The last time Margo Hill saw Twa-le Abrahamson-Swan, she was weaving a basket with her mother.
In other words, Abrahamson-Swan was doing what she has spent her entire adult life doing: pulling different elements together to make something durable and useful, and drawing from a deep well of tradition to create something able to withstand the demands of the modern moment.
Ask her, for example, how she came to help guide an expansive recovery effort for victims of the wildfires that burned across vast swaths of the Colville Indian Reservation this summer, in the middle of a global pandemic, while caring for a toddler and her immunocompromised mother, and she will begin by telling you about something seemingly completely different: the toxic legacy of uranium mining on the Spokane Indian Reservation.
Ask her about that legacy, and she will take you back to her childhood.
Abrahamson-Swan moved around a lot as a kid, following her mother Deb Abrahamson’s tireless and selfless work as a substance-abuse counselor.
“Growing up, I just saw my mom always into service in the community, however that was,” Abrahamson-Swan says.
But about the time she reached high school, her mother found a new focus for her activism: a plan to ship radioactive waste to the Dawn uranium-processing mill in Ford, an already festering ecological disaster along the border of their ancestral home on the Spokane Indian Reservation.
After happening upon a 1994 meeting about the plan, Abrahamson-Swan says her mother got “involved in a whole new issue” and became engaged in a “brand new concept: environmental justice.”
Abrahamson’s awakening came at a “formative time” for her daughter, says Abrahamson-Swan, who was then attending Rogers High School. It left her asking the same question that had animated her mother: What could she do to help her community?
She has searched – and worked – to find an answer to that question ever since.
After graduating from Rogers, her search took her to Tacoma, where she lived while pursuing a degree in environmental studies and restoration ecology at the University of Washington. But even while living on the West Side, Abrahamson-Swan kept getting drawn back to her mother’s work on the Spokane reservation.
Abrahamson had formed a new group called Community Uranium Radiation Education, and Abrahamson-Swan spent one weekend a month driving back to Wellpinit to videotape and take notes of CURE’s monthly meetings.
There, she watched her mother at work, bringing community members together with tribal leaders, Environmental Protection Agency experts and Indian Health Service representatives during a crucial period in the cleanup of the Midnite Mine.
At about the same time, Abrahamson-Swan became engaged in the broader struggle for Indigenous rights and justice, traveling as far as Alaska and New York as part of her work with groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network and the United Nations’ Global Indigenous Youth Caucus.
That experience taught her, among other things, that the story of Indigenous people “was being told wrong – or it wasn’t being told at all.”
Seeking to rectify that wrong and re-engage in her community, Abrahamson-Swan helped produce Intertribal Beat, an hour-long radio show on KYRS that covered Native issues.
Her time as a radio producer came to an end around 2010, when Abrahamson-Swan returned to her background in science and to the Spokane Indian Reservation, where she was hired as the tribe’s air quality specialist.
“And as soon as I got hired by the Spokane tribe, the first thing I did was get certified as a radon tester and mitigator,” Abrahamson-Swan said.
That allowed her to begin the kind of practical, hands-on work that has defined her career. In this case, it meant going “house to house” in search of the radioactive and carcinogenic gas that the breakdown of uranium can produce.
As she tracked radon emissions in peoples’ homes, Abrahamson-Swan “found that it was a lot more widespread than we knew, that there wasn’t any money to fix the problems anywhere. … So it turned into we had to do something different as a tribe.”
She eventually created her own testing program on the reservation, while also pushing for the adoption of new radon building codes.
While her work with the tribe meant she couldn’t be as involved in grassroots activism, it was period when she felt she was “making some major changes for our community.”
But that era of making institutional change came to an emotional end in 2016, when her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer that she attributed to her exposure to the very uranium pollution that Abrahamson and Abrahamson-Swan had devoted so much time and effort to combating.
Abrahamson-Swan soon left her job and moved from Wellpinit to Spokane to help care for her.
“So our whole lives just kind of changed at that time, and I really just had to focus on family for a while,” she said.
That focus expanded after Abrahamson expressed her wish for more grandchildren, and Abrahamson-Swan fulfilled it. Already the mother of a now 23-year-old, she had a girl.
And there was another silver lining that came after Abrahamson-Swan’s decision to leave her job with the tribe.
“I started to see here’s what I’m missing out on: being able to speak out again and do some good work for the community,” Abrahamson-Swan said. “You get a little silenced when you’ve got a lot of bosses.”
When members of the Quinault Indian Nation brought western red cedar logs suitable for making traditional dugout canoes to the tribes of the Inland Northwest at about the same time, Abrahamson-Swan saw another opportunity to shift the direction of her activism.
After years spent warning of the dangers of radioactive contaminants and fighting against “things we don’t want,” she saw the handmade canoes could become “something positive we could do in our community. It was taking our words a little further.
“And organically the groups started to come together to carve these canoes and reaching out for help. It’s this completely lost link in the chain of our culture.”
