The Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians held its annual festival along the banks of the Stillaguamish River in August 2016. Festivalgoers cooled off in the river, which tribe members say is marked in parts by severe habitat loss. (Photo: Sara Jerome)

Native Americans Take Up a Sacred Fight Against Water Pollution

The Stillaguamish and other tribes want to preserve a healthy tradition of eating fish fresh from American rivers.
Aug 26, 2016· 6 MIN READ
Sara Jerome is a freelance reporter who covers policy. She previously held staff positions at National Journal, The Hill, and the Financial Times Group.

ARLINGTON, Washington—When Shawn Yanity, chairman of the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians, talks about how he reconnected with his ancestral community, he begins the story 161 years ago.

That’s when the Stillaguamish and more than 20 other tribes signed the Point Elliott Treaty with Washington state, ceding their land in exchange for reservations and the right to continue fishing in the rivers.

Yanity’s tribe scattered after that. Some members moved onto reservations. Others assimilated into neighboring tribes. Yanity’s family wound up in Alaska. “I grew up surrounded by indigenous communities up there,” the chairman told TakePart. “I had an understanding of living off the land and taking care of the elders.”

The tribe was nearly lost, but members have worked since the last century to resurrect the community: reconnecting with descendants, petitioning and winning federal recognition, and crucially, practicing traditional ceremonies and customs around salmon and river life. In recent years, part of that cultural preservation has meant protecting the long-ago-negotiated right to fish.

“Salmon are part of our stories, a part of our songs. They’re part of that circle of life for the environment as well as our people,” Yanity said.

Armed with his tribal identification card, Yanity found his way back to the tribe at 30, moving near the Stillaguamish River and working for state-run fisheries. “My grandmother told me, ‘You have to start getting involved with the tribe.’ I started taking things in from the elders, learning about the Stillaguamish, about how we’re all related in Indian country. I got to know so many different folks that were so wise about our culture,” he said.

The tribe is now headquartered about 50 miles north of Seattle and has more than 200 members. Yanity, who is in his 50s, speaks earnestly about what he sees as a contemporary threat to the health of his community: a water-quality rule issued by the state in August that overhauls standards for businesses that discharge wastewater. The Stillaguamish and other tribes say the rule fails to protect people who regularly eat local fish.

Shawn Yanity. (Photo: Sara Jerome)

For Native American tribes, nature is sacred. In the Pacific Northwest and across the country, tribes are pushing for better preservation of the grounds they have been driven off in the past—and they’re doing it by trying to hold the government to aging agreements. Yanity says Washington state’s new rule breaks promises made in an 1855 treaty and threatens traditional fishing practices that have helped the tribe reestablish itself.

At issue are state water-quality standards, the subject of a showdown between a controversial state plan and a stricter federal proposal. What’s at stake are the shellfish and fish the tribes have relied on for sustenance for generations.

The federal government told the state six years ago that its rules were too weak and needed an update. What followed was six years of political fighting and litigation over how to alter the standards. The water-quality fight has festered since the 1990s, when the state last updated its rules for certain contaminants. The tribes have pushed for stricter standards ever since.

In the absence of a state-level decision, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule for the state last year but failed to finalize it, a move a federal judge called “agency dereliction” in an August court order. Under the terms of the order, the EPA must finalize a rule by Nov. 15, either approving a state proposal issued in August or by cementing a plan of its own.

RELATED: The Navajo Are Fighting to Get Their Water Back

EPA spokesman Mark McIntyre told TakePart the agency is reviewing the court ruling and cannot comment on pending litigation.

Yanity’s tribe, along with 19 others on the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, oppose the state’s plan and want the EPA to adopt the rule it floated last year. They say the state’s plan leaves Native Americans vulnerable to health risks, including exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, because it allows too many contaminants to make their way into fish, a central part of tribe members’ diet. The rule eats away at their very way of life, the tribes say, by failing to protect traditional food sources and the fishing customs that surround them.

“If someone spilled a bottle of mercury in the grocery store, people would have a fit,” Yanity said. “The whole store would be shut down. Our store is the bay. Our store is the water. Our store is the forest.”

The state’s proposal is calculated based on how much fish consumers eat each day. It raises the daily average fish consumption rate to 175 grams per day, up from 6.5 grams, and offers a cancer risk rate that is tighter than those laid out in its previous proposals.

“This means if you eat 175 grams of fish a day from Washington waters for 70 years, you would have a one-in-1million chance of developing cancer beyond your current risk,” the state says in its materials promoting the rule.

The tribes say the state failed to crack down on key contaminants, negating any benefits gained from raising the consumption rate—a shift tribes had advocated for. Yanity notes that some tribe members eat far more than 175 grams a day and that the figure is only acceptable as a compromise deal if contaminants are tightly regulated.

