Regeneration Reporting

Tribes Responding to Climate’s ‘Slow-Moving Tsunami’ Threatening Native Lands

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Detail from cover art of “Canopy of Titans.” Courtesy of OR Books.

The Hoh, Quinault, Quileute, and Makah Tribes have coped with storms and tsunamis battering the coasts of the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years.

Now, threatened by rising sea levels and other climate impacts, they are evolving to meet new dangers to their villages and history.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is excerpted by permission from the newly published book, Canopy of Titans: The Life and Times of the Great North American Temperate Rainforest.” Native American journalist Terri Hansen describes here how Indigenous tribes along the Northwest coast are responding to the impacts of climate change on their communities, including rising sea levels and changes to the coastal marine ecosystem. Published as Chapter 12: A Resilient Community in the book by Paul Koberstein and Jessica Applegate, Hansen’s words appeared in the work days after her death on August 18, 2023. She was 69.

Terri Crawford Hansen

Walter Ward swept his arm over a pebbled beach, backed by a tight wall of evergreens and strewn with logs tossed by passing storms. Ward grew up on this piece of Washington coast, in a thriving Hoh tribal village that was here “forever,” he said. “The houses used to be along the top of the hill, and all along the beaches.” Tribal artifacts in the area date back 12,000 years.

Today, all that’s left of his childhood home are two vacant houses and a road nibbled away by an ever-encroaching ocean. Four tribal nations inhabit low-lying land along the west coast of Washington’s Olympic National Park in the Pacific coastal temperate rainforest. The Hoh, Quinault, Quileute, and Makah Tribes coped with threatening storms and tsunamis for thousands of years. Now, they have become some of the West’s earliest victims of climate change, as rising sea levels and other impacts endanger their villages and history.

“The area is relatively vulnerable,” said Patty Glick, global warming specialist and author of a National Wildlife Federation report, “Sea Level Rise and Coastal Habitats in the Pacific Northwest.”

Tectonic rise—an uplifting of land along the coast—makes it difficult for scientists to determine
just how much of a rise will affect the region, she said, but higher wave action, wave force, and destructive storm surges will increase. Destructive storms are another manifestation, and will become more frequent, Glick said, speaking of climate change.

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Researchers with the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group predict a rise of fourteen inches by mid-century and thirty-five inches by 2100. “If we lose the clam beds, well, that is who we are,” said Larry Ralston of the Quinault Indian Nation. “The cultural and subsistence significance of this is dramatic.”

Quinault people speak of “clam hunger,” a physical, emotional, and spiritual craving that connects them to their ecosystem, their ancestors, and to their very existence.

Ralston likened the peril to “a slow- moving tsunami.” The Quinault have a large land base, but their main village, called Taholah, is already experiencing the effects of sea level rise.

Taholah, their main population center, is just a stone’s throw from the beach. In 2014 the seawall that protects the town was breached by a storm surge that flooded half the town. Less than a year later, intense rains caused flooding, landslides, culvert failures, and washouts, closing roads and threatening their sewage treatment plants. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers repaired their seawall, but it’s a temporary fix. The Quinault will have to move the lower half of the town to higher ground.

The Makah Tribe, located on the northwest tip of the Washington coast is also witnessing the negative effects of climate change, said Michael Chang, Makah Tribe climate adaptation specialist. The fact the tribe needs a climate adaptation specialist says it all. “For the Makah, whose traditional area is the northwest Olympic Peninsula and marine waters in Washington state, the environment, the culture, and the community are all interconnected,” he said.

And the Makah have started planning and preparing for climate change adaptation. They began with an ocean acidification impacts assessment back in 2015 that snowballed. In the assessment, they found they couldn’t talk about impacts to ocean resources without also talking about impacts to land and air, and about the impacts on tribal cultural resources. Chang said, “So instead of one specific project, we are viewing this as an iterative planning process.”