As groups on the reservations began carving the canoes and taking them back out on the water, they served as a complement to a variety of other Indigenous causes, creating a link to causes like salmon restoration, dam removal and river restoration, while also providing new access to ancestral lands where traditional plants could be gathered.
“It’s about (salmon’s) absence and about our absence on the water,” she said. “It also connected us to our histories, because (canoes) used to be among our primary modes of transportation. … We were boat people. We’re salmon people.”
The canoes and their carving proved magnetic for the members of area tribes.
“Everyone is just drawn back, because it feels right,” she said. “It feels like that’s where we’re supposed to be.”
The canoes also led Abrahamson-Swan to work with others from the Coeur d’Alene, Colville, Kalispel, Nez Perce and Spokane tribes to form a new group: the River Warrior Society.
The group wrote its first grant in 2018 to support a salmon ceremony, and registered as a Washington nonprofit soon after. A year or so ago, Abrahamson-Swan became the group’s second executive director.
While the River Warrior Society became a focus of her attention, she didn’t drop the causes that had preoccupied her before.
Early this year, she and Abrahamson were making progress on an effort to work with Washington State University to create a regional cancer center for tribal members. They also re-engaged with the uranium cleanup on the Spokane reservation, after the mining company responsible for the Ford processing site’s cleanup pushed for relaxed cleanup standards.
And then COVID-19 hit.
Abrahamson-Swan responded exactly as she always has: by organizing and acting to aid her community.
Her first focus was on elders with cancer who lived in remote towns like Keller and Inchelium, where they already faced hurdles accessing necessities but now faced grave danger.
She soon joined with her fellow River Warrior Society members to bring toilet paper, masks and other scarce necessities to these at-risk populations. They also provided traditional medicines and foods. Then they decided they would add gardening supplies to the mix, bringing seeds and tools to help people become more self-sufficient.
“Through our network, we were able to make sure they got way out on the reservation communities,” Abrahamson-Swan said. “We were supporting our communities, our elders, people with babies. … And that’s where the fires started.”
The fires that erupted almost simultaneously on the far eastern and western edges of the Colville Reservation in early September caused massive damage and displacement.
Two River Warrior Society members based in Keller – Faith Zacherle and her fiancé, Robert Tonasket – immediately leaped into action, helping people evacuate and directing the first donations.
“I didn’t know how bad things were,” Abrahamson-Swan said. “But as soon as we got involved, it was nonstop from there.”
While she largely remained in Spokane with her family, Abrahamson-Swan helped direct a massive River Warrior Society effort to collect donations, connect with fire victims and get people what they needed to survive the disaster.
As money started coming in from as far away as Australia, the River Warrior Society kept it moving back out, providing people with gas cards, cash, campers, hotel rooms, blankets, clothes, toiletries, propane and hay, among other necessities.
Abrahamson-Swan estimates the organization raised and distributed some $10,000 worth of supplies. But that doesn’t count all the many other donations the River Warrior Society helped coordinate. Those included a used car given to someone whose vehicle was lost in the fire, a $13,000 tiny home provided to a person who lost their home and a recent $7,500 grant from Avista.
“Our role has been that direct contact with people,” she said. “‘What do you need?’ And then they’re coming in by the truckload with things. It’s not just what we’re bringing in but the connections we have.”
And as the pandemic rages on, so do the effects of the long-contained Colville fires.
“There are elders planning to spend the winter in RVs,” Abrahamson-Swan said. “To me, I’m scared to take on these projects. I don’t want people living in RVs for the winter. If they are, I guess we can go put some insulation around them but I’d rather they’re not living in RVs.”
Those kinds of hard but important choices – choices the rest of the world is barely even aware exist – have made this a uniquely challenging year.
“It took a lot of our work from hypothetical to ‘here’s the real-life impacts,’ ” Abrahamson-Swan said. “There’s funerals happening in our community. It’s no longer this may cause cancer. … It’s down to, if we don’t protect our elders, if we don’t do this work, then lives are at risk. When people don’t have the basic necessities to sanitize their homes, to feed themselves – our people are at a critical time right now. All of the small problems that we knew were in our communities are amplified at this time.”
While she can’t help but hear and respond to those challenges, she has also made a deliberate effort to remain grounded, gardening and “going all of our places for gathering” with her mother, whose battle with cancer continues.
Hill, a Spokane tribal member who has known Abrahamson-Swan her whole life and who is a professor of urban planning at Eastern Washington University, said the strength she and her mother share is connected.
“They’re like sticks that stand together,” Hill said. “The strength with the two of them is so amazing.”
Abrahamson-Swan’s strength, in particular, derives from both her deep connection to Indigenous traditions and her mastery of modern technologies, whether it’s radon detectors, radio production equipment, social media or federal bureaucracies.
She’s “traditional” as well as a “modern-day warrior,” Hill said.
“She puts the word out there and people know it’s going to happen,” Hill said. “She and her team deliver.”