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Foundation helps native leaders pass on traditions

Joaquin Marchand started the L.I.G.H.T. Foundation. Photo courtesy of Joaquin Marchand

By Marijke Fakasiieiki

Joaquin Marchand, co-founder and executive director for the L.I.G.H.T. Foundation, recently described the impact of his upbringing and tribal ceremonies related to digging roots, collecting berries, hunting and fishing at a fall Center for Climate, Environment and Society event.

A citizen of the Colville Confederated Tribes from the Sinixt Nation, he served for more than 10 years with Colville Tribes, including in finance, accounting, human resources, health administration and grants management. He has also been involved for many years with conservation groups.

The concept of the rights of nature led Joaquin and his wife, Amelia, to start the L.I.G.H.T. Foundation two years ago. The letters of its name stand for Leadership, Indigenous, Guardian, Honor and Teach.

A growing movement has been encouraged by recent international legal cases to recognize rivers as having "rights of nature," like a person having the right to live.

"We wanted to create something that would outlast us," he said.

Joaquin and Amelia established the nonprofit to help tribes advocate for rights to ensure traditions are passed down. They help preserve ancestral lands, food sovereignty, cultural heritage, community involvement, pollinator health, educational opportunities and reciprocal relationships with nature. They especially wanted to fill a gap in knowledge about cultural food and plant preservation.

Both are pursuing doctoral degrees—Amelia in environment and Joaquin in education so he can develop a curriculum to teach and pass on what he has learned.

He is also writing a book about his family heritage and leadership in the Sinixt Nation.

Joaquin, who earned a master's degree in public administration in 2014 with an emphasis on health organizations and a bachelor's degree in business in 2011 from Eastern Washington University, believes tribal relationships to first foods mold tribal identity.

"First foods in my tribal system were roots, berries, deer, elk and salmon. They are used in everyday life by our ancestors and us. They define who we are and are part of our traditional knowledge transference," said Joaquin.

When families take their children to dig roots and pick berries, they tell stories reflecting their tribe's history. Those explanations of the first foods link their understanding of who they are, what they do and what their ancestors did as tribal people.

"They provide opportunities to teach and grow with their children and pass on stories with distinct meanings. Many ceremonies are rooted in practices of collecting roots. Those ceremonies involve water," he said.

"Water is the most important symbol. At the beginning of tribal ceremonies, root feasts, berry ceremonies or Chinook dances, we serve and drink water to purify ourselves, our minds, our bodies and our spirits. At the end of the ceremony, we drink water again to honor and recognize all the other beings, plants, animals and trees that need water to survive," he explained.

"There is a direct correlation between indigenous culture and spirituality. It is passed on through learned traditions, coyote stories, creationism beliefs and spiritual practices conducted from birth to puberty to death. Ancestral stories connect us with the earth," said Joaquin.

While brought up Catholic, as he has grown older, he has become more spiritually focused.

"I believe in a higher order. I'm also a math guy. My step-father encouraged me to join Cursillos. In the 1960s and 1970s, that group helped tribal people understand Catholic teaching, become more grounded on our reservations and connect with a spiritual being.," he said.

As a combat veteran who served three tours in the Army, he said, "It's hard not to believe in heaven if you have already been to hell. War is not something I would wish on anybody."

Living on the Colville Reservation, he grew up connected with the Columbia River and shared his story about salmon fishing as a child.

"I was taught to fish for salmon with my father, elders and other kids. We'd have a giant salmon pull, snagging salmon as they swim by. There was a wall with 90 concrete steps built by the Corps of Engineers up to the face of the Chief Joseph Dam. 

"At nine when I was first being taught how to fish, older fishermen said, "You go to the bottom of the wall, practice and learn. First, recognize the river, pray and just take it in because the current is swift. It comes over the top and you can't see the salmon, but they are close. You have to just reach out in faith," he said.

Each step they took to go higher on the wall took more skill, more teaching and more years. Joaquin fished there for almost 34 years. Every year, he'd return and show the elders above him that he knew how to do each of the steps to catch the salmon. They would let him climb a little further up the wall until he finally got to the top.

"In my later years, I finally reached the spot where the elders fished. It was the best fishing spot, at the top corner of those stairs. In retrospect, I see that as a knowledge transference and as how we were taught a way of life," he said.

The men who were salmon fishing—including his father, who has since passed on—mostly came there, not because they were friends or needed salmon, but to meet about tribal, social and economic issues. There they bonded and had an equal voice.

"It is important to understand, respect and honor our ancestors and those who come before us, when we follow, listen or practice traditions," Joaquin said.

"I could have been a spoiled brat and fished from the top. To catch fish there was easiest, but that wouldn't have been right. If we push ahead of our generation, we lose understanding of the steps necessary to respect those who came before us," he said.

"Without a system to respect those who came before us and carry on the structure and gifts they gave to the world, we lose credibility in whatever faith or spirituality we have," he added.

"We have to understand the foundations and respect elders. Things change over time. If we don't want to repeat the same mistakes, we need to honor the teaching of elders," Joaquin said.

Only three of the original fishermen he remembers watching while growing up are still living. In their honor, he is now like them as he passes on the teachings to his two daughters and nine-year-old son.

"The relationship with the water, the salmon and the foods is not just about survival. It is about knowledge transference, respect and a coming-of-age moment that I've been blessed with. I hope in future generations we will create a platform and find opportunities for our tribe and other tribes to restore our traditions. The story is hard to tell. It's bittersweet," he shared.

"Salmon were important to our people. They are the staple. Before the dams and everything else, tribes would come together at Kettle Falls and fish for an entire summer. It was the meeting place. It was where we would begin and where we would reconcile, solve problems, and perform marriages and ceremonies," Joaquin said.

For the people, the river and its water are important. Since dams, the salmon have to fight through so many things. At Bridgeport, the dams stopped the passage of salmon to their original spawning grounds at Kettle Falls.

In the last couple of years, the Colville Confederated Tribes have released some fish from their hatcheries above the dams.

"I don't know the result, but now that touchstone, relationships and teachings are being threatened, not just by the dam but also by climate change, by toxins like flame retardants, PCBs and heavy metals. Now we can only consume a limited number of fish because contaminants in the water transfer to the salmon."

Joaquin said the rising temperature of the water is also stopping salmon runs.

"We've poured millions of dollars into bringing back the salmon. We continue to fight. It's been 20 years. That's how important it is," he said.

In trying to pass on the knowledge, Joaquin said he sometimes feels like a salmon in the river fighting against dams.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December 2023