Now, the tribe is completing multiple related projects, including impact assessments, community engagement plans, an adaptation plan, carbon footprint analysis, and a carbon mitigation plan.
The Hoh and Quileute Tribes were allotted only tiny slivers of their original ancestral land along the coast. To cope with the looming climate changes both tribes needed higher ground to move a school and residents out of harm’s way. Therefore, the Olympic National Park had to return a portion of its land—a first. Even wilderness preservationists understood the dilemma.

“On the one hand, you have the big supporters of national wilderness, then you have these tribes whose lands they were given are not going to work for them in the long term,” said Bonnie Phillips, president of the local Olympic Forest Coalition. The 135- mile Olympic coastline is a national marine sanctuary, and adjacent Olympic National Park is a United Nations World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve.

Ninety- five percent of the Olympic Peninsula is designated wilderness. The remote wilderness is home to four Indian reservations and 13,000 non- tribal residents. The Quinault Indian Nation at the park’s southern end encompasses 200,000 acres of magnificent, productive forests, swift- flowing rivers, gleaming lakes, and twenty- three miles of pristine Pacific coastline. The Quinault River flows from deep in the Olympic Mountains through a lush temperate rainforest to Lake Quinault before emptying into the Pacific Ocean. It’s a short hike from the Lake Quinault Lodge to visit some of the tallest hemlock, Douglas- fir, and western redcedar trees, and the largest Sitka spruce tree in the world.

The Quinault own and manage forests from Lake Quinault and the Quinault River to the Pacific Ocean, and co- manage the fisheries—inland and at sea. They are especially involved in ocean acidification research. The runs of salmon in the Quinault River have supported generations of the Quinault people. The villages of Taholah and Queets are located at the mouth of two great rivers that flow into the Pacific Ocean, which is the source of salmon, halibut, crab, razor clams, and many other species that are part of the Quinault heritage.

“Since the summer of 2006, Quinault has documented thousands of dead fish and crab coming ashore in the late summer months, specifically onto the beaches near Taholah,” Quinault marine resources scientist Joe Schumacker said. “Our science team has worked with NOAA scientists to confirm that these events are a result of critically low oxygen levels in this ocean area.”

The great productivity of this northwest coast is driven by natural upwelling, in which summer winds drive deep ocean waters, rich in nutrients, to the surface, Schumacker explained. This cycle has been happening forever on the Washington coast, and the ecosystem depends on it. But now, “due to recent changes in summer wind and current patterns possibly due to climate change, these deep waters, devoid of oxygen, are sometimes not getting mixed with air at the surface,” Schumacker said.

The deep water now comes ashore, taking over the entire water column as it does, and we find beaches littered with dead fish – and some still living – in shallow pools on the beaches, literally gasping for oxygen. Normally reclusive fish such as lingcod and greenling will be trapped in inches of water trying to get what little oxygen they can to stay alive.

The Quinault, working with the University of Washington and NOAA scientists, determined these hypoxia events were also related to ocean acidification, Schumacker said:

Now Quinault faces the potential for not just hypoxia impacts coming each summer, but also those same waters bring low- pH acidic waters to our coast. Upwelling is the very foundation of our coastal ecosystem, and it now carries a legacy of pollution that may be causing profound changes unknown to us as of yet. The Quinault Department of Fisheries has been seeking funding to better study and monitor these potential ecosystem impacts to allow us to prepare for an unknown future.

Schumacker noted that tribes are in a prime position to observe and react to these changes:

The tribes of the west coast of the U.S. are literally on the front line of ocean acidification impacts. Oyster growers from Washington and Oregon have documented year after year of lost crops as tiny oyster larvae die from low pH water. What is going on in the ecosystem adjacent to Quinault? What other small organisms are being impacted, and how is our ecosystem reacting?

We have a responsibility to know so we can plan for an uncertain future.

