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Richard Arlin Walker
Special to ICT

For several years, residents of the Quileute Tribe’s oceanfront town of La Push watched as storm surges and rising tide levels eroded the shoreline and sent ocean water further into the village.

The school was one of the buildings most at risk of a tsunami — something school officials couldn’t forget as climate change brought the water closer and closer.

“In my two years here, we’ve had one incident where there was a tsunami warning and the entire community was evacuated because we didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Superintendent Mark Decker of the waterfront Quileute Tribal School. “It was a Saturday and school wasn’t in session but I had some staff in the lower village and I called them immediately and said they needed to get moving.

“A tsunami didn’t materialize, but it was scary,” he said. “I would say, even though it’s a beautiful location, the risk of tsunami here is in the back of my mind on a regular basis.”

Charlotte Penn, vice president of the Quileute Tribe School board, speaks at the dedication of the new school Aug. 5, 2022, which was moved to higher ground to get it out of a flood and tsunami zone. Looking on is Bonita Cleveland, holding a folder, who was Quileute Tribe chairwoman when the tribe lobbied Congress for funding for the school. (Photo courtesy of Quileute Tribal School)

Schoolchildren will be safer come September when they begin attending a new K-12 school built some 250 feet above sea level. The school, dedicated on Aug. 5, is the first project of many planned in the new Upper Village, a new community located a half-mile inland on higher ground.

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The opening of the school, universally seen as Priority No. 1 in the tribe’s Move to Higher Ground project, is a relief to those who felt the entire future of the tribe was at risk if children continued to attend school in a flood and tsunami zone.

Susan Devine, project manager of the Move to Higher Ground’s Tribal School Relocation project, told ICT previously that a tsunami would be “catastrophic.”

“People say that happens only once every 300 years on average,” she said. “We’re well beyond the 300 years.”

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Rio Jaime, a Quileute Tribal Council member and tribal school alumnus, described the changes he’s seen along Quileute’s waterfront in his four decades of life.

“There used to be a line of trees between the school buildings and the ocean,” he said. “The waves have gotten a little closer and killed those trees, which have fallen and become part of the logs on the beach. The erosion is very prominent. You can see where the shoreline has slumped in over the years.”

A gathering place

Completion of the new school is a relief to the tribe. But the Tribal School Relocation project also gave the tribe an opportunity to design a school that is reflective of their culture, provides tools the students need to prepare them for in-demand careers in the area, and has room to expand.

The new school has an exterior design reminiscent of the longhouses once common throughout the Pacific Northwest. Cedar was used in the building’s construction, there are lots of windows to let in natural light, and cultural art is a prominent part of the landscape. There is a courtyard, an open-concept library, a gymnasium, a full kitchen, and generators that can provide power for up to 25 days.

Young Quileute people dance to a paddle song Aug. 5, 2022, at the dedication of the new Quileute Tribal School, which was built on higher ground to move students out of a flood and tsunami zone. (Photo by Susan Devine, courtesy of Quileute Tribe)

The school is also equipped to serve as a gathering place for the community in the event of an emergency.

“When you walk in and see the vibrant cedar color in the hallways, the way it’s shaped like a longhouse and the elements they put into that, it’s very impressive,” Jaime said. “The design team did a wonderful job. It’s a beautiful school inside and out.”

The school has shops where students can train for jobs in the construction and marine industries, and a design center, where students will learn about robotics and, as Decker put it, “how to use design-thinking principles in the workforce.”

Also proposed is a fish hatchery, where students will learn about fisheries and fishery management.

‘A tough adjustment’

While moving the school to higher ground was an easy decision, not all residents of the La Push waterfront are eager to relocate – either because their culture is tied to the water or because the waterfront town is a vestige of a broad swath of the Olympic Peninsula that the ancestors ceded to the U.S. in the Quinault River Treaty of 1856.

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Of more than 800,000 acres of coastal old-growth forest flush with fish and wildlife, the Quileutes retained one square mile, although they also reserved the right to fish, harvest and hunt in their usual and accustomed territory.

