. The Quileute people retained by treaty the right to fish, harvest and hunt in their usual and accustomed territory, but the land available to them to live on was a one-square-mile coastal reservation.

The Quileute Tribe is located in La Push, Washington, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

In the ensuing years, La Push – a thriving community with an oceanfront resort, marina, school, government offices and emergency services – would feel the pinch. It is bordered on the north by a river that has changed course, as rivers do; on the east and south by Olympic National Park; and on the west by the ocean.

In 2012, after 50 years of lobbying by tribal leaders, President Barack Obama signed legislation returning about 280 acres of national park land to the Quileutes. That set the stage for Quileute’s Move to Higher Ground – the development of an Upper Village located outside of flood and tsunami zones.

A new Quileute Tribal School for grades K-12 is already under construction, funded primarily by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“It’s the first physical representation of the tribe’s relocation to higher ground,” said Devine, the project manager. “It’s very exciting. The tribe’s No. 1 priority has been to move children to higher ground. On any given school day, the entire future of the tribe was exposed to climate change and weather conditions, so it was really exciting to get these dollars.”

Ultimately, the Upper Village will be a community with homes, an elder center, cultural facilities, parks and open space. Tribal government offices and emergency services will relocate there, too.

The Lower Village near the waterfront will remain and some people may choose to continue living there, Devine said. The oceanfront resort and the marina on the lower river will continue operating, and the tribe will work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to keep the river channel dredged and a bulkhead reinforced.

But federal dollars are scarce, Devine said.

“The challenge with all tribes is dollars,” Devine said. “Grants are highly competitive and never enough. We’re working on planning, getting environmental approvals, and identifying ways to make this come together.

“We have the strategy. But implementation will depend on available dollars and timing.”

Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, lives in the Samish homeland of Anacortes, Washington, about 80 miles northwest of Seattle. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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