The message was an old one, more than seven generations old and seven generations times seven before that, and it was being reaffirmed by Carson Bobb, 8, dancing to his family’s song and drums in the gathering at the Lummi Nation’s government center, November 14.
The message: We must care for the environment that sustains us, we must take only what we need, and the decisions we make regarding Mother Earth must consider the seven generations that will succeed us.
And so Carson, heir to lands and waters threatened by a proposed coal shipping terminal and increased oil tanker traffic and other industrial uses, danced for his future and for the future of the grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren to come.
The Bobb family’s song was one of several presentations filmed for a short documentary, “The Earth is Alive: Salish Teachings,” a film produced by Setting Sun Productions. The November 14 filming was open to the public. A delegation of 17 Lummi youth and adults presented the film to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, France, November 30 to December 11.
In the film, a group of respected indigenous leaders share ancestral teachings about environmental stewardship – and the impacts of environmental degradation on indigenous lifeways.
“At times, my spirit’s down. At times, I hurt,” said former Tulalip Tribes vice chairwoman Deborah Parker, whose Native name, tsi-cy-altsa, goes back seven generations on her mother’s side of the family. “I hurt because I wonder what my children are going to eat, what they are going to put on their tables. When we’re asked to feed our people in our longhouses, what kind of salmon are we going to be putting on the table, what kind of crab, what kind of shrimp? Where are those berries going to come from? These are our traditional foods, they keep our spirits strong. These are the teachings we have from our ancestors, passed down from generation to generation.”
The concerns of tsi-cy-altsa are substantiated. Because of detected levels of PCBs, arsenic and mercury in Puget Sound, the State of Washington’s Department of Ecology recommends a fish consumption level of 6.5 grams a day per person – less than a quarter-ounce, or one bite of fish. That’s tragic to Coast Salish peoples, for whom the salmon has ceremonial, cultural and dietary importance. Proposed clean-water standards would improve that fish consumption level to 175 grams a day per person -- about 6 ounces, or one small filet. That still pales in comparison to historic Coast Salish diets of up to 1.3 pounds a day per person. And Washington Gov. Jay Inslee admits that his updated clean-water standard “only regulates 96 chemicals, yet there are hundreds of toxins that come from everyday products.”
Concerns about food, water, air and land are shared by Indigenous Peoples around the globe. According to reports for the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Association:
On St. Lawrence Island, the largest island in the Bering Sea, the rendered oils of bowhead whale, seals, and walrus contain PCB concentrations of 193–421 ppb; the U.S. EPA risk-based consumption limit for PCBs in fish to avoid excess risk of cancer is 1.5 ppb. “Blood serum of the Yupik people [on St. Lawrence Island] contains PCB levels 4–12 times higher than that of the general U.S. population,” according to NIH.
About 850 Anishnaabe First Nations people on the Aamjiwnaang reserve near Sarnia, Ontario, Canada are regularly exposed to pollution from nearby oil refineries and manufacturers of agricultural products, chemicals, plastics and polymers. “About 40 percent of Aamjiwnaang residents require use of an inhaler, and 17 percent of adults and 22 percent of children are reported to have asthma,” according to NIH. The ratio of male births has declined, a change that may partly reflect effects of chemical exposures. “Releases of chemicals have also interfered with the community’s cultural life, affecting hunting, fishing, medicine gathering, and ceremonial activities.”
Deborah Parker, former Tulalip Tribes council member and advocate for women’s and children’s rights, tells young Lummi delegates to the U.N. Conference on Climate Change that they have a voice. “If I look at the numbers of Native Americans in the U.S. and Canada, we are about 5 percent [of the population] … We are many, we are not one. You put those branches together, you cannot break us.”
The Mohawk people at Akwesasne traditionally derived most of their protein from fish from the St. Lawrence River and its tributaries. But because of PCB contamination from three upstream aluminum foundries, Mohawk leaders advised their citizens to cease eating local fish in 1986.
At Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, home to 25,000 Oglala Lakota people, alpha radiation in groundwater and surface water sources in the Pine Ridge town of Red Shirt have been traced to a uranium mill site. At Tewa Pueblo in New Mexico, residents are exposed to pollution from mining, petrochemical and military waste.
