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‘We are going to lead the world’

Mark Trahant and Stewart Huntington

TAHOLAH, QUINAULT INDIAN NATION – The climate story is as much about values as it is about a changing world. And It’s easy to see the connection between the Quinault people and their place on this planet.

“Many of our ancestors have told us of that day of reckoning when it’s going to be red nations rising and our people leading the rest of the world,” said Fawn Sharp. She is now a former vice president and president for her nation, and was president of the National Congress of American Indians. She is now working on climate projects full time.

“That light is so strong, that spiritual strength, knowledge and wisdom that we have carried for centuries has never left us,” she said. “We are right there and we’re going to lead the rest of the world through this crisis.”

Tyson Johnson was elected to the Quinault Tribal Council in April.

Stewart Huntington/ICT

Tyson Johnson was elected to the Quinault Tribal Council in April. “We’re fishing people here,” he said. “We lived off the land, the ocean, river ecosystems. Our villages were seasonal. We would move as the land changed or as the weather changed or as our needs arose.”

He said the move of Taholah from the mouth of the river to higher ground is a reflection of a traditional mindset. Protecting what’s important while preparing the future generation for success.

Related: Climate bill is huge and it’s coming due

“In order for us to meaningfully move forward on all these issues, it’s going to take a total value reset from society,” he said. “Indigenous values and teachings are finally getting centered and put in that limelight because of that paradigm shift the rest of society has to do.”

Johnston said the nation has been working through the impacts of climate change for a couple of decades, working with the people to figure out the next steps in order to leave the world a better place.

The importance of values is critical to a community facing climate relocation. But that same discussion needs to take place in every community about how the world will be different. Where will we live? What will we eat? And what kind of jobs will there be?


“Climate change affects both existing and future jobs in multiple ways that include reduced labor productivity, outputs, and incomes across diverse sectors such as agriculture, construction, tourism, energy, and infrastructure,” said the World Bank. At the same time, successful climate policies, “show overwhelmingly positive jobs impacts for green scenarios compared to business as usual.”

The new jobs in a low carbon economy include construction of climate resilient buildings or renewable energy projects.

Related: Quinault Nation’s move to higher ground

“I love talking about the opportunities for young people and really the opportunities for our country,” said Bryan Newland, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the Interior Department. “I told one of the groups I was talking with that if if I were put in a position of competing with them for jobs and opportunities out of college, I never would have measured up, because a lot of young people from across Indian country, you know, they are they are pushing doors open that Indian people haven’t had open for a long time.”

Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills Tribal Community, said it’s important to make sure those doors are open.

“As a leader now, I view it as part of my responsibility to help open those pathways for folks. But I’m just really impressed by the talent that’s out there across Indian Country in terms of young people and excited to see what it’s going to do for all of us,” he said. 

Luvelah Smith is a ninth grader and has represented her tribe with other youth at the United Nations.

Stewart Huntington/ICT

Luvelah Smith, Quinault Nation, is a ninth grader at Taholah School District. She’s been to New York where she talked to delegates at the United Nations about what climate change means in her community.

“I do think it’s a little odd just to know that there’s going to be a new town,” she said. But she also said her people live right at the ocean and already are impacted by flooding. “And just to know that I can be a leader for our people is just such a good feeling.”

One part of the values discussion at Quinault involves land back. This year the Washington legislature appropriated $25 million for the tribe to preserve 11,000 acres of old growth timber. That land will be used as a carbon sink, an offset reducing the region’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. Not to mention protecting an inherent value – land – so important to Quinault.

But there is an asterisk. The state’s funding pledge relies on the Carbon Commitment Act, a carbon tax that voters will review in November. If voters repeal the law, that funding mechanism will also disappear.

Fawn Sharp is the former president of the National Congress of American Indians and has served as both president and vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation.

Stewart Huntington/ICT

“As Native people, we talk a lot about intrinsic values,” Sharp said. This is what it means to be “place based” where tribal existence is “indivisible from the land.”

The Quinault Nation’s geography ranges from glacier mountains to the ocean. Its rivers include the blue back sockeye salmon. “They’re a keystone species,” Sharp said. “Plant life ecosystems would collapse if that species was allowed to be wiped off the face of the earth. And for us, we don’t see a future for our nation if that stock and that salmon species is gone.”

Then that’s it. Preserving the forest lands and the rivers that provide fish habitat are the connection between values and climate.

Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor-at-large for Indian Country Today. Trahant is based in Phoenix.

Stewart Huntington is a producer for the ICT Newscast based in Colorado.

This story was produced as part of a partnership between ICT and the PBS NewsHour to cover how climate change is affecting Indigenous communities, funded with a major grant from the National Science Foundation.

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