LUMMI NATION — Sweet smoke lifted from the fire, burning to coals to prepare the feast of salmon for this gathering on Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It was, after all, a gathering of the Salmon People.

From Canada to California and reservations in between, Native people gathered here at the Wex’liem Community Building west of Bellingham both in person and virtually to talk about what it means to be Native.

Oct. 11, also long known as Columbus Day for the European explorer whose ships brought disease and the displacement of North America’s First Peoples, for many has been transformed as an opportunity to reflect on and commemorate survival.

“It is a beautiful day to be Indigenous,” said Santana Rabang, a staff member with Children of the Setting Sun Productions, an Indigenous-led nonprofit production company that livestreamed the gathering.

“Before the settlers came there was no border between our families,” said elder and educator Gwen Point of the Stó:lō Nation in Chilliwack, B.C., who joined the gathering remotely. “One of the most important things to understand is our people lived off the land; we are the land.”

Like many, she remarked on the breakthrough of a day to commemorate the lives and contributions and histories of the First People.

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“I remember growing up … nothing around us reflected us.”

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To her, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a time to reflect on the responsibility for each person to take their role in leading and healing this land, Point said.

“It is up to every man, woman and child, it is not just up to the government today … to take responsibility for Mother Earth that we might be able to save what we have left.”

Shelly Boyd, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, called for recognition of the survival of the First People despite pandemic and colonization.

“We come from the strongest people,” said Boyd, a member of the Sinixt/Arrow Lake band of the Colville — a band once declared extinct by the Canadian government. The Colville recently prevailed in a British Columbia Supreme Court case that reaffirmed the band’s reserved treaty rights in Canada, and its identity.

It was just one more necessary, hard-won victory — something, Boyd said, very familiar for Indigenous people.

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“There are lots of situations where I think, ‘Why am I here? I don’t think I can do this.’

“Well you do your best. When it comes to the land, the animals, all the things that are wild; it is our job, our responsibility as Indigenous people, to speak. Don’t sit on your words and don’t sit on your actions. Stand up and do what you think you can do.”

Now is the time for tribes to use their sovereignty and their treaties to heal the earth and the salmon on which their cultures depend, said Amy Cordalis, attorney for the Yurok Tribe in Northern California, who joined the gathering remotely.

“Let this day be a beginning of a new day,” Cordalis said. “May we be part of the largest salmon run that has ever existed. Let this be the beginning of the rise of Salmon Nation.”  

As an Indigenous woman and CEO of the Washington Environmental Council and Washington Conservation Voters, Alyssa Macy, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Oregon, said she feels a special responsibility to see progress and not just words at this time of climate emergency and species extinction.

“It’s just empty words without action,” Macy said. “What’s next? We have to move to action. We are here as Salmon People, and the salmon are going extinct.”

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Her role is culturally informed as a mission that goes beyond any one action or cause.

“What are we doing to be a good ancestor? We are writing history in this moment,” Macy said. “Everything we do, whether on the salmon issue, or climate change, we are writing the future.”

JoDe Goudy, former chairperson at the Yakama Nation, traveled to the ceremony to recognize “all the goodness, all the darkness of history that has brought us to this day.” While welcome, the day is a bit peculiar for him as a Native person, Goudy said.

“We exist every day. Our way of life exists every day,” Goudy said. But the question is what the future brings.

Without the salmon, the way of life reserved in the treaties by the ancestors of the Native people of this land is extinguished, and the treaty bargain is not kept, Goudy said.

“What is important now is how we sustain our collective existence. It’s one thing to say, we are going to pick a day to honor you, but we are going to continue to make the irresponsible decisions that manifest as an extinction of your way of life and your people.”

After a morning of song, ceremony and sharing words it was time to share the feast of salmon. Succulent, fire-roasted, and at the center of the plate, just as it always has been in these gatherings.

“Today is a good day to celebrate our survival,” said Jay Julius, former chairperson of the Lummi Nation and a salmon fisher through multiple generations. “Let us celebrate hope.”