Last month, I got to spend time with Americans who have championed sustainability for a lot longer than the 45 years EPA has existed: our northwest tribal nations.
My trip to the Pacific Northwest was the second stop on the Generation Indigenous, or Gen I,Cabinet Tour. President Obama launched the Gen-I Initiative at the 2014 White House Tribal Nations Conference to focus on improving the lives of Native youth by removing the barriers that stand between Native youth and their opportunity to succeed. A clean, healthy environment sets tribal nations up for stronger economies and communities where young people can thrive.
I had the chance to sit down with the Columbia River Tribal Leadership Council, including the Lummi, Nez Perce, Warm Springs, Yakama, and Umatilla tribes, to listen to their concerns, hopes and dreams. And most importantly, I spent quality time with the tribal leaders of the future when I visited the Lummi and Swinomish nations.
The tribes in the northwest face significant water quality challenges that are threatening their ability to maintain their precious resources: the fish they rely on for nourishment and continued economic stability, as well as their way of life. The visit gave me a chance to discuss next steps in the work EPA is doing with states and tribes to protect resources, like clean water, to which many tribes retain treaty rights.
I also spent time at the Northwest Indian College, talking to students about what a college degree means for their futures and the futures of their tribes. It was amazing to see the hope and pride on their faces, as well as the faces of their remarkable teachers.
Tribal members welcomed me as part of the extended Swinomish family—I tasted a bounty of native foods, took a boat ride along the Skagit river (the last river in the Northwest healthy enough to be home to all species of wild salmon), rowed a canoe with tribal members of all ages and sizes, and learned a traditional dance. It was a trip I will never forget and didn’t want to end.
Last year, President Obama visited Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, where he heard directly from Native youth who described the challenges their families and communities face. Afterward, he launched Generation Indigenous, or Gen I, an initiative to create new opportunities for our Native youth and to cultivate the next generation of Native leaders. He challenged all agencies to support those efforts.
EPA is proud to support Gen I by engaging with Native youth in a number of ways, including the Tribal ecoAmbassadors Program, which partners EPA scientists with Tribal College professors and students to solve local environmental issues. I was pleased to see the progress the Northwest Indian College Tribal ecoAmbassador Program has made, including the rehabilitation of clear-cut areas of campus into medicinal and rain gardens. A nut and berry forest is used to teach traditional ecological knowledge and is a “living lab” used by students and the community. Since 2011, the Tribal ecoAmbassadors Program has created the opportunity for hundreds of students to gain over 4500 hours of STEM training.
EPA is proud of the progress we’ve made to support tribes, but there’s a lot more work to do. Native American children are more likely to suffer from asthma and other respiratory illnesses linked to air pollution than white children, while more than 1 in 10 homes on Native American reservations lack access to clean water and sanitary sewage disposal—compared to less than 1 in 100 nationwide.
Working alongside tribes to protect public health and the environment is a critical part of EPA’s mission. It’s only when we work with tribes, states, and communities that the benefits of our work will be realized by every American.
The northwest tribes are working toward a brighter future every day, using both traditional and scientific ecological knowledge to safeguard their natural resources and their way of life. EPA is proud to partner with them to help continue their commitment to sustainability for many years to come.