Boise State University is hosting prominent Idaho and Northwest Indian leaders on Monday, March 14, for a conference on ethics and Columbia and Snake River dams. Their visit gives non-native Idahoans an opportunity to realize how much we now need them.
During the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Charlotte Rodrique, chairwoman of the Burns-Paiute Tribe, was a no-nonsense voice against it. She reminded the forgetful occupiers that Northern Paiute people lived here long before the United States, Idaho, Oregon, and Harney or Ada County existed.
Pauline Terbasket is a Syilx Indian who directs the Okanagan Nation Alliance, eight First Nations communities that are leading sockeye salmon recovery into upper Columbia River lakes. Their work parallels the partnership to restore sockeye in Idaho’s Redfish Lake, one of whose leaders is the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.
Leotis McCormack and Silas Whitman are Nez Perce leaders. For water, land, forests, fish, and human use of them all, I believe the Nez Perce Tribe today exerts more positive influence across Clearwater Country than the state of Idaho. This is partly due to our government, but mainly due to the widening sovereignty, scientific expertise and ways of being on their lands of the Nez Perce themselves.
These leaders and others exemplify a struggle that is also a trend: the determined re-assembly by native people of their sovereignty and resources. That struggle and trend is good for Idaho. Native leaders focus closely on bettering their people, but their work also makes our state and region better for everyone.
By persistently seeking the justice still owed them — for example, in managing dams — they lead us toward the fairer, inclusive Idaho we need as our colors and communities diversify, and as bigger-than-Idaho trends gouge inequalities even deeper.
By putting the health of waters and lands first or near first in their aspirations, Tribes show us facts of life we still struggle to grasp. While official Idaho clings to the outmoded conception of economy and environment as contenders — for example, that water which leaves Idaho in a river is “wasted” — tribes pay closer attention to the natural wealth and health on which we all depend.
Tribes and their scientists have outpaced state leaders in acknowledging the shorter erratic winters, hotter sicker waters, and harsher fires now affecting us all, with worse coming. The tribes are better local guides today to understand these changes. And as Idahoans navigate climate change, we will be wise to emulate our tribal neighbors in tenacity for the long haul, close observation of water and land, and humility before Creation.
I don’t speak for native people, nor idealize them. I speak to white people like myself. Not long ago, by force of arms and spurious law, we asserted we did not need or want native people. Then a thread entered some of our behavior that they needed us to help right some of those wrongs. I think the day has now come when we need them.
Pat Ford, of Boise, is an Idaho conservationist.
Ethics and the Columbia River Treaty
Religious and tribal leaders from the Snake River Basin and the larger Columbia Basin will lead a one-day conference on ethics and the future of the Columbia River and its major tributary, the Snake River from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday at the Student Union Building, Jordan Ballroom. The conference, which is free and open to the public, is hosted by the Center for Environmental Law Policy. Details are available from assistant professor of anthropology Pei-Lin Yu at firstname.lastname@example.org, or lecturer Isaac Castellano with the School of Public Service at email@example.com.