Quinault, Suquamish Tribe Highlight Climate Crisis in Front of U.S. Senate

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Pacific Northwest tribal members took the stage this week to outline legislative priorities in front of the U.S. Senate, urging lawmakers to focus on climate change, among other major issues, this session. 

Fawn Sharp, president of both the Quinault Indian Nation and National Congress of American Indians, joined Leonard Forsman, Suquamish Tribe Chairman and president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, to testify in front of the Committee on Indian Affairs, both saying that Native communities are on the front lines of the climate crisis. 

“I want to be clear that today’s hearing is not a ‘check the box’ exercise,” Committee Chair Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said. “It’s a real opportunity for members to chart a path forward by listening to and learning from Native leaders for the next two years and beyond.”

Sharp cited the fact that Native cultures, traditions, communities, foods and economies are often dependent on natural resources.

“As such, they are disproportionately affected by even incremental environmental changes,” she said. 

Forsman described those impacts in detail. 

“Our people have lived on our traditional lands since time immemorial, but our elders are being forced to move from their homes because they are experiencing more extensive flooding. More of our children have been inflicted with respiratory illness and have difficulty breathing during recent wildfire seasons, which are worse than ever before,” he said. “And our traditional first foods, including clams, crabs, and fisheries are threatened by our acidifying oceans.”

Forsman and Sharp also pointed to tribes taking action on climate change, including the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community reviving ancient clam gardens to improve biodiversity, the Blue Lake Rancheria’s microgrid meant to transition the community to zero-carbon, the Navajo Nation’s work on renewable energy, and tribes in Alaska, Louisiana and Washington that are developing relocation plans.

Concerning the Pacific Northwest, Foresman specifically cited the declining population of Southern resident killer whales — an issue prioritized by Gov. Jay Inslee through task forces and legislation.

“The Suquamish Tribe and our ancestors have always had a sacred relationship with the Southern resident killer whale population in the Puget Sound, but they are starving because of the drastic reduction in our salmon runs,” Forsman said. 

Forsman called out dams on the Snake River, which U.S. lawmakers have proposed to breach in an attempt to bolster salmon populations. The idea garnered pushback from some Washington Republicans. 

The Quinault Indian Nation has cited similar concerns over salmon populations — vital prey to the Southern resident killer whales — in their objection to the proposed Chehalis River dam, predicted to have significant and long-term impacts on salmon and steelhead, according to a draft federal environmental review. Supporters of the Chehalis Dam have said those impacts are overstated and can be mitigated. 

Sharp called for climate-related legislation to include “full and meaningful consultation” with tribes and called for tribal nations to be “integrated into congressional and executive branch climate planning, including on federal climate committees and working groups.”

Overall, Forsman cited an immediate need for $50 million in fiscal year 2022 for the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ tribal resilience program and $150 million allocated to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for “protecting or relocating existing tribal infrastructure (including cultural sites) threatened by climate.”

Full video and written testimony can be viewed here: https://www.indian.senate.gov/hearing/oversight-hearing-call-action-native-communities-priorities-focus-117th-congress