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Fawn Sharp wants Native voices to shake up politics

The Quinault president is rallying the Native vote to fight climate change in Washington state, but newfound tribal power could go beyond Tuesday.

Fawn Sharp, President of the Quinault Indian Nation, greets potential voters in Taholah, Wash. on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. Sharp traveled to 28 tribes in 10 days to encourage Native Americans to vote on Nov. 6. (Photos by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Around noon on a Monday last week in Taholah, the largest village in the Quinault Indian Nation reservation, local elder Francis Rosander hung by the open door of his tribe’s council chambers. The heavy downpours common to an October on Western Washington’s Olympic Peninsula yielded to full sun as a crowd gathered outside.  

There was going to be a rally that day in Taholah — the first of its kind in nearly two decades. Barbecues roasting brisket and sausages waited outside for attendees, and Rosander glanced at them before turning to smirk at a council member sitting inside.

“Serving up the last Blueback?” Rosander said. They both laughed.

It’s a Quinault inside joke, tinged with a bitter reality: The tribe has seen runs of their prized blueback salmon — a unique subspecies of sockeye known for high oil content and exceptional flavor — choke to a trickle since the 1950’s. 

The Quinault had long known that something was causing the decline. They only had to look around town to see the ocean creeping up on what was once riverside fishing ground, or hike into the nearby Olympic mountains to watch the disappearance of ancient glaciers their ancestors once walked on. And now, many Quinault tribe members would agree that the “something” is climate change.

But while nature rightfully takes some of the credit for this tribe-wide revelation, the rest belongs to Fawn Sharp.

She is the 5-term Quinault president and lifelong resident of the Quinault reservation, which contains 325 square miles of forest, lakes and rivers sandwiched between Olympic National Park and 23 miles of rugged Pacific Coast. Like her great uncle Rosander, Sharp grew up in Taholah, and used to fish for salmon from the Quinault River that runs alongside it. Now she lives by its namesake lake, where blueback take shelter over the summer and fall. And just like him, she’s seen it all change for the worse. 

“We had pictures of the Anderson glacier disappearing, tribal citizens who had fished their whole lives witnessed fishing seasons where there was just a sharp decline,” Sharp says. “It had a very real impact with our citizens.”

Soon after this conversation, Sharp rolled into the council chambers with an RV of supporters — most of them fellow Washington tribe members who call themselves “the road warriors” — in tow. After a one-day break, she’d returned to her campaign, a bus tour launched on Oct. 27 that would visit 28 tribes over the course of ten days to rally the Native vote in time for the midterm elections.

It’s the first time in a long time that anyone in Washington has mounted a concerted effort to go from tribe to tribe and bring Native voters out, and it’s certainly the first with climate-change legislation at the heart of it. In this case, Sharp is concentrating on earning statewide support for Initiative 1631, a carbon fee that would charge polluters and redirect some of the profits to climate-endangered communities like the Quinault. 

Sharp’s already rallied tribal governments behind her. After forming the First American Project earlier this year to voice Native interests on the carbon fee and other political issues, she spent months getting other tribal leaders around the state to join the cause. She and other tribal leaders dreamed up a bus tour to mobilize Washington tribe members, too. While Sharp thinks tribes often refrain from engaging in state politics, this movement was an opportunity to voice their concerns to the rest of Washington. 

“No amount of fear and doubt can overshadow the strength that lies within this nation, within our resources, within our people, within our waters, our forests, our ancestors,” Sharp said to a crowd of about 80 in Taholah. 

She’s shouldering a huge task: Unite all of Washington’s tribes, and get them to demand climate action from state government in defiance of a $30 million counter-campaign launched by the opposition. But donning a woven cedar hat with a feather dangling from its peak, she sounded confident.  

“When we do gather, it's such a powerful force,” she says. “I think tribes are understanding the value of that.”

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Fawn Sharp, President of the Quinault Indian Nation, addresses potential voters in Taholah, Wash. on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. Sharp traveled to 28 Native tribes in 10 days to encourage Native Americans to vote on Nov. 6.

Making history, and repeating it

Fawn Sharp drives quickly. Her car glides along the curves of a road weaving through the thick, western Washington forest, and there’s a practiced ease in her maneuvering.

“When you're under a great deal of pressure,” she says with both hands gripping the wheel. “You can do one of two things: You can be consumed like dry paper under fire, or you can get like steel under fire and pressure, and just get stronger.”

She says that’s how tribes have survived. On her way to a rally with the Hoh tribe near the town of Forks, she spoke with the quick certainty of someone who’s said these words many times before. 