The tribal nations in the Pacific coastal temperate rainforest depend on their environment for subsistence as well as cultural identity. The cultures of these tribal nations are deeply connected to their ancestral lands, waters, and natural resources. There is a need to protect the viability of their economies and livelihoods as the changing climate impacts hunting, gathering, fishing, forestry, agriculture, energy, recreation, and tourism enterprises.

Salmon, crucial for nearly all the tribes in the region, are projected to lose 22 percent of their habitat by late century due to warming stream waters if nothing is done to stop or slow carbon emissions, according to the National Climate Assessment.

On the whole, Native Americans experience poverty at a higher rate than any other group in the country. Some reservations lack health care facilities, grocery stores, social services, and transportation resources. This has made tribal communities particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and adaptation strategies are crucial to building resilience.

Under the leadership of Chairman Brian Cladoosby, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community on Puget Sound developed the first comprehensive climate change adaptation plan in 2010. Today, it’s the template for climate resilience planning throughout Indian Country and beyond.

The azure waters around the Swinomish community are breathtaking, especially at sunrise and sunset, and have provided salmon and shellfish for people there for 10,000 years.

Rising waters pose a great threat to the fifteen- square- mile reservation that sits at or near sea level. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that sea levels in this region will rise four to eight inches by 2050.

Using climate projections available in 2009, the Swinomish analyzed the highest predicted risks and the tribe’s priorities. They categorized the level of risk to infrastructure, human health, and natural resources from low to high, and estimated the time needed to develop strategies for adapting to those impacts.5 Using a unique model based on an Indigenous worldview, the tribe updated its adaptation strategy in 2014 with environmental, cultural, and human health impact data. It now views health on a familial and community scale, and includes the natural environment and the spiritual realm, said Jamie Donatuto, Swinomish community and environmental health analyst.

The innovative report provides a model for other tribal communities looking to understand how predicted climate changes will affect their people and homelands in practical ways specific to Indigenous life. The tribes throughout the Pacific coastal temperate rainforest are leaders in climate adaptation and have mounted multifaceted responses to the threats they face. They are also leaders in coalitions that have blocked proposed projects that would have increased the transfer of raw fossil fuels to proposed ports on the Pacific coast, dubbed the “gateway to the Pacific,” for export to lucrative Asian markets.

The Lummi Nation and the Quinault Nation joined a growing coalition of other tribal and local governments and allies to form a resistance to fossil fuel expansion along the West Coast, at the heart of which is hundreds of years of treaty rights and case law, said Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Nation.

We are a fishing, hunting, gathering people who care deeply about our land, water, and resources, as well as all life dependent on a healthy ecosystem. These proposals threaten our economy, our environment, and our culture.

Sharp, who is also president of the National Congress of American Indians, said the best solution to the challenges created by what she called “the temperament of greed in this country,” is the grassroots momentum that rises when the people—both tribal and non-tribal—share a common vision and take action in their votes, voices, lifestyles, and the lessons they convey to their families. “We know the country can’t break its addiction to oil overnight,” she said. “But we know that, over time, it has to be eliminated from use, and we know that process of elimination is a task that must be undertaken now.”

Treaties, according to the U.S. Constitution, are the supreme law of the land, and do not expire. Many agreements between the federal government and tribal nations affirm a tribe’s right to hunt and fish on its ancestral land beyond current reservation boundaries. In addition to clear- cuts, oil spills and coal train derailments pose threats that could infringe the tribes’ treaty- protected rights to hunt and fish their lands. These treaties have proven to be a potent legal mechanism in environmental protection in the Pacific Northwest, already racking up victories based on industry violations of generations- old government- to-government agreements.

The Coquille Indian Tribe in southern coastal Oregon purchased 3,200 ecologically and culturally significant acres of forestland in Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest in 2015, naming it Sek- wet- se, their peoples’ name for the river and their ancestors who lived there, said Coquille chairwoman Brenda Meade.

