Fig Tree Logo

Tribal members speak on environmental stewardship

D.R. Michel, Julian Matthews, Jeff Ferguson and Margo Hill raise indigenous perspectives.


For an Eastern Washington Legislative Conference panel, "Indigenous Voices Speak to Environmental Stewardship," members of the Spokane, Colville Confederated and Nimiipuu tribes discussed environmental issues indigenous communities face locally and globally.

Margo Hill, a Spokane Tribal member who is associate director of Small, Urban, Rural and Tribal Center on Mobility, affirmed the moral imperative to speak and listen to the truth.

 A former tribal attorney and judge, she brings lived experience to her teaching tribal health, law, addiction, planning and community development at Eastern Washington University.

"Our tribes live along the Columbia, Spokane and Snake rivers, which have dams for hydropower and flood control. The dams block the return of salmon," said Margo.

"We are buying lands where we can re-introduce salmon. We work with the Lands Council to restore wetlands and clean water. We work with Spokane Riverkeeper on water conservation and quality, and to restore clean, fast-running rivers," she said. "We are also working with the American Indian Community Center to secure land for a homesite."

Sometimes tribes have conflicts with environmental projects, like locating wind turbines on land where the Yakama harvest traditional foods.

"Indigenous people need to be at decision-making tables for environmental justice and climate resilience," Margo asserted.



Jeff Ferguson, a Spokane tribal member, uses his skills as a freelance photographer and videographer to educate on climate change and Native youth.

Recently, he joined the Earthrise Collective indigenous spiritual gathering at Mt. Sinai before COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. He is preparing documentaries on both experiences.

Jeff said COP27 divided the haves and have nots. People needed money to attend. He experienced this when his room reservation was changed at the last minute to one that would have been far too expensive. He and other indigenous friends were forced to find private housing.

Content at COP27 also reflected inequities. A friend, Jacob Johns, from Earthrise Collective protested during the video speech by Joe Biden, seeing it as "neo-colonial spin on climate action." Jacob said carbon trading can "trade the health of one community for the health of another."

"Indigenous people have solutions to the climate crisis but have no voice," Jeff said. "Few know what our government negotiating team agrees to. We need Biden to declare a climate emergency and end subsidies to fossil fuels."

For the EWLC panel, Jeff showed video of Pooven Moodley, an East Indian spiritual leader from South Africa who spoke at COP27.

He was among the indigenous people who gave Jeff hope about leadership, momentum and energy.

"Indigenous people worked in respect, sharing indigenous wisdom as a platform for people to share and call for healing," he said. "The message from the indigenous people was that now is the time for us to step into our rightful place after centuries of harm, collectively tapping into the wisdom of our ancestors."



D.R. Michel, a citizen of the Lakes Band in the Colville Confederated Tribe and executive director of Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT) for 14 years, promotes fish, water and wildlife through the voices of 15,000 people in five member tribes, managing 2 million acres of reservation land and 500 miles of waterways.

Formed in 1982 to ensure a healthy future for traditional lands, UCUT unites tribes to address treaty rights and common concerns to benefit all people.

"What we do does not just benefit the tribes, but all citizens in the Inland Northwest," D.R. said.

"My grandparents were the last generation to fish at Kettle Falls. Five generations later, there are no salmon there for my great-granddaughter," he said. "We have lost a piece of who we are. It is our responsibility to bring back salmon."

D.R. calls people to value long-term sustainability and see ecosystem functions as more than costs.

"Some say we can't afford to put in fish passage at Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams," he said. "We can't afford not to do it. We need fish passage, along with power and irrigation."

Hydropower is just $3.3 billion of the $190 billion value of the Columbia River for all uses, he said.

He is excited that fish released in 2017 above Chief Joe Dam remembered their way back and spawned in the Sanpoil and Spokane Rivers.

Fish released by the Coeur d'Alene Tribe at Hangman Creek went to the ocean and one that came back was returned to the tribe.

Beyond flood control and power, D.R. uplifted economic opportunities in fisheries.

"We must educate folks to correct historic wrongs," he said, "so everyone benefits economically and spiritually."



Julian Matthews, coordinator with Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, seeks to ensure treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather, and to educate tribal youth and adults to protect those rights.

Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment has organized protests of Exxon Mobile transporting megaloads through Nimiipuu territory to Beaver Creek, B.C., to build a pipeline.

Julian seeks to restore rights for the Nez Perce (Nimiiipuu) in the Treaty of 1855, that ceded a million acres to the government in exchange for hunting, fishing and territorial rights.

The tribe seeks to bring salmon to the headwaters of the Snake River, which has four earthen dams.

"Salmon are becoming extinct," Julian said, "So tribes are working to breach the dams. The baby fish or smolt should float down the river to the ocean. Dams impede the flow. Water behind the dams is warm and kills salmon. Dam turbines also kill salmon."

He said the dams can be breached so water can flow freely and be cooler.

In addition, Julian is teaching Nimiipuu youth to make paddles and canoes for the first time in 100 years.

"Environmental justice is about the rights to preserve nature," said Julian, who was raised Catholic and attended Gonzaga University, where he learned teachings that coincide with Nimiipuu belief that all of the life God created is important—including wolves, bears, elk, deer, salmon, the land and water.


The full comments of panelists are available through links at ewlc23videos

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, March 2023