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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Climate Change & Rising Seas Forcing|Quinault Indian Nation to Higher Ground

TAHOLAH, Wash. (CN) — The Quinault Indian Nation believes its fate has been bound to sea level since the last ice age drew the ocean low enough for raven to find the clam shell from which humans emerged. Now, the nation must uproot the village that serves as its capital to flee a rising sea caused by global warming.

Taholah, a village of 800 that also serves as the cultural and governmental capital of the Quinault Indian Nation, faces almost certain destruction if an earthquake at the fault line just offshore triggered a tsunami.

Models by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers show that the entire village would likely be covered by at least 20 feet of water. And residents would have only about 10 minutes to flee to higher ground before their homes were inundated.

Sitting at sea level, the village spreads over a small valley where the Quinault River empties into the Pacific Ocean. The Quinault have known the village faces danger from rising seas for decades. Financial barriers, a lack of land on which to build and disagreements about plans for the new site have so far stalled efforts to relocate.

But four small tsunamis have hit the shore in as many years, sending the tribal government scrambling to find the funding and political will to make the move happen.

Such seismic change requires a whole lot of money that the Quinault don't have. And some refuse to move to the hilltop relocation spot.

Michael Cardwell, community services director for the Quinault Indian Nation and the person overseeing the plan to move the village, said the nation cannot afford to wait any longer.

"I'm talking about saving our main village, which is kind of like saying 'Godzilla is coming! Who are you going to save in Washington D.C.?'" Cardwell said. "And if the answer is nobody, because we can't agree, then Godzilla is going to walk right in and eat everybody."

Cardwell said there was no question that a tsunami would spell the end of the village.

"A tsunami is going to come on shore and wipe out everything," he said. "We know it's coming. We can see it coming. But we're not going to do anything about it? If D.C. is going down, the question is who do you save. Me personally? I'd like to save the Lincoln Memorial, the pandas and the people. I'd want all that out of harm's way."

Taholah sits near the center of the 23 miles of coastline and 208,000 acres of forest that comprise the Quinault Indian Reservation. The village is nestled between the Pacific and the Quinault River, home to an endemic species of salmon called the Quinault Blueback.

The Quinault Indian Nation — a confederation of seven tribes including the Quinault, Queets, Cowlitz, Chehalis, Chinook, Quileute and Hoh — are no strangers to upward migration. Archeologists say native people probably arrived here during the last ice age, when sea levels were around 300 feet lower than now. They may have come in boats or walked over a land bridge from Asia that was exposed by lower sea levels.


The Quinault believe they have lived in here since raven turned over a clam shell and discovered humanity. The story dovetails with the history of the last ice age. At that time, increased polar ice caps drew sea levels low enough to expose the Quinault Canyon, a deep gouge in the seafloor located several miles offshore.

Caldwell, a Chinook tribal member who has degrees in anthropology, Indian studies, urban and regional planning and public administration, said that's where the Quinault creation story places the birth of humanity.

"Our creation story has us arriving on the earth at the mouth of this river," Cardwell said. "But the mouth hasn't been in the same spot since time immemorial."

Cardwell speculated that the creation story might record the history of the tribe's move from Asia to the Pacific Northwest. He said the "clamshell" in the story could actually be a woven round boat, the type common in Asia.

"It makes me think, hmm, clamshells," Cardwell said. "How many thousands of years ago did the Chinese have round boats? And if you have an ice age and everything drops down and everything goes away and suddenly you've got to forage and move on."

"Geology, geography and mythology, basically that all lines up," he added.

Cardwell said the move to the new village site is not only absolutely necessary, but also a continuation of the nation's past.

"When the world turned cold and the food sources disappeared, we searched for new ones," Cardwell said. "And the first humans on this continent came ashore here, drawn to the salmon. Others walked across the land bridge from Asia. This is verified through the languages. So we have always been here, in this spot. Moving inland and upland seems to be our survival strategy since time immemorial."

And the ocean has been rising ever since. Today, the village sits at sea level. The nation has built seawalls for protection from storms, but they just barely hold back the high tide.

Meanwhile, the ground that Taholah is built on is rising, pushed upward by the continental shelf just offshore. But a big earthquake could make the shelf where the village sits drop below sea level.

Larry Workman, communications manager for the Quinault, said that kind of drop would expose the village to catastrophic danger.

"When that snaps during the next big earthquake, we could drop 10 feet," Ralston said. "No one knows until it happens, but that's the possibility — that we could drop 10 feet and then have a tsunami come in afterward."

Doom from the sea, doom on land

Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault nation, said the Quinault are committed to sustainable forestry and building methods. Even so, they are facing early signs of damage from climate change.

"It feels incredibly oppressive in that we are doing everything we can to be good stewards and yet there are all these others who are just polluting and corrupting and exploiting," Sharp said. "And they are continuing to buy licenses to do so."

Climate change has already had irrevocable effects on the Quinault reservation.


The Anderson Glacier disappeared in 2011. Riding atop Mt. Anderson in the section of the Olympic Mountains within the reservation, the glacier was one of four that regulated the temperature and flow of the Quinault River. Its loss could threaten the survival of the Quinault Blueback, a species of salmon that hatch and spawn only in this one single place.

The river used to be filled with cold, clean glacier water. But with no ice to control and contain it, the snow and rain just roll down the side of the mountain, filling the river with silt that clogs the gills of young salmon.

"We're putting every investment we can into being good stewards and yet we are seeing the ocean overtaking our entire village," Sharp said. "We're seeing glaciers disappear. It's unfair. And we feel powerless."

Sharp said she was on a helicopter surveying the Olympic Mountains in 2011 when she flew over a ridge and saw bare ground where the Anderson Glacier used to be.

"It was heartbreaking," Sharp said. "Tragic to see this entire glacier completely disappeared."

Sharp said she asked state scientists how the tribe could mitigate that harm. The answer?

"We have to wait for the next ice age," she said.

What to do with those who won't leave

Larry Joseph Bradley, 77, a boxing coach at the tribal fitness center, said he'd like to stay put.

Bradley, a member of the Lummi tribe, is married to a Quinault tribal member who has lived in Taholah all her life.

"I don't want to move," Bradley said. "I'll probably be gone by the time a big wave comes along. But my wife says we're moving, and you do what your wife says."

Don Capoeman, 66, said he can't imagine living anywhere other than alongside the Quinault River. A retired custodian and former member of the Marine Corps, Capoeman said he's lived in the same house in Taholah since he was born.

"I like to watch things wind down the river in wintertime," Capoeman said. "See all the big snags and trees. I just like watching the river. Whether it's here or on the news, I like to watch Mother Nature take its course. Even it if was a tsunami. That wouldn't make no difference to me. Even if it came to take me away."

Younger generations are more optimistic about the move, but worried about the tribe's elders.

Samantha Bighead, 20, sat on a bank overlooking the river, listening to music on her headphones. She said the priority should be to build homes for the elders at the new village, whether they decide to move there ahead of a tsunami or not.

"If they don't want to go, we'll have a spot ready for them," Bighead said. "That way, when they need to be put up there, they'll be put up there."

Anthony Hobucket, 42, grew up in the lower village. He said there is a silver lining to leaving behind the historic village site.

"I work at the housing authority and a lot of these houses are so run down and old, there's a lot of excitement around getting people into newer houses," Hobucket said. "And a new school up there for the kids. I know a lot of elders are not going to move. They'd rather just sit in their house. They've lived there, they're going to die there, I guess."


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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