Seattle, you have a problem.
You style yourself as America’s Emerald City, a liberal beacon aglow with promise and prosperity in the Evergreen State. You take your name from a famous Native American chief.
The Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe is one of the smallest and poorest tribes in Washington. We number about 350 souls, alive if not wholly well on our reservation in the foothills of the North Cascades.
Seattle, you have a problem, and it is us.
Why? Because we of the Skagit River tribes have federally protected treaty rights to fish, about the most important right Indigenous people can have in the Northwest. Those rights are rendered empty by the fact that Seattle draws electric power from three dams on the Skagit River, and those dams block passage to wild salmon that are a staple of our culture, diet and economy. Without access to salmon, our people cannot be well, we cannot prosper.
So we are drawing a line in the river, so to speak. We will no longer tolerate the denial of our right to healthy salmon populations in our rivers. With the support of other tribes and many nonnative people from here to Alaska who depend on salmon from the Skagit, we stand in opposition to the re-licensing of these dams until a binding commitment to fish passage is made.
Seattle City Light has “greenwashed” its power, labeling itself America’s “greenest utility.” How can that be? Three Skagit River salmon species are on the threatened or endangered species list, and the dams have unquestionably contributed to declines in fish populations.
The solution to this is the installation of fish passage on all three dams. These will undoubtedly be complex operations and won’t be cheap, but experience suggests that the salmon will use it — to the benefit not just of us, but of all tribal and nontribal citizens of this sacred region.
Guaranteeing fish passage allows Seattle to live up to the 1855 Treaties when our chiefs surrendered our ancestral lands in exchange for the right to fish in our customary ways in common with all citizens of the territory. That right was doomed when the dams were built 100 years ago.
We are not asking for the dams’ removal. Nor are we demanding — at least not yet — that Seattle stop using the name of our great chief or stop his depiction on your corporate seal of Chief Seattle and, ironically, two Pacific salmon.
What we have done is write a letter to the mayor and Seattle City Council. We pointed out that in tribal culture, the bestowal of a name carries with it a duty to live up to that name. Chief Seattle believed there was no separation between the welfare of people and nature.
Seattle, having appropriated the name and image of Chief Sealth, now finds itself in Kansas City, Atlanta and Cleveland territory, except it’s not just its sports teams whose use of an Indian name might be considered offensive. It’s the whole city and its power utility. Everyone who has Seattle in their address is a shareholder in solving this problem.
In our letter to your mayor we wrote, “City of Seattle, live up to the values of your namesake or cease bearing his image as the Great Seal of the City of Seattle.” We think it is a fair question to ask the incoming mayor and council whether they stand with the tribes in bringing Seattle City Light to heel — and honoring their obligation to preserve from extinction our relatives the Salmon People who live beneath the sea.
Seattle’s council has been a progressive voice nationally for the concerns of Indian tribes, voting time and again to oppose pipelines (Dakota Access, Keystone, Line 3) and even voting to support the removal of the Snake River dams because of their devastating effects on salmon. So why, Seattle, does your support for Indigenous rights and your commitment to the environment dry up here at home?
We will not stand by during the upcoming dam re-licensing and allow reauthorization of barriers that stand in the way of salmon and our treaty rights. The dams need to be fixed, period.
Seattle, you stood with Standing Rock. Will you stand with us? You have a right to a clear conscience about the source of your electricity, and to know that the values of Chief Seattle are being upheld. We need to get our salmon back. We need your help.