“You can’t raise the fish consumption rate and not address the contaminant levels in the water. The state didn’t hit the very heavy contaminants that are prominent here: polychlorinated biphenyls, mercury, and arsenic,” Yanity said.

Members of the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians, headquartered in Arlington, Washington, practice a traditional dance at a river festival in August 2016 designed to celebrate the tribe’s culture and raise awareness about water-quality issues that are central to the health of the tribe. (Video: Sara Jerome)

The state acknowledges that the federal proposal is stricter on certain contaminants. “EPA’s proposed rule contains stringent limits for PCBs and arsenic, and adds a new limit for methylmercury that will be difficult for Washington dischargers to meet,” the state says on its website.

Yet Jessica Payne, a spokeswoman for the state’s ecology department, told TakePart in an email: “Standards that are protective and drive environmental improvement are not necessarily ‘weaker’ than standards that appear more stringent, but are unachievable or below background levels.” She added that the department is committed to addressing mercury standards in the future.

The state frames its rule as realistic, offering more gateways for industry to adhere to the regulations, including intake credits and compliance schedules, according to a state fact sheet comparing the two proposals. The state proposal is “strong, yet reasonable,” Maia Bellon, Washington’s Ecology Department director, said in a statement. “It sets standards that are protective and achievable.”

But the plan faces strong opposition from industry. The Association of Washington Business, which represents some of the state’s largest employers, including Boeing and the timber giant Weyerhaeuser, opposes the state’s framework.

“The policy approach the state took would put onerous rules on business that will make it very difficult for them to comply with the standards,” Brandon Houskeeper, the industry group’s government affairs director, told TakePart.

The rule would require businesses to invest in costly technologies to treat the wastewater they discharge, and even if they do make these upgrades, he said, that’s no guarantee of compliance. “You can make the investment, but the technology will not help you meet that standard,” he said.

The rule confronts businesses with difficult questions: “Do they reduce their production? Do they move business elsewhere? For each facility, they will have to make some decision on how to comply,” Houskeeper added.

The bottom line is that the rule will hurt the economy at every level, according to Houskeeper.

An analysis conducted by the state paints a less dire picture, noting that “businesses and municipalities can comply with the rule.” The state argues that its rule protects human health, thereby recognizing and respecting treaty rights.

Sandy Howard, a spokeswoman for the Ecology Department, said it was unsurprising that advocates from opposing sides are disappointed with the rule.

Cooks grill salmon at a river festival in August 2016. (Photo: Sara Jerome)

“That’s a pretty typical place for us to wind up. Industry thinks we’re doing too much; the environmental community thinks we’re not doing nearly enough. It’s incremental improvement. We’re in a different place than we were before,” she told TakePart.

The tribes say the water-quality fight is about public health. Losing access to traditional eating patterns is one reason for modern health challenges in Native American communities, according to Tony Meyer, spokesman for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which opposes the state’s plan and backs the more stringent federal proposal.

“Diabetes is rampant in Indian country,” Meyer told TakePart. “Pollution prevents tribes from exercising treaty rights. It’s a social justice issue, and it’s not even just Indians. It’s Asian–Pacific Islanders who eat fish and shellfish. It’s pregnant women of childbearing age.”

Native Americans have a higher cancer mortality rate than the general population does, according to a report by the nonprofit Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board.

“There’s a lack of access to good-quality preventive services and good support for patients once they are diagnosed,” Sujata Joshi, a project director at the nonprofit, told TakePart.

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Washington state has advisories in place urging consumers to restrict their fish consumption in 17 locations for health reasons. For instance, consumers drawing from the Spokane River between the Idaho border and the Upriver Dam are told, “Don’t eat any fish.”

But simply avoiding local fish can be difficult. Seafood from pristine waters out of state is more expensive, advocates say.

“[Tribe members are] going to eat it anyway because it’s food for the spirit even if it’s poison for the body. Tribal people have been persecuted heavily, and this is just another example,” said Jamie Donatuto, who manages the community health program for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

Yanity says that changing their diet is not an option for tribe members.

“Those traditional foods are very important. They feed our spirit. To give that food up, you lose,” he said. “By continuing to eat the fish, it gives us our purpose. If you give that up, what are you fighting for?”

At a river festival in August held by the tribe, cooks grilled up 1,500 pounds of salmon, much of it caught wild in Washington’s Puget Sound, according to food-prep staff at the event. In between stops at the salmon bake and his aunt’s fried-bread stand, Yanity addressed a sweaty, salmon-stuffed audience of locals, slipping in notes about water contamination as the crowd geared up to hear a country singer.

“For us, the treaty protection means being able to have salmon to feed our ceremonies, to practice our culture, to feed our communities,” he told TakePart. “The rule puts our health at risk. It’s saying we don’t have a value.”