TAHOLAH, Washington State - The Quinault Indian Nation’s creation story says the first humans climbed out of a clamshell thousands of years ago. The Quinault have made their homes on the shores of the Pacific Ocean ever since.
For hundreds of years, their territory extended up the river to Lake Quinault and along the Pacific coast to Joe Creek. As Europeans began settling in their lands in the 19th century, their historic territory was reduced. By the time the US federal government established the Quinault Reservation in 1856, it was on a fraction of the lands the tribes that came together on the reservation had once inhabited.
Still, the Quinault Indian Nation is one of the few tribal groups in the United States not to have been completely dislocated from their original lands by European settlers.
Their current headquarters, the historic village of Taholah — home to 800 people — lies at the mouth of the Quinault River in Washington state, about 145 kilometres west of the state capital, Olympia.
Now, despite their history on the land, climate change and the ever-present threat of tsunamis, means they must relocate the Taholah village to higher ground.
A disappearing village
A strong storm in 2014 made the urgency of the move clear.
The village’s sea wall was breached so badly that the US Army Corps of Engineers came to inspect it. The findings of the inspectors were unmistakable, the Quinault had no more than 10 years left on the land.
It wasn’t the first time storm waves had flooded the village, but it prompted the tribe to begin planning the relocation to Upper Taholah.
As life-long Taholah resident and Quinault treasurer, Larry Ralston, drove through the village, he pointed out the home where his mother was born, and the home across the street, where she died.
“We don’t move very far,” Ralston joked. His own house was only a few blocks away from his grandparents’ home.
He lamented that the stories he grew up hearing from his elders may not make sense to future generations, as they are linked to places that may disappear under rising seas.
Despite the difficulties involved with moving, changing global conditions have made it inevitable.
Climate change has caused sea level rise on the coastlines of the Quinault Reservation, home to 1,408 members. Some 60 centimetres of rise is expected by the end of the century, an analysis the Quinault will submit to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency in order to receive assistance.
In March, flooding in Taholah was so severe that residents had to travel around the village by canoe.
Meanwhile, global warming-strengthened storm surges have compromised the structural integrity of the sea wall that protects Taholah.
“During big storms, waves were crashing over the sea wall,” Ralston said.
The site of Upper Taholah, the new village, is just up the road, but it is high enough to shield the people from rising seas or a tsunami wave.
The Quinault have already purchased 160 acres about 120 feet above the lower village, and hope to receive grants and federal funding to cover some of the other costs.
Michael Cardwell, the tribe's community services director, who is also planning the relocation, said that in order to get the most vulnerable out of the evacuation zones, their first priority is to build a multi-generational community building that will house a daycare and senior centre.
On Seagate Road, a dirt road on the edge of the village that once led down through the forest to the beach, erosion caused by rising seas is obvious. It used to lead down to a large beach. Now, it ends in a cliff — the product of severe erosion.
And that beach has all but disappeared.
“It’s just sheared off,” Cardwell said, pointing to the drop off where the road now ends about 20 feet above the ocean.
“On average, we’re seeing one foot of erosion per year,” he added.
He sees the move to higher ground not only as crucial but as a continuation, rather than a disrupting, of the people’s history.
“We’ve been retreating up the river valley for thousands of years,” Cardwell said, pointing to a 3-D model of the topography of the coastline and ocean floor in front of Taholah.
An underwater valley leads out from the mouth of the river beneath the ocean to a large canyon — the spot he believes was above the sea level during the Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago.
“To take another step up is very reasonable and responsible,” Cardwell said.
Higher temperatures have affected nearly all aspects of life for the Quinault.
The Mt Anderson glacier, which fed cool water to the river, disappeared in 2011, after decades of melting. The warming temperatures have also lead to changes in ocean acidity, flooding from the river and the ocean, and stronger storms, Quinault President Fawn Sharp said in an email.
“Our Blueback Sockeye Salmon, a fish run that is central and unique to our identity as Quinault people, are threatened,” Sharp said.
A significant portion of the tribe’s economy depends on fishing, which is threatened by rising river temperatures.
The best technology
A major focus for the construction of the new village will be on using sustainable architecture and renewable energy. They want to keep the carbon footprint of the homes low, he said, and hope to power the new village with renewable energy sources.
Cardwell said they hope to build a biomass project to develop an alternate heat and energy source as well as passive and active solar technologies. One proposal calls for a 10 acre solar farm in the Upper Taholah Village.
He said that kind of innovative thinking was not out of step with the tribe’s history.
“We may have climbed out from a clam shell 10,000 years ago ... but we’re going to use the best technology we can to address our needs,” Cardwell said.
The tribe’s commitment to building a sustainable future goes beyond their carbon footprint, they have long been vocal in protesting new fossil fuel projects in Washington state. These projects would not only affect the resources they need to survive, but also contribute to the overall warming of the earth.
One proposed project they have resisted is an oil terminal expansion in nearby Hoquiam, Washington, which the Quinault say would threaten the coast with oil spills.
Quinault members including President Sharp travelled earlier this month to the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota to protest the planned Dakota Access Pipeline.
“We have tremendous respect for the water protectors. We relate with them because we’ve been fighting to keep Bakken oil from spoiling our area for years,” Sharp told reporters.
For the Quinault, moving away from the ocean and the river that have sustained them will be difficult. Their culture is connected to the ocean.
“It let you know you were home. If you can smell it, you’re home. That’s what it meant to us,” Ralston said.
“Part of our legend will be gone, underwater.”
Author: Renee Lewis