Moses Squeochs and Rebecca Hawk
Moses Squeochs is the general council chairman of the fourteen Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. He told his story, "View from the Yakama Nation," to Rebecca Hawk, the tribe's regional air-quality coordinator. We talked with Moses and Rebecca about their lives and work.
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Tell us about the Yakama Nation and your roles.
Moses Squeochs: American scientists say our people go back 15,000 years, but our elders say our tribe was here long before that. Our territory comprises almost one and a half million acres in south-central Washington, with the Cascades serving as our western boundary and the Columbia Basin in the middle and to our east. This territory was ceded to us by the U.S. government in the treaty of 1855. This is God's country. It is beautiful and very diverse. We have 600,000 acres of forest, 400,000 acres of shrub steppe, rivers, and a wonderful climate. Our people have rights for hunting, gathering, fishing, and grazing on over 11 million acres, roughly one third of the state of Washington. I'm part of a small elected executive council that serves the role of what you might call the presidency in governing the 10,000 members of the tribe.
Rebecca Hawk: I'm actually a descendent of the Iroquois people. My role as a pollution-control specialist allows me to cross a very important communication bridge between Western science and indigenous knowledge. I also coordinate a Yakama-led collaboration for representation of the indigenous nations of North America concerning global transport of air pollutants.
What can you tell us about your experiences growing up?
Moses: I was born in Bickleton Ridge in an ancient village of our band on the southern boundary of our reservation. I was born in the spring during a root-gathering camp and was named after the leader of the band—hence the name Squeochs. He was a horse trader, trapper, and hunter and also a guide and a religious leader. As a boy, I was taken to what we called a white man's school. I became very troubled and confused, because until then I was learning our traditional and religious ways. In school I became known as an "independent thinker." I was not quite as successful in the American school system as I could have been. I was a child between two worlds.
Rebecca: My father never had a strong connection to his heritage. He left his home as soon as he could. He ran away from a midwestern farm, which he felt was killing his spirit. He said he needed mountains and trees to survive. I grew up emphasizing the white part of myself. My father was proud of his Indian heritage, but other family members were not. When I approached them to learn the Indian side of our heritage, I was told to "let bygones be bygones." Despite that, I still had experiences that allowed me to learn some of the Indian way of life and interaction with the land. We spent whole summers when I was young living in a tent. My father and other people who came into my life taught me about fishing for salmon and hiking into the mountains to pick huckleberries. Of course I didn't know then the very critical and even sacred place these two activities hold in the Yakama culture. I consider it all part of the larger plan that I would eventually come to live and work among the Yakamas. And especially because we deal with such critical life- and culture-sustaining issues as air pollution and climate change.
What concerns the Yakamas most about global warming?
Moses: I was first exposed to climate change when I was in college at Central Washington University, majoring in geography. The issue is of fundamental importance. It is basic to us...it's about the land and the water. We are already seeing changes in the hydrological cycle here. The people say the water is not like it used to be. More flooding, and then in the summer it's barren and dry. And of course many