The treaty tribes of the Pacific Northwest were honored recently to host Larry EchoHawk on his first official visit as the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.
We’ve been waiting for someone like Larry for a long time. With him in the Department of the Interior, we have a great opportunity to get things done.
Larry is a member of the Pawnee Nation. He’s the former elected attorney general of Idaho, so he’s from the Northwest. He knows what we’re facing up here and understands the issues that are important to us.
Larry’s been working outside Indian country for a number of years, teaching law at Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. So, he came up here a few weeks ago, eager to learn more about what’s happening now in our lives as Indian people.
In addition to representatives from the treaty tribes in western Washington, the treaty tribes of the Columbia River system joined us to meet with Larry. Together we are the 24 treaty fishing tribes of the Pacific Northwest. We spent an entire day talking about the natural resources that mean so much to us. We shared our concerns that our treaty rights continue to be violated, that water rights continue to be disputed and that our salmon stocks continue to decline.
We explained that we have always been gatherers and harvesters. We are also the managers of these resources. We manage fish from Alaska all the way to Mexico.
In the three decades since our treaty rights were reaffirmed by U.S. v. Washington (the Boldt Decision), additional responsibilities have been laid at our feet while our funding has eroded. Even though we are an essential part of community health and natural resources management, we’ve had a hard time keeping our programs running. Because of inflation, though, we are actually receiving less funding than we did more than 30 years ago.
When tribes have the resources, we can do great things for our communities, for salmon and for our neighbors. For decades, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has worked to have the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams removed, to help bring back salmon runs that have been driven to near extinction. The removal date has been pushed back a few times, but with the recent injection of $54 million in federal stimulus money, the dams are set to come down in 2011, a year earlier than planned.
This is the kind of thing we can get done with full support of the federal government.
We know our watersheds, we know our neighbors and for centuries, we’ve known the needs of salmon.
This is our homeland. This is where we live. We aren’t going anywhere. We have to take care of our country, and we have to work with local, state and federal governments to sustain it.
The federal government hasn’t always been our friend, but that’s going to change. With Larry working as an advocate for our treaty rights and the natural resources on which those rights depend, we will all be better off.
Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually, is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission in Olympia, Wash., and recipient of the Indian Country Today 2004 American Indian Visionary Award.