Like communities across Washington, treaty Indian tribes are coping with what we all hope are the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic that has disrupted every part of our daily lives, economies and traditions.
High rates of certain illnesses, combined with limited access to medical care, put tribal members at increased health risks due to COVID-19 and led tribes to take quick preventive action to close our reservation boundaries.
That came with a huge financial cost as we closed our casinos, resorts and other businesses that are the economic engines of our own and nearby communities. Tribes are among the top 10 employers in the state and most employees are non-Indian.
Like any sovereign government, the health and well-being of our members is the top priority of tribes, especially the most vulnerable – our elders. According to the American Indian Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles the recent top five infection rates nationwide would all be found in tribal nations if tribes were states.
Our economic problems were compounded with the collapse of the seafood market due to both COVID-19 and trade policy issues with China over new tariffs on shellfish such as geoduck. The giant clams harvested in western Washington are much loved in China and other Asian countries and fetch as much as $50 per pound.
Tribes quickly shut down most of their fisheries and delayed or canceled other fisheries. As restaurants closed, markets dried up for salmon, crab, shrimp and other species. Fish buyers were scarce and our fishermen were paid about half of normal prices.
In times like these we have come to rely more on ceremonial and subsistence harvests of fish and shellfish to feed our families and cultures. Even these limited fisheries have been difficult to conduct due to social distancing requirements. These fisheries provide important nutrition when many tribal members have limited options for groceries or are furloughed or unemployed. Many tribes are distributing fish, elk and other foods to members unable to go shopping.
We’ve also had to modify some aspects of our ceremonies to deal with the impacts of COVID-19.
My tribe, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, holds a First Salmon Ceremony and Blessing of the Fleet in May each year. It is our largest community celebration. We welcome the salmon with drums, songs and prayers. We invite our neighbors to share this food that has always sustained us and we pray for the safety of our fishermen and their boats.
Like many tribes, we had to make some changes this year, but were able to prepare salmon meals and deliver them to tribal members in their homes.
In South Sound, the Puyallup Tribe held a socially distanced First Salmon Ceremony on the Puyallup River waterfront on Memorial Day weekend.
Most of those who attended watched the ceremony from their cars as the first salmon was brought to shore in a tribal canoe. Those outside wore masks and practiced social distancing. Salmon was cooked on site and passed out drive-through style along with camas bulbs and other traditional foods. The ceremony was livestreamed on Facebook for those who couldn’t attend.
These changes we have had to make to our ceremonies because of the pandemic in no way lessen their importance. In fact, they remind us just how important they are. From smallpox to tuberculosis, tribes have dealt with many diseases over the years and we will survive COVID-19 as well. One way is with the ceremonies that preserve our culture, honor our natural resources and enable us to survive as a people.
David Bean, chairman of Puyallup Tribe of Indians, waits to begin singing to welcome the salmon during the tribe’s First Salmon Ceremony in May. Photo: Debbie Preston