Clint Underwood, 43, echoed the sentiments about the elders.
"I feel pretty good about the move," Underwood said from his perch on a riding lawnmower. "Not everyone is going to move though. I know my dad won't move. He doesn't even like going on higher ground during the tsunami warnings. He just stays right here at his house. It's just the way he is. It's his house and if anything were to happen he wants to stay there. Just like a captain and his ship, I guess."
It's all about science — and money
Researchers published new findings in March predicting that sea levels could rise twice as fast as earlier expected, because of a new understanding of the way the Antarctic ice sheets are melting. The study — by Rob DeConto of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and David Pollard of Penn State University and published in the journal Nature — estimated that sea levels could rise as much as six feet by the year 2100.
The Quinault have known about this danger for a long time. The tribe moved its main government buildings up the hill to the proposed new village site 20 years ago.
But it faces a problem. Sharp estimated that the move will cost $65 million. And the Quinault's annual tax revenues fall far short of even paying for basic services for its 3,000 citizens.
Sharp said the federal government is bound by its treaty obligations to pay for the move.
The government agreed to trade the land ceded by the tribes in exchange for covering in perpetuity healthcare, education and other social services for the Quinault tribes, Sharp said.
"The federal government isn't 'paying' for our services," Sharp said. "We prepaid that when we signed treaties and exchanged land. So while they think they're paying for those services, they're not. We prepaid those with millions and millions of acres forever and ever that were ceded."
Despite programs to increase the Quinault's tax revenues, Sharp estimated that the nation falls about $30 million short each year just to pay for the essential needs of its citizens.
Asked how the tribe comes up with that extra money each year, Sharp said, "We don't. People suffer."
That annual shortfall makes it tough to follow through on such an expensive and ambitious project, no matter how necessary it might be.
By refusing so far to better cover the Quinault's annual budget or pay for the relocation project, Sharp said the federal government is shirking its duty to native people.
"How did the United States become one of the most powerful countries in the entire world in just under a century from its inception?" Sharp asked. "It was off the rich and vast resources of this continent. So they're not paying for our services. We prepaid a century and a half ago. And it was a sacred agreement that in exchange, those services be provided in perpetuity. And within just this amount of time, they've fallen to 50 percent of what we need."
But having a legal right to funding is one thing. Actually getting the government to hand over the money is another.
Cardwell said legally binding treaties don't guarantee government follow-through.
"We have a document signed by the president and ratified by Congress that makes it a law," Cardwell said. "But then you have the appropriations. So yes, the federal government has an obligation. It has a duty. It has a responsibility to serve native peoples. So Congress says, okay, how do we do that? Or, we aren't going to do it. And they haven't."
A second problem
The nation is also struggling to secure the land base necessary for the project. The Quinault managed to get a federal grant to produce a feasibility study. Out of that came a master plan that spans more acreage than the tribal government owns.
Cardwell said that dilemma could be solved with eminent domain. But the history of government seizing land owned by native tribes makes that standard bureaucratic action a non-starter.
"We've got the plan. If we need the land, we should just take it," Cardwell said. "But because of history, people are not excited about that prospect."
The land the tribe needs is owned by tribal members who have little more than the trees growing on those plots. And Cardwell said the families who own those plots of land don't want to sell, not even to the tribal government.
"The mindset is, my land will provide me a once-in-a-lifetime windfall where they'll come in, harvest my trees, and send me a check," he said. "And some of these checks are pretty impressive. We're talking several hundred thousand dollars."
The Quinault may have known for decades that the move needs to happen. But Cardwell said there is a new urgency now.
"That big tsunami in Japan was a real eye-opener," Cardwell said. "We have radiation coming this way and debris coming this way. And suddenly we've got politicians saying, 'We've got to protect vulnerable shorelines.'
"This has all happened before," he added. "Big meteors have hit the earth and thrown up dust that killed the dinosaurs. Now we're living in a time where we know the sea levels will rise. Can we blame that all on industrialism? Maybe."
Beyond the practical dilemmas, Sharp said she worries about the spiritual effect of rising sea levels.
"When I go to the beach, sometimes I wonder about ancestors that walk there forever," Sharp said. "So we have a lot of current-generation members that will have to move, but it also goes back. We have so much connection to this place, both physical and spiritual."
And if water covered the beaches where the ancestors walk?
"They'd have no place," Sharp said. "They'd be underwater."
Just like Taholah, the Quinault say the new village atop the hill will serve as the capital of the nation.
Standing on the seawall that just barely protects the village at high tide, Caldwell described his vision.
"We can start by getting the kids and the elders out of here, move the school and build houses," he said, pointing to scan the flat village where it was dotted with ramshackle houses and government buildings. "Then we'll turn this whole area into soccer fields."
Sharp said the Quinault have made big moves before and they're prepared to do it again.
"It's all related to transformation," Sharp said. "That is part of life. Things transform and you come to accept it. This physical place will be gone. Underwater. But it will still be there in spirit. So part of it is mourning that loss, but at the same time also envisioning a new place. It's bittersweet."
Photos by Karina Brown/CNS
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