“As the salmon disappear, so do our cultures and treaty rights. We are at a crossroads and we are running out of time.” 

These words of the late tribal leader Billy Frank Jr. become more urgent every day.

Despite massive harvest cuts, careful use of hatcheries and a large investment in fixing salmon habitat over the past 40 years, salmon populations continue to decline as their habitat disappears faster than it can be fixed. 

That’s why the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington have developed a strategy for identifying and protecting the lands, waters and natural processes that are central to our rights, resources and homelands.

The effort is called gwadzadad (pronounced gwa-zah-did) in the Lushootseed language. It translates to “Teaching of our Ancestors” and reflects the reality that our beliefs and teachings are learned from our homelands and can’t be separated from tribal cultures and heritage or any of our actions today.

It is a unified tribal habitat strategy designed to organize and focus work around key habitats and shared goals necessary to protect tribal treaty rights and resources. It aims to preserve and restore the natural functions and connectivity of our river, marine and upland ecosystems, and to seek accountability for decisions on the use of our lands and waters. 

The effort is based on what we know is actually needed to achieve ecosystem health, not what we think is possible to achieve given current habitat conditions. It is not a retreat to the past, but a long-term vision for a future with healthy resources for everyone.

gwadzadad calls for coordination and accountability across tribal, local, state and federal governments. It will require transparent accounting of habitat conditions, resource allocations and how we are managing habitat for salmon and other treaty-protected resources. A science-based accounting system will measure the difference between current conditions and what is needed to fix the declining productivity of fish, shellfish, plants and wildlife.

Climate change and population growth are already impacting our region and creating an urgency impossible to measure. We must work harder today to address the habitat loss and damage these changes bring.

We are not starting from scratch with gwadzadad. It builds on two other important tribal initiatives from the past decade. 

The first is the Treaty Rights at Risk initiative begun in 2011. It calls for the federal government to meet its obligation to uphold treaty rights and achieve salmon recovery through better coordination of agencies and programs. The federal government has both the authority and responsibility to protect treaty tribal rights and resources. And as the tribal victory in the U.S. Supreme Court on the culvert case in June showed, the state of Washington shares the obligation to protect our treaty-reserved resources.

The second is the State of Our Watersheds, a comprehensive report on the ongoing and increasing loss of habitat for salmon and other treaty-protected resources. The report, first issued in 2012 and updated regularly, proved the fact that we are losing habitat faster than we are restoring it. The State of Our Watersheds Report is considered by many state agencies to be the most authoritative source on the status of our watersheds and key impediments to their health.

If we are going to recover salmon, we will have to do it together. That is why we are also building a coalition of sport and commercial fishermen, conservation groups and others to collaborate on solving our shared concerns about the future of salmon.

The decline of salmon and their habitat and the damage to our ecosystems hasn’t happened overnight. It took more than a century of poor logging practices, development in river floodplains, polluted stormwater runoff, unregulated agriculture and many other factors to get us where we are today. 

It takes a long view to solve century-old problems, and that’s what gwadzadad does. It offers a long-term, multi-generational approach that can help us achieve the future we want for ourselves and create accountability for the decisions we are making today for those who will come after us.

You can download a copy of gwadzadad at nwtreatytribes.org/habitatstrategy/.

Lorraine Loomis is the Chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

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