“We've been under a great deal of annihilation and assault, and this isn't new to us,” she said. The Quinault and other Northwest tribes have long been at the forefront of the battle over expanded indigenous rights.

We've been under a great deal of annihilation and assault, and this isn't new to us.
— Fawn Sharp

The First American Project is not the first movement of its kind. Sharp drew inspiration from Bob Whitener, a past executive director of the Squaxin Island Tribe, who’d suggested to her that they use an older model of political action to unite tribes across Washington. In the years leading up to the 2000 election, he and a small group of other Native leaders met to discuss the future of their nations, just like tribal leaders are doing now. 

Back then, though, they were fighting just one person: Washington state Sen. Slade Gorton. 

“It’s hard for people now to remember what it was like with Senator Gorton,” Whitener says. Overall, he characterizes the Republican’s nearly 20-year reign in the 80's and 90's as a continual attack on tribal sovereignty across the nation. Over the course of those decades in office, Gorton expanded his local disagreements with Washington tribes into support for federal measures that tribes nationally saw as a blow to their right to sovereignty. 

There hadn’t yet been well-known movements that forged inter-tribal bonds on large scales, like Standing Rock in North Dakota. In Washington, the largest coalition representing tribal interest has long been the Washington Indian Gaming Association, which focuses on tribal economies and tribe-owned casinos. Politicians weren’t seeking tribal support to the extent that they do now. And outsiders knew little about the issues tribes faced. 

“It was very clear that we had to do something more drastic or we’d end up with another six years of Slade,” Whitener says.

Leaders of tribes across the state — Quinault President Joe DeLaCruz, Jamestown Tribe Council Chairperson and President of NCI Ron Allen, Nisqually tribe member and fisheries activist Billy Frank Jr. and Squaxin Island Executive Director Whitener — decided that to tackle this issue, they had to do it together as the First American Education Project. So much was at stake: If they didn’t get Gorton out of office on the first try, they feared that he’d retaliate with another bill aimed at financially strangling them. 

Russell Lehman, the campaign director of the First American Education Project, summarizes the reluctance of some tribal leaders to join the group like this: “I’m not going to fuck with the man [because] the man is going to fuck with me if we lose.” 

Fawn Sharp rallies Native vote
Potential voters and Quinault Indian Nation leadership rally in Taholah, Wash. on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. Fawn Sharp, President of the Quinault Indian Nation, traveled to 28 tribes in 10 days to encourage Native Americans to vote on Nov. 6.

Statewide, many tribes lacked a history of being involved in non-Native politics, but after some convincing, they arrived at a consensus. They toured Washington much like Sharp has, speaking to Native voters who’d long been ignored. They ran ads against Gorton. They also took the opportunity to educate voters statewide about the issues tribes grapple with — hence the “education” in their title.

And they won. In 2000, Maria Cantwell beat Gorton by 2,229 votes. Jamestown Council Chairperson Ron Allen says that without the mobilization of the Native vote, the sliver of support that edged her towards victory wouldn’t have been possible.

“We were the ones who got her across the finish line,” he says.  

But when Gorton left, many tribes took a step back. The war was over. They could go home. The desire to keep the First American Education Project afloat dissipated and the project went into hibernation. 

“We ended because we were successful — who would have ever thought that was the case?” Lehman says.  

Sharp has every intention to keep this from happening. Inter-tribal political action, she says, is the future of tribes and how they operate in politics. 

And participants in the last project, like Lehman, hope that bringing the First American Project back permanently will show that tribal support isn’t an afterthought among many other endorsements but rather a monumental endorsement in and of itself. Many leaders of the First American Education Project learned what Fawn Sharp is learning now: Tribes can be a strong political force, if they come together under a singular goal. 

As Nisqually activist Billy Frank Jr. wrote in 2003, “We breathe the same air. We drink the same water. We are poisoned by the same pollution.” Defeating outside threats together is a goal “that demands consistent effort and integrity.”

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Fawn Sharp, President of the Quinault Indian Nation, center, greets Hoh River tribal leadership in Forks, Wash. on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. Sharp traveled to 28 Native tribes in 10 days to encourage Native Americans to vote on Nov. 6.

The state of the blueback

Politics are in Fawn Sharp’s blood. Although she was the first of her family to go to college and then law school, she grew up in the tribal office watching her mother work as an assistant to then-Quinault President Joe DeLaCruz. She says she could tell you what “treaty abrogation” meant at the age of eight. She knew that, somewhere far away, outside forces were trying to take away her tribe’s right to fish. 