Our ancestors have lived on these lands since time began. Hunting, fishing, and traditional food gatherings are all abundant on this land. Coquille people will again be able to gather in these same places in the same ways as our Grandparents before us. We will be able to utilize these places to teach our children their history and the importance of caring for these lands and its resources in a sustainable way.

“The Coquille people are a strong and tenacious people who never gave up even through assimilation and termination policies,” Meade said. She said that after regaining federal recognition, the Coquille Tribe wrote a self- sufficiency plan that declared their destiny must be self- determination by regaining self- sufficiency.

Our Elders believed that they had a sacred trust obligation to meet the needs of our current tribal members and future generations. The priorities were then and still are today: To attain economic self- sufficiency, attain social self- sufficiency and to attain self- determination through a strong and healthy Tribal Government that protects the sovereign rights of Coquille People, today and for future tribal members. We are unique in our cultural and historic heritage and we must preserve that for all Coquille People.

Tribal nations managed the Pacific coastal temperate rainforest sustainably prior to European contact. The most important tool the tribes had to manipulate their environment was anthropogenic fire, also known as cultural burning. It allowed the tribes to manage the land for big game such as deer and elk, and maintain habitats for food, medicinal and weaving plants, and forage for wildlife.
The ancestral homeland of the Yurok Tribe in northern California encompasses 7.5 percent of the California coastline and is home to the coastal redwoods and other woodlands and the Klamath River, the lifeline of the Yurok people.

Like all the tribal nations along the coast, the federal government took most of the Yurok’s land from them in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. And in tandem with the other tribes, their forests were clear-cut by industrial timber companies.

Hundreds of miles of logging roads scarred the land, and slash piles were left behind. The forest degradation devastated culturally valuable fish and wildlife populations. In 2006, the tribe partnered with Western Rivers Conservancy to buy back ancestral lands from Green Diamond, a timber company. The tribe completed the deal in 2019, regaining ownership of 50,000 acres, including the watershed of Blue Creek, a vital cold- water refuge for salmon.

The Yurok tribe has also obtained a cache of carbon credits from the state of California that it sells to polluters to offset some of their carbon pollution. However, as we learn in Chapter 16, forest carbon offsets rarely benefit the climate. The Yurok’s management of the forest earned them the United Nations Development Program’s Equator Prize in 2019. The Prize committee praised them for forming an unprecedented alliance with the government of California to auction carbon credits from their sustainably managed forests through the state’s cap- and- trade program, allowing the Yurok Tribe to finance the purchase of over 54,857 acres (22,200 hectares) of their ancestral lands.

The Yurok put tribal citizens to work re- creating the diverse ecological conditions that existed on their lands for millennia. They manage their forests to produce traditional foods, medicines, and basket materials, and to store and sequester carbon. What they call the centerpiece of their holistic project is the development of the “Yurok Old- Growth Forest and Salmon Sanctuary” in the Blue Creek watershed, an important tributary on the Klamath River for salmon and for their sacred ceremonial practices.

Yurok Chairman Joseph L. James said their approach combines traditional ecological knowledge and western science to rebuild biodiversity in their forests and to restore resilience within their community. He called it a “time- tested strategy for rehabilitating critical habitats that can be duplicated all over the world to reduce the impact of climate change.”

The most effective tool they have to protect the forest “is the use of cultural burning,” Yurok vice- chairman Frankie Myers told the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis to explore natural techniques to keep carbon out of the atmosphere.6 Myers also recommended using logging techniques that create uneven- aged stands of forest that go back to more of a traditional forest landscape.


Deceleration mourns the loss of Terri Hansen, a formidable force for kindness and justice in this world. In her memory, we urge readers to become familiar with the stalking of Native women and donate to The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center or other groups fighting epidemic violence against Native women.

In Canopy of Titans, Paul Koberstein and Jessica Applegate examine the global importance of the Pacific Coastal Temperate Rainforest that stretches from Northern California to Alaska.

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