Lief on the Rocks: The Arc of History

By Steve Ulvi, Journal contributor.

These scattered fir-clad islands we call home remain picturesque; in ways a pleasant backwater in time, a reprieve from the frenetic chaos of modernity. But what to make of our history?

These low ridges withstood the last glacial sculpting and are a testament to deep-time resilience to monumental battering. This once barren archipelago and region flourished with increasing biotic complexity through prehistoric millennia. In the last 150 years this area seems to be about convergence; ecologically, historically, and politically all interconnected by a massive web of anadromous salmon country.

The ancestors of our sickly Southern Resident Killer Whales evolved and persisted through deep time to spend summer months here gorging on the concentrations of large, river-bound chinook. From “time immemorial” (the last 13,000 years give or take), the Coast Salish tribes flourished at the confluences of rivers and co-mingled peaceably as necessary; especially out here where homecoming silver hordes converged.

Manifest destiny reached the northern Pacific coast rather late after many probing explorations by sail and canoe, but with a destructive vigor that rapidly altered the ancient, time-tested ways of life. The 1855 treaties forced on far-flung tribes by a zealous Governor Stevens, vastly shrank native homelands, sought separation then assimilation while recognizing decimated sovereign tribes and promising the continuance of hunting and fishing in the scattered “usual and accustomed” areas. However, the ensuing cancerous resource extraction, mindless damming, urbanization and industrial effluents continued without respect for indigenous cultures, sovereign rights or basic ecological precautionary principles.

Sadly today, for all of us who hold wild salmon dear, those rights for government-to-government input in state and federal regulatory or development decisions over the next 100 years were obfuscated and crassly ignored until the protests of indigenous fishing activists and the pivotal 1974 “Boldt Decision.”

Today’s devastation of the vaunted Salish Sea is far from over. US portions are a paradise lost. The mounting pressures of overpopulation, pollution and cynically mismanaged marine resources are now being exacerbated by climate change stressors making it unlikely that the keystone species of salmon and co-evolved resident pods of SRKW, so thoroughly abused, will ever recover.

My life’s experiences cause me to find some hope in the increasing economic strength and flexing of sovereign muscle by re-emergent local tribes. Coast Salish have blocked disastrous plans for massive coal and oil export facilities. The insane state permitting of net pens was finally undone by storm, corporate malfeasance and tribes. So much more. They might be in the best position to ramp up hatcheries and perhaps initiate substantial land-based aquaculture to take some pressure off wild salmon stocks. Although salmon are in serious decline tribes today seek to renew cultural ties here that were expunged in the 1860s. Where and when appropriate, why not?

However, the widespread use of the weighty “government to government” phrase in county parlance is oddly self-serving and confuses the county status when properly “consulting” with tribes that are sovereign nations whose treaty interests trump our subservient standing.