No Healing Without Indigenous Leadership

I remember driving with a young, white homeless man who often worked on boats during the Westport fishing season and was complaining about tribal members being able to fish out of season. I explained how important it was for Native people to have access to their traditions and traditional food sources. Then, he commented on how unfair he thought it was that tribal members sometimes receive cash payments from their tribe. While this is not true for most tribal governments in the region, I commented; “I wonder what it would be like to be part of a culture that valued sharing wealth instead of accumulating it all. I wonder what it would be like for you to get what you needed, just because you were alive and deserved to be cared for.” I remember he stopped short and looked at me for a moment. “Yeah. That would be cool.” 

Manifest destiny has led to the continued genocide of Native peoples in this country. And it has not turned out so well for poor whites either. If the tents lining riverbanks and the high percentages of homeless people in our towns is any indication, poor whites and poor Natives have ended up abandoned in a Western society that does not care if they live or die. Poor whites were often promised land, but it was Weyerhaeuser and companies like it who got most of it. And, now that our labor is not needed, we have a hard time getting even employment. 

The dominant cultural response to the crises of homelessness and poverty is generally to blame poor people for being poor. As more and more people end up on the streets, we open more and more jails and prisons. Public forums are quick to say that “druggies don’t deserve help,” “they should just leave town,” and “why don’t they all just die?” Local governments often oppose any social supports, whether it is harm reduction like needle exchanges or housing projects. Social services can be spread so thin that it takes forever to get any kind of help– whether treatment, housing, or anything in between. 

As I have navigated these social services and systems with people I love and care for in Grays Harbor, I have noticed the ways that First Nations in this region have stepped up for all people. Even though local tribes are criminally underfunded and the U.S. government has not made good on treaty rights, and even though health care and treatment and resources are woefully inadequate for tribal members and non tribal members in this region, sometimes the only care available is funded by Native nations. The only treatment center in the county that accepts medicare funding is run by the Squaxin Island Tribe. Northwest Indian Treatment Center is also the only treatment program I know of that incorporates native wisdom and trauma based healing. Shoalwater Bay’s chemical dependency program, before the pandemic, was one of the few ways I could get anyone, white or Native, signed up for treatment beds for many years. The Quinault Indian Nation is proposing to put in a treatment center with multiple resources in Aberdeen, a program that would revolutionize access to healing in this community, and they are proposing to fund it themselves. This is not to dismiss any of the other agencies in town that are working to make a difference, but I do have a great deal of gratitude for the resources that Indian Country so often shares so generously with the community. 

I am also grateful for the ways that the Quinault Indian Nation and many other tribes have advocated for the land itself– taking on a lengthy lawsuit to restore salmon habitat on our waterways, opposing dams, opposing oil trains that posed a threat both to our communities and the land itself. They have led the way in discussing sea level rise and sustainable ways to live on this land that belongs to them. Northwest Indian Treatment Center teaches its graduates how to grow and use native and healing plants, information that some graduates now use on our farm. Small businesses like Jean Ramos’ Tribal SovereigNDN Tea bring healing plants to the community and teach us how to use them. 

No one can live in a community like this one– plagued by poverty, job loss, landlessness, addiction– and not see that we are in deep need of healing. And at the root of our suffering lies a system that values profit over people’s lives, over the land itself, a system that set in motion the destruction of indigenous lives and culture. Yet, hundreds of years later, they are still here and still fighting for life.

I want to offer my thanks to the indigenous people and tribal governments of this region. Under incredibly hard circumstances and with all the odds against them, they have managed to forge paths toward healing. I know that their efforts have been incredibly instrumental toward my own healing, as a non indigenous person. 

I cannot quite imagine what is next here on this land. I follow and root for land back movements. I am in awe of the water protectors of Standing Rock and their fight for the water that is indeed life. I am incredibly grateful for the leadership of women like President Fawn Sharp. I do what I can to support my many homeless friends and loved ones, white and brown and black and Native. I hope we can find some way toward healing for us all. 

I do know that we will not find it without the leadership and daring of Indian Country. And I am profoundly grateful. 

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