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2024 Eastern Washington Legislative Conference

Indigenous communities discuss climate and salmon

Jeff Ferguson and DR Michel offered Indigenous insights.

Jeff Ferguson, Spokane tribal member, freelance photographer and videographer who does documentaries on cultural preservation and issues facing Indian Country, and DR Michel, executive director of Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT), led a workshop on "Indigenous Issues" for the recent Eastern Washington Legislative Conference.

Climate change and salmon recovery were two areas of focus.

With Indigenous people from around the world, Jeff attended COP 27 and COP28—the last two United Nations Conference on Parties—to stop climate change.

"Indigenous leaders were there to share their wisdom on caring for the land and as people overwhelmed by climate change," said Jeff, who went to COP28 in Dubai in early December with environmental activist Jacob Johns.

Gathering with government leaders were NGOs and Big Oil.

"No one, regardless of wealth, will survive climate change," Jeff said. "We bring Indigenous knowledge as solutions for climate change. My ancestors have lived here for 10,000 years.

"Colonists came, saw the land was pristine and thought it was untouched. It was because Indigenous people see land as part of us. We live in reciprocity, respecting the land, unlike capitalists who take from the land," he said.

Lewis and Clark said the salmon runs were so thick they could walk across the Columbia River on the backs of salmon.

"We are salmon people. We fished 100 days a year and caught massive 30- to 110-pound salmon. Salmon chiefs regulated the number of salmon we could take so we did not overfish. We let some go by to spawn."

When colonists came 150 years ago, they brought the industrial age and changes that polluted the rivers.

The Spokane Tribe has worked two decades to set high water quality standards, Jeff said.

"Our problem is being able to get to the table to share our knowledge," Jeff said, placing his hand on a table. "Even though the Yakama and Colville are the largest land-based tribes, they aren't included in negotiations. We need our voices to be heard to share what our ancestors taught us."

Jeff gives many presentations on the environment and climate crisis.

"Will I see my great-grandchildren?" asks Jeff, who is nearly 39. "It's getting worse with floods, fires and drought."

He said Indigenous people find it hard to get a seat at the table. Last year in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, many who came were denied hotel reservations they made in advance and were left with expensive options.

"We have answers and need to be at the table of global climate summits," Jeff said, adding that such economic pressures make it hard for Indigenous people to come and be heard.

One voice presented was a woman named Vandana Shiva, who is an Indian scholar, environmental activist, food sovereignty advocate, ecofeminist and anti-globalization author based in Delhi. She said India could feed twice as many people on half the land with organic farming, growing food with 70 percent higher nutritional value, while reducing carbon emissions and pollution.

For information, visit

DR, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, affirmed that UCUT efforts are not just for tribal people but also have an impact on all who live in the Columbia Basin.

He wants to improve the environment for the sake of his great granddaughter and other future generations.

"We do not have a lot of time. We are aware we are on the edge," he said.

He is grateful the region has received $200 million over 20 years from the national infrastructure bill for restoring salmon passage at Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams.

"There could and should be more salmon. We need to bring the salmon home. There are costs and benefits to doing that. Producing power, irrigation and flood control have costs and benefits. Having salmon also has benefits," said DR, who seeks to create a paradigm shift with awareness of economic values.

"The Columbia River Basin has immense capital value. The value of ecosystem functions is $190 billion annually, compared to $3.3 billion for hydro power," he said.

"We have usually talked of the value of power and irrigation, but the value of the ecosystem functions and services exceeds all the other values. Bringing salmon back is just part of the overall ecosystem functions," DR explained.

Following recent ceremonial releases, salmon have returned to spawn in the Sanpoil River. Some that were released above Kettle Falls returned to B.C.

"The salmon did not forget where they came from. We have released salmon and they returned to the dams and beyond, swimming upriver on the mainstem of the Columbia River, and to the Spokane River and Hangman Creek. It's amazing with all we have done to the fish over the years, they are still there," he said.

"Salmon give their lives for us if we take care of them," DR said. "My family will see salmon restored if we correct the historic wrong."

While U.S. tribes were kept outside negotiations for renewing the Columbia River Treaty, Canadian tribes are at the table and able to call for inclusion of ecosystem functions. U.S. tribes conversed with official delegates, who say they negotiate for tribes' best interest, he commented.

Ecosystem functions include clean water and land. People cannot walk on the beaches along Lake Roosevelt because of pollution from Tech Cominco. Because of contamination, people need to eat fewer fish.

DR pointed out that in allowing fish passage, cleaning the river and restoring tribal traditions will restore fishing, tourism, hunting, hiking, recreation and other activities for all along the rivers.

UCUT has created a video that captures the story of their efforts. It is available on their website.

"There is a lot of work to do. We have to talk with politicians at the city, county, state and national levels," said DR.

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The EWLC24 videos are available HERE or directly at

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, March 2024