Culture, Resilience, and Sustainability of the Salish People

by Minji Ko |April 7, 2020

Photo: Cari Shimkus

In mid-February, Casey Ryan came to Columbia to talk to students about how culture, resilience, and sustainability play a role in his tribe’s management and protection of natural resources. Ryan is a member of the Bitterroot Salish Tribe currently serving as a hydrologist with the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes Natural Resources Department in western Montana. After speaking to Professor Lisa Dale’s spring class, Public Lands in the American West, he graciously gave an encore presentation for the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development’s Speaker Series.

Ryan began his talk with a short afternoon greeting in the Se̓liš (Salish) language and a discussion on how the identity and culture of indigenous people are intimately connected with seasons. Tribes often develop knowledge and traditions through interactions with the environment and climate. For example, Se̓liš people have different gatherings and festivals depending on the season, and those events have played an integral role in building community values. The Se̓liš people particularly treasure cold winters and utilize the time spent together inside during the season as an opportunity to pass on their wisdom and unwritten memories to their children, through sacred creation stories, also called Sqʷllumt.

To the Se̓liš Tribe, evidence of climate change is in some ways more apparent than to urban populations. Living within nature, they have developed an intimate intuition and knowledge of local plants, animals, and fluctuating climatic cycles. Thus, they are more sensitive to even the slightest shifts, such as snow melting earlier than usual, and fall precipitation decreasing over time.

Climate change is also affecting the livelihoods of tribal members. Located on the Flathead Indian Reservation, tourism is an important industry to the Se̓liš population. The community has noticed that as air quality worsens, likely due to energy dependence on oil and gas in the region, the number of tourists has decreased and that has had a negative effect on their economy.

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Climate Change Strategic Plan

In 2013, the Se̓liš, Qĺispe, and Ksanka Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation authored a climate change strategic plan. The plan comprehensively covers how to manage different natural resources, such as forestry, land, water, and wildlife. The plan suggests ecosystem-based measures for each resource. For instance, to preserve forestry, it suggests promoting native and cultural plant species and managing invasive species across the landscape. Furthermore, the tribes aim to improve natural resources resiliency through communities. An example of this is how the Se̓liš Tribe teaches ecological knowledge to visitors, calls on members to gather local evidence of climate change, and organizes a climate strategic committee composed of local resource managers and engineers.

Ryan stressed that cooperation between relevant stakeholders is the key in solving the wicked problem that is climate change. The state of Montana and the Se̓liš Tribe have negotiated specific terms to jointly manage natural resources — such as fisheries and wildlife — in a more sustainable way. Ending on a positive note, Ryan shared his belief that his ancestors’ stories of survival transmits hope for our future and that no issue is impossible to address when everyone joins forces. “Ta pisteḿ qe qs čmšqnmist — We will never give up.”

Columbia’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development hosts speaker series every semester to provide opportunities for students to explore professional development related to sustainability and the environment. To learn more about the program, please visit our website or contact Program Manager Cari Shimkus at cshimkus@ei.columbia.edu.

Minji Ko is an intern for the Office of Academic and Research Programs at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. She is an MPA candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University.

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