WASHINGTON – Quinault Tribal President Fawn Sharp recalls how her heart sank as she looked from a helicopter over the Olympic Mountains glacier that once fed the river carrying the same name as her tribe.
The glacier was gone, and because of that the flow of the Quinault River was becoming more erratic. Blueback salmon, a variety of sockeye the tribe has relied on for hundreds of years, are declining and may someday become extinct, she fears.
“I can’t imagine trying to explain to another generation of Quinaults how blueback salmon tasted,” she told a gathering of Native Americans discussing how climate change is affecting them. “The only salmon in the world that has that taste, that texture and has that connection to the Quinault people.”
Leaders of the Quinault, Quileute, Hoh and Makah tribes joined hundreds of other Native American representatives and climate scientists this week at the National Museum of the American Indian to discuss climate change at the First Stewards symposium.
Native Americans are on the front line of climate change, said Edward Johnstone, a Quinault who founded the event.
“The debate of global warming is over, because we have felt that,” he said. “We should be the first storytellers of what we think is the climate impact.”
Global warming has also changed the life of low-lying communities like that of the Quileutes.
Chris Morganroth III, a Quileute elder, described how the tribe is threatened by the rising sea level and has to move away from its homeland to higher ground.
To help the tribes, who are the most vulnerable to the changes because of subsistence economies and land-based cultures, Johnstone said they invited people from academia and politics to discuss “not only the questions but some of the answers to the questions.”
Simone Alin, a researcher from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, offered scientific explanations of changes the coastal tribes have seen, like the dead zones: miles of beach strewn with dead fish. That’s a result of the low-oxygen waters nearby, she said. It is partially caused by the higher acid levels in the ocean and occurs in densely populated watersheds.
The symposium was not just another chance to teach and inform, but also a great opportunity for scientists to learn from the natives, she said.
“The oral traditions of the native people are great sources for our study,” she said.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said the First Stewards event reminded her of an Indian word, “alki,” which means the hope for the future.
“When I see an event like this, focusing on first stewardship and partnership, I have hope for the future,” she said.
The effects of climate change on tribes in other regions will also be discussed at the symposium, which runs through Friday.