Tailings, or waste, from uranium mining leaches uranium into drinking and groundwater. “Uranium is both radioactive and has direct metal toxicity, which results in increased risk of cancer, birth defects, and kidney disease,” according to NIH. “[S]ome environmental testing has been commissioned by local nonprofit organizations, which found PCB levels 25,000 times the standard for human health and 1,000 times over the standard for wildlife habitat in [New Mexico’s] Los Alamos Canyon.”
Mining and oil and gas production are contaminating the Russian North, where Indigenous Peoples have depended on traditional hunting, fishing and gathering for thousands of years. They report the destruction of reindeer pastures, habitats and spawning grounds of fish; deforestation; degradation of tundra and vegetation; and flooding of subsistence areas because of the construction of hydroelectric power dams.
In Japan, “In less than 100 years since the colonization of Hokkaido, our land was changed to farmland and resort land, the mountains are ruined, rivers are covered with concrete and their flows were changed by dams,” Ainu leader Koichi Kaizawa said in a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report.
The film’s participants and the Lummi delegation to Paris hope the voices of those who have the most to lose – the young ones – can influence a legally binding world agreement on climate change at the U.N. conference. Other indigenous representatives at the U.N. conference include the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee, the Centre for Autonomy and Development of Indigenous People in Nicaragua, the Wabanaki Confederacy, and indigenous Peoples from 12 countries in Asia.
“We come together for a common purpose today,” Lummi council member and fisherman Jay Julius said during the documentary filming. “We come together to honor [the Earth] and take a look at where we are today and what has taken place and what has happened to Mother Earth – to take a stand and encourage world leaders to take a stand.
“Each of these youth who are speaking on behalf of us … some of these youth are the seventh generation since the signing of the treaty of 1855. That is a basic indigenous principle of all indigenous people, to not think about us today but think about the future generations, and that is where there has been some failure in the past and got us to where we are today.”
Tom Sampson, Saanich, who launched the Coast Salish Initiative to bring Coast Salish Nations together to develop agreements on social and environmental issues, said, “The old paradigm has failed. The new paradigm must now be different. The children can help that.”
Former Kumeyaay chairman Anthony Pico told of the effects of drought and forest management practices in his native San Diego County, where more than 2,300 acres were consumed by wildfire this year. All told, more than 300,000 acres were consumed by wildfire statewide. He said current forest management practices conflict with indigenous practices, which was to allow fire to clean forest floors and allow for new growth.
“The brush [in San Diego County] has some of the highest oil content of chaparral in the world,” Pico said. “With the policies of the U.S. Forest Service – to put fires out when they start, rather than allow the fire ecology that the Native Americans first did to keep the brush low so that when fires do start they don’t get out of control – what’s happening is because of drought, when fires start they’ve been devastating.”
The way the U.S. approaches fire management is coming under increasing scrutiny. “Fighting fires can break natural cycles of burn and recovery, but as people move into potential burn areas, it’s harder for firefighters to make the case for standing back and letting the flames go,” David A. Graham wrote in The Atlantic on September 15, 2015. “One result of this strategy is hotter and larger fires. Fire managers refer to anything larger than 100,000 acres as a ‘megafire,’ and before 1995, there was an average of less than one per year. But that number has begun steadily climbing.”
In Paris, the Lummi delegation gathered with other world indigenous representatives to offer blessings and songs. Young Lummi people like Tonya Teton, 19, hope the U.N. conference is a force for change in how we live on, and care for, this planet we share.
“I want to give them my perspectives as an indigenous person, to show them who we are, to show them our songs and dances and pray for them, and in my own way, let them know we are here and that we do care about the earth,” she said after the documentary filming. “Everything we do culturally involves the earth, so it’s important for us to keep our waters and rivers clean. Most importantly, the river, because that’s where our salmon comes from. The salmon’s very important to us. The water is really sacred to us. We want to find new ways to keep it clean and keep it sacred so we can carry on the way our ancestors used to carry on.”