Tribal Sovereignty is jeopardized by climate crisis: invokes pathways for honorable community engagement

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Michele “Shelly” Vendiola, Communications Facilitator, Swinomish Climate Change Initiative

Mother earth has a fever, she is very sick.” Carrie Dann, Elder, Western Shoshone Defense Project

In 1961 President Dwight Eisenhower spoke of the military industrial complex as the trilogy of U.S. government, military and industry.  Today the government is seemingly hijacked by corporations: 7 of the top 10 wealthiest corporations in the world are oil corporations.   Refineries producing fossil fuel products such as oil and gas contribute to the rapid and accelerating warming of Mother Earth.  Major oil corporations are some of the worst violators of tribal sovereignty, public safety, the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

Tesoro is one of two oil refineries operating on a three-mile strip of land on Fidalgo Bay and Padilla Bay in Washington State–traditional Swinomish territory. This land was taken by the federal government in 1870, when President Ulysses S. Grant diminished the reservation boundaries, excluding the tribal area now known as March Point.   Tesero has been cited for 17 serious safety violations and 150 other safety violations as of last April.  On April 2, 2010, an explosion at the Tesoro refinery killed five workers.  This is corporate irresponsibility and a public safety issue.

Tribes are not energy producers, nor are they responsible for poisoning their own lands or other communities where toxic “hot spots” or superfund sites are located.  What remains obvious is that tribal sovereignty is seriously jeopardized by climate change.  Some of the most threatened cultural sites for gathering clams and salmon habitat are contaminated and threatened due to the high levels of toxic chemicals in the air and water.  For example, the 2009 Swinomish Climate Change Impact Assessment Report indicates high threats to cultural specific sites such as fish and shellfish habitat, burial sites, cultural practice and gathering sites due to sea level rise.  According to the 2006 Department of Ecology Climate Change Impact report, the Swinomish reservation is the second highest risk area for sea level rise in Washington State.

The 1855 Point Elliott Treaty between the U.S. Government and Coast Salish tribes, including the Swinomish, states that the treaty signers would be granted the right to fish in their usual and accustomed places, and to gather (traditional foods, plants, etc.) on vacant land. Signers would then be relocated onto smaller plots of land known as reservations.  Thus, native peoples were granted the right to survive and made to live on reservations in trade for their ancestral homelands and waterways.

“We must stay the course … and tell our stories!  We need to work together to protect what we have and our rights!” Billie Franks, Jr., Nisqually Elder, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

Now tribes face a serious quagmire in the face of climate change that makes it challenging, if not impossible, for sovereignty to occur.  How can the Swinomish exert their sovereignty over the shellfish beds on the west side of March Point if the place is highly contaminated?  As sea-level rise occurs and with more frequent storm surges the tribe’s cultural sites and homelands will be disturbed.

Climate change does not stop or start at the reservation border, it impacts surrounding townships throughout coastal areas.  As such, a climate crisis exposes duality, increases adversity and brings allies onto tribal lands and waterways from multiple sectors.  Tribes cannot, nor should not, fight this battle alone.  Most importantly we must strive for honorable community engagement.

All tribal communities and communities of color, regardless of whether they are located on or near superfund sites, should build up alliances and join together to access clean renewable energy sources (i.e. solar, wind, geothermal, etc.), technology and tools for localizing the growth, production and transporting of food, plants and medicines.  Working together as a human race and upholding or creating principles and protocols such as the “Principles of Working Together.”  For more information visit the Community Alliance & Peacemaking Project website:  From an indigenous lens–Earth day is every day!

Michele “Shelly” Vendiola is Native American (Swinomish) and Filipina. She is a certified mediator, peacemaker, educator and community activist. Shelly is the co-founder of the Community Alliance and Peacemaking Project and is currently contracting with the Swinomish Climate Change Initiative. She formerly served as the Campaign Director for the Indigenous Environmental Network and continues to work in collaboration with this network, advocating on environmental justice issues for tribes in the Pacific Northwest region. She also serves as a consultant to the Lummi CEDAR Project, a native non-profit dedicated to youth leadership and healthy lifestyles where she provides technical assistance and training. She continues to lead workshops in alliance building, organizational development, leadership, peacemaking and dispute resolution throughout the country. She practices popular education methodology within all aspects of her work.


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Author: Kirwan Institute (427 Articles)

Kirwan Institute

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