Nisqually Tribe keeps sights on the land

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PORTLAND, Ore. - Anyone who's ever suffered a financial setback knows how
long it can take to get back on one's feet. There's the depression and
dissolution that sets in during the bad times. However a person slices it,
life with few resources is tough; and the thought of conserving the
environment in the middle of all the confusion is nearly unthinkable.

That's why the Nisqually Tribe's accomplishment is particularly noteworthy.

"Pact puts Nisqually land in federal hands: Fish and Wildlife to take from
tribe day-to-day control of 310 acres in refuge" is how the headline in the
local paper read. And it's true: the tribe has agreed to a 25-year
co-management deal on their land with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But the underlying story is where the real excitement is - how, in the
midst of disruption and impoverishment that has struck at the very heart of
the Nisqually culture, the tribe went up against the goliath of American
industrialization and stood for a way of life and the ecosystem on which it
depended.

That's why, in 1996, the tribe scraped together enough cash to buy a $2.4
million, 310-acre farm at the mouth of the Nisqually River to take out
dikes that kept the salt water at bay and allow the emerald-green
agricultural land to return to its natural marshy state at the estuary. So
far the tribe's focused on just 40 acres, though this summer the Nisqually
will remove another dike and allow the tidal flux to wash into another 100
acres to rebuild what was once prime salmon habitat.

The tribe couldn't really afford to do what it did, of course. Not only
buying the parcel, but restoring the land has taken money away from
badly-needed social and educational programs. But leaders thought it was a
sound investment. And they were right. Now that at least some of the
deep-pocketed folks in mainstream society have taken an interest in
preserving natural ecosystems, people have come knocking on the Nisqually
Tribe's door: particularly those associated with the Nisqually National
Wildlife Refuge that surrounds the farm the Nisqually tribe purchased.

The deal allows the refuge to build a path for bird watchers on the tribal
parcel. In return, Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., secured $800,000 in federal
funds for the tribe that in part compensates for the farm's purchase: money
the tribe can funnel into other needed programs.

David Troutt, natural resources director for the Nisqually Tribe, thinks
the arrangement is a good one. "Everyone will benefit from the stewardship
outlined in this agreement," said Troutt. "Salmon will continue to return
to the Nisqually River and the public will be welcome to visit this special
place."

Nisqually Tribal Chairman Dorian Sanchez agreed. "It's essentially a
win-win for everybody."

Regional director of USFWS, Dave Allen, concurred. "This is, by any
measure, a milestone for us. It's a model for working with tribes in the
Pacific Northwest and the rest of the country."

A model Innocent, even boring words, maybe. But in light of history,
calling the arrangement a model is an understatement.

Dicks remembers when the public outcry over the Port of Tacoma wanting to
build a port in the Nisqually Delta back in 1974 was so fierce that the
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge was established. And Sanchez raised the
specter of the early 1970s when tribal fishermen were subjected to routine
police assaults. Back then, not only wasn't it de rigueur for Indians to
buy back ancestral land and cut deals, state machinations to keep tribal
members from exercising treaty rights to fish at usual and accustomed
places - both on- and off-reservation - were rampant.

The days to which Sanchez referred were those in which savvy members of the
Nisqually and Puyallup tribes staged highly publicized "fish-ins" that led
to the landmark Boldt decision that ruled tribes were entitled to half the
fish in the rivers.

In an effort to make way for the crush of land-hungry settlers in the
1850s, territorial governor of Washington Isaac Stevens tried to coerce the
tribes into relinquishing nearly all of the 2.24 million acres of prime
land on the Puget Sound and Olympic Peninsula. The Nisqually refused to
sign the initial treaty because while American settlers were being issued
160 acres each through the Homestead Act, Indians were reduced to a mere
four acres apiece. Further, Stevens wanted them to live on a small tract of
scrubland removed from their life-giving river.

War ensued and the outnumbered Indians paid dearly. In 1858, the Nisqually
chief, Leschi, was hanged. Leschi's martyrdom, though, was partly
responsible for the U.S. government eventually redressing wrongs to some
extent and assigning the tribe a reservation on the river.

In short, it's been a long haul for the Nisqually people. After they were
finally resettled, their children were taken away to boarding schools
during the first part of the 20th century. And during World War I, the U.S.
military confiscated 3,370 acres of their reservation to create the Fort
Lewis Military Reserve. Only after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act and
World War II veterans came home did the Nisqually organize a government and
start to recoup losses that had accrued over the past 100 years.

Thus, that the tribe has reached a place where it can not only purchase
modest parcels of land for the purpose of environmental restoration, but
also negotiate agreements with the federal government, is notable to say
the least. Then again, when people know what their priorities are - or
whence comes their sustenance - it's easier to stay on track and not get
lost in an industrialized commercial world that often gives mixed signals
about what it means to live on the earth.