In the ensuing years, La Push became a thriving community with tribal government offices, emergency services, a marina, an oceanfront resort, and the school. But the community’s geography became pinched.

The Quillayute River changed course over time, whittling away the reservation’s northern boundary. The U.S. government established Olympic National Park on the reservation’s eastern and southern boundaries. And the mighty Pacific Ocean encroached from the west, fueled by rising sea levels attributed to changes in climate. By 1962, Quileute tribal leaders were lobbying for the return of a portion of ceded land.

President Barack Obama signed legislation in 2012 that returned about 280 acres of national park land to the Quileutes. That set the stage for Quileute’s Move to Higher Ground – the development of an Upper Village located outside of flood and tsunami zones.

Quileute Tribe Chairman Doug Woodruff cuts the ribbon at the Aug 5, 2022, dedication of the new Quileute Tribal School, which was built on higher ground to move children out of a flood and tsunami zone. (Photo by Susan Devine, courtesy of Quileute Tribe)

“I stand on the shoulders of many former leaders who fought tirelessly for decades for this day to happen,” Quileute Tribal Chairman Doug Woodruff said at the school dedication ceremony. “It was the fight and efforts of those who came before me that paved the way on Feb. 27, 2012, for former President Obama to sign into law legislation that would allow us to move facilities in the lower village to higher ground away from the dangers of the tsunami zone.

“At the time, NPR reported that people in the village were ‘ecstatic,’ ‘amazed,’ and ‘stunned.’ Ladies and gentlemen, that was a short 10 years ago. Our focus has always been the safety of our children and moving the tribal school first was always our priority,” he said. “When I say the passage of the legislation was a short 10 years ago, I cannot emphasize enough the amount of incredible work and dedication that it took between then and today to make this celebration possible.”

Elizabeth Soto is an incoming junior at Quileute Tribal School and, as Miss Quileute, has a leadership role among her peers in the tribe.

“It’s going to be a tough adjustment,” she said, of attending the new school. “We grew up on the water. It’s where we have our annual whale ceremony, where we sing and dance and go out onto the beach and take fish to the whales. It’s where we’ve had our annual elders honoring, where we’ve made and presented to them cedar roses, cedar baskets, beaded necklaces and drums.”

Still, she said the new school will offer more for students than the waterfront site

“We’ll be in actual classrooms rather than in portables,” she said.

A turning point

Ultimately, the Upper Village will be a community with homes, an elder center, cultural facilities, parks and open space. Tribal government offices and emergency services will relocate there, too.

Talan King, 7, a Quileute youth royalty member, sings Aug. 5, 2022,  at the dedication of Quileute Tribal School, which was built on higher ground to move students out of a flood and tsunami zone.  (Photo by Susan Devine, courtesy of the Quileute Tribe)

The biggest obstacle to completing the Move to Higher Ground, however, is funding.

The total estimated costs are a moving target, said Jaime, who serves as tribal council treasurer. The school was originally estimated to cost $44 million, but that cost grew to about $47 million because of pandemic-influenced supply chain issues, though much of the cost was covered by a federal grant, he said.

Installation of infrastructure will be covered by a mix of grants and tribal funds, but completion could take years.

“We’d like it to happen sooner rather than later,” he said.

One thing is certain: the Lower Village near the waterfront will remain and some people may choose to continue living there. The oceanfront resort and the marina on the lower river will continue operating, and the tribe will work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to keep the river channel dredged and a bulkhead reinforced.

“The opening of this school marks a turning point for the Quileute Tribe,” said tribal spokeswoman Jackie Jacobs, Lumbee. “This will be the cornerstone of changing the educational trajectory for their people for seven generations to come.”

Other tribal nations on the Pacific Coast of Washington State are also moving communities to higher ground: the Hoh Tribe, 42 miles south of La Push where the Hoh River meets the Pacific Ocean; and the Quinault Nation, 115 miles south of La Push where the Quinault River meets the Pacific. Those tribes, like Quileute, have long endured flooding and erosion from storm surges and rising tide levels.

And on Aug. 8, the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe in southwest Washington dedicated a 50-foot tall tsunami refuge tower for residents.

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