Vincent, a high school student from the Suquamish Tribe of Washington state, performs a traditional song in the Rasmuson Theater at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., March 14, 2013 (Photo by Leonda Levchuk, NMAI)
Long before the first European stepped ashore in 1792, the Suquamish had called the Puget Sound home for nearly 10,000 years. Thanks to the region’s abundance of salmon, cod, clams, geoducks, oysters and waterfowl, the tribe had cultivated a meaningful relationship with and reliance upon the region’s waterways. In fact, the word Squamish means “People of the Clear Salt Water” in the Southern Lushootseed language. (Incidentally, the region's largest city is named after Suquamish leader Chief Sealth, or Seattle, who tried to protect his people and their land through early alliances and treaties with European settlers.)
Though Port Madison Indian Reservation—where roughly half of the tribe’s 1,050 enrolled members live today—represents a fraction of the territory their ancestors once called home, the Suquamish have managed to retain the fishing traditions that once defined their forebears’ way of life. But a new threat to the tribe’s culture has emerged, according to We Are Aware/ Are You?, a short documentary that was screened yesterday at the D.C. museum.
As the film explains, industrial pollution from nearby Seattle—home to corporate giants like Starbucks, Amazon and, until recently, Boeing—has led to ocean acidification, which occurs when carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is absorbed into the ocean, raising pH levels and damaging young marine life.
The film’s message was underscored by the presence and passion of its creators: Vincent Chargualaf, Tyleeander Purser, Shaylene Sky Jefferson and Crystal Boure, four high school students from the Suquamish tribe who had traveled from Washington state to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness about ocean acidification and its devastating impact on the fishing culture and economy that has sustained their families for hundreds of generations.
“My father taught me how to fish, his father
taught him. It’s a rite of passage. And it makes me sad to think that my
children or my children’s children may not get to experience that," said Tyleeander,
whose European and Native American roots includes fishermen on
both sides of his family. “With
lack of salmon comes unhappy Northwest Indians,” he joked.
But the students were quick to point out that ocean acidification isn't confined to the Northwest. “It doesn’t affect only our tribe,” Shaylene said to the audience. “It affects the global economy.”
From left: Shaylene, Crystal, Vincent, Tyleeander, a group of four high school students from the Suquamish Tribe of Washington state, ponder questions about their community at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., March 14, 2013 (Photo by Leonda Levchuk, NMAI)
Before screening their film at the museum, the tribe’s young delegates presented their documentary at the 4th National Student Summit on the Ocean and Coasts, a conference sponsored by the Coastal America Partnership that brings together dozens of students and educators from across the U.S., Canada and Mexico to promote stewardship of the world’s water resources.
Following a performance of traditional Suquamish song and a screening of their film in the museum's Rasmuson Theater, the students took questions from the public. When asked what prompted their interest in environmental advocacy, Vincent piped up on behalf of his classmates: “I got this one,” he said with a smile, before explaining that a group of older students at their high school had paved the way, having attended the summit several years ago. And though he and his fellow classmates were “volun-told” to attend this year’s conference, they’ve since become passionate about the cause.
“About four or five months ago, we didn’t have any idea about ocean acidification," Vincent admitted. "But the more I learn, the more scared I get. I think I speak for all of us when I say this issue has invigorated my spirit.” Crystal agreed. “The more I learn, the more interested I become.”
“There are no words to explain how frightening it is to hear that we might lose a huge part of our culture within our own generation,” Vincent said.
“It’s almost like losing our treaty rights,” Shaylene added. “What our
ancestors fought so hard for.”
“I think we will have sea life to harvest in the next generation,” said Paul Williams, the tribe’s shellfish biologist, who had traveled across the country with his community’s young ambassadors. “The question is what will it be, and will we like to eat it. Will we have to figure out a way to eat jellyfish?”