Seed Feed: Indigenous Land Rights at wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ – Intellectual House
Photo by Danny Ngan

A Conversation on Indigenous Land Rights

More than 100 people gathered for a conversation with tribal leaders and activists on October 29, exploring the history, present and future of Indigenous land rights.

The conversation, Forterra’s latest Seed & Feed event, was held at the University of Washington’s Coast Salish longhouse wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ, a Lutshootseed word translating to ‘Intellectual House.’ It was co-sponsored by the Intellectual House and Design in Public.

Indian Law Practitioner Eric D. Eberhard began the conversation with a brief guide to federal Indian policy, illustrating the erosion of tribal land rights over four centuries.

Seed Feed: Indigenous Land Rights at wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ – Intellectual House
Eric Eberhard compressed 400 years of Indian land history in the U.S. in 12 minutes

Then panelists Leonard Forsman, Suquamish Tribal Chairman; Darrell Hillaire, producer, writer and Lummi Nation Tribal member; and Tracy Rector, executive director and co-founder of Longhouse Media, spoke about how they work to restore and preserve a sense of home rooted in their cultures, lands and waterways.

Rector, who lives in Seattle, noted that despite the focus on tribal homelands, an estimated 75% of native peoples in this country live in urban centers. Struggling with a feeling of displacement, she found that a sense of home for her went beyond a physical place. “For me it meant listening to my grandmother’s stories,” Rector said. “The gifts of storytelling from the First Peoples of the land bestowed a sense of home.”

Hillaire sees storytelling as the starting point for engaging with tribes on issues of land rights, preservation and growth. “Oral tradition should be the beginning of the conversation. The creation story is very connected to the land that we live on, the water that flows through it,” Hillaire said.

Panelists Leonard Forsman, Darrell Hillaire and Tracy Rector with Eric Eberhard.
Photo by Danny Ngan

These stories tell of lands and waterways used in common, to gather sustenance and sustain traditions, since time immemorial. With the breakup of communal lands through the reservation system and subsequent “allotment” of land parcels to individuals, the natural resource base for these practices fragmented.

By investing in land acquisition, primarily for housing and restoring public space, the Suquamish Tribe is “trying to reengage with that spiritual, cultural, and economic connection to the landscape built up over many generations,” Chairman Forsman said.

Restoring tribal landholdings—to the extent possible—is a common struggle. Audience members Marla Tolliver and Patsy Bain, who both sit on the Makah Tribal Council, noted their efforts to regain Makah Tribal lands through a buy-back process from individual owners. Simply put, “we believe that we are the best managers of our land, waters, and resources,” Bain said.

Northwest treaty tribes retained the right to hunt, gather, and fish on customary lands, but this doesn’t always pan out in practice. Shellfish land access in particular remains difficult, Eberhard said, despite federal court orders securing it. Tribes are in the courts now fighting for enforcement of existing laws and treaty rights, and often work closely with the state and federal government on permitting issues.

Northwest tribes have a greater stake than most in preserving regional lands and waterways, and the conversation seemed an ideal jumping off point for further engagement around common sustainable growth goals.

For those in search of a point of engagement with tribal communities, Hillaire asked the audience: “When’s your first-salmon ceremony?” That might be a place to start, he said. The first-salmon ceremonies give thanks for this traditional source of sustenance and are often open to the public.

Several people who attended the event work with tribal nations. Tribal lawyer Tom Schlosser, who has represented the Nooksack Tribe, said the event drew him “to hear the personal stories from tribal members struggling with land rights issues.”

Kathy Pelish, general manager and co-founder of the Salish Sea Trading Cooperative, came simply to learn more about native cultures and land rights. The co-op aims to revitalize coastal trade of locally produced goods by sailboat, and seeks potential engagement with coastal tribes.

The event was moderated by Michelle Connor, Forterra’s Executive Vice President for Strategic Enterprises.

  • Alexa Jay

    Alexa has worked for climate research organizations and non-profits for six years. She holds degrees in anthropology and climate science and policy.