The Return of a River: A Nisqually Tribal Challenge

Authors: Steve Robinson and Michael Alesko

Disciplines: Environmental Studies

Themes: Cultural Preservation, Environmental Restoration, Intergovernmental Relations, Land, Salmon, Self Determination and Self Governance, Treaty Rights and Sovereignty

Tribes: Nisqually

For thousands of years, the Nisqually River watershed has been home to the Nisqually Indian people. It has provided food in the form of salmon and other fish that filled the waters and shellfish when the tide went out. Deer and other game in the river’s surrounding forests further nurtured the people, enriched by a diet of berries, roots, and herbaceous plants. As described by Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Chairman Billy Frank, Jr’s late father, Willy Frank, Sr. in the movie, As Long As the Rivers Run, it was a “paradise.” The settlers moving in from the 1850s on decided to mold the area into their own version of what they thought a watershed should look like. They diked the estuary area for agricultural purposes, channelized the river in other areas, and greatly altered the natural habitat and the earlier natural balance. But over the past several years, a collective effort involving jurisdictions and neighbors from all vocations and ethnic backgrounds have worked together with the Nisqually Tribe at the helm in a successful effort to return the Nisqually estuary to its natural condition. This case study examines the Tribe’s role as partner and leader in this multi-entity effort. It is a role forged through a combination of cooperative partnerships and litigation reestablishing Northwest tribes’ legitimate place as resource managers.