And fishing was something she knew very, very well. Her grandfather used to bring her to his fishing ground along the Quinault river at four in the morning, where they’d check the gillnet he’d tied with rope from bank to bank, kept afloat by plastic “corks”. When the netting caught enough salmon, the corks would sink. Sharp knew a salmon haul would come next.

“We'd come around the corner and just the idea, are we going to see a sunken cork?” Sharp says. 

Just like many other Quinaults, she comes from a fishing family. So when she held her first Quinault membership meeting in November 2006 following her March election, she was not surprised to learn that one of the tribe’s chief concerns was about the dwindling blueback. 

“The fishermen talked about it, the grandmas talked about it, the ones who cooked salmon, blueback, for funerals, just everyone was talking about the state of our blueback,” she says. “And once the conversation started, I took that very seriously. ”

The tribe’s staff of scientists found a host of reasons that could account for the decline of blueback, including well-known threats like logging. But they also told her about spikes in ocean temperature and acidification, as well as the effects of melting glaciers nearby. She was told that fixing logging practices at the source would not be enough.

Bringing back the blueback would come down to nothing less than solving a global crisis: climate change.

Klayton Sheldon
Klayton Sheldon, 12, stands along the road during a rally with the Hoh River tribe in Forks, Wash. on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. Fawn Sharp, President of the Quinault Indian Nation, traveled to 28 tribes in 10 days to encourage Native Americans to vote on Nov. 6.

The following year, she delivered her first state of the nation at Quinault’s annual general council meeting, where she declared her intention to make climate change a tribal focus moving forward. It didn’t go over well.

“I received a great deal of criticism as a first-year tribal president wanting to address an issue when there were so many things happening locally,” Sharp says. “We had a casino that wasn't producing, we had general council meetings where not a single one of our enterprises was generating any profit and there was a lot of internal turmoil in our administration.”  

The key after that first backlash, she says, has been connection. She’s talked it out with family members like her great uncle. 

“He's been a long-term fisherman,” Sharp says. “We all come from fishing families, we all come from a place where we love our clam chowder, we love baking salmon on a cedar stick outside at birthdays and weddings. So I think having the ability to relate the effects of climate change to [his] life as a Quinault citizen... it becomes an easier conversation.”

But a series of unfortunate events at Quinault made this work easier for her too. Suddenly, it wasn’t so hard to convince tribe members that the impacts of climate change were real, and close to home.

Sharp had to declare multiple states of emergency due to environmental concerns, like rising waters that breached Taholah’s protective seawall and have forced the town to make plans for relocation. Through it all, Sharp found ways to connect these events to climate change in public statements. 

“I didn't hesitate to bring it in [to conversation] when something would happen,” she says. “I always related things back to climate change, any time there was an opportunity.”

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Fawn Sharp, President of the Quinault Indian Nation, addresses potential voters in Taholah, Wash. on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. Sharp traveled to 28 tribes in 10 days to encourage Native Americans to vote on Nov. 6.

Turning tides

A little over 2,500 people live in the Quinault Indian Nation. It’s possible Sharp already knew every single one of her constituents before she ran. So before this year, Sharp had never led a campaign like this. She’d attended conferences of the tribes, spoken about climate change, but she’d never talked to statewide voters door-to-door. 

While Sharp feels that tribal interest in combating climate change has increased in the past decade, it’s still not something tribes address consistently. She’d attempted to rally supporters for a carbon-cutting initiative before joining the carbon fee’s coalition, but found difficulty in getting tribes enthusiastic without concrete legislation in hand.

Daniel Sharp bows head
Daniel Malvini II, 14, bows his head in prayer during a rally in Taholah, Wash. on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. Daniel's mother, Fawn Sharp, President of the Quinault Indian Nation, traveled to 28 tribes in 10 days to encourage Native Americans to vote on Nov. 6.

At the same time, this opportunity to fight climate change in a tangible way is one that she’s been waiting for since her first state of the nation speech in 2007. Once the initiative was solidly planned (and ten percent of the carbon fee’s profits were promised to tribes battling effects of climate change), she found it much easier to get tribes behind it. The project had legs. 

The last time Washington tribes attempted to harness political power on this scale, they ousted a hostile politician who threatened sovereign rights, and they did so by the slimmest of margins. This time, they’re challenging a better-funded opposition and attempting to set a local example for how to tackle a global crisis.

And the race in 2018 is just as close: A Crosscut/Elway poll in October showed that voters were split on the carbon fee. Like last time, the Native vote could prove to be the tipping point. And Fawn Sharp is ready.     

“I've been waiting for this conversation and opportunity for a decade,” she says. “And here it is.”

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Fawn Sharp wants Native voices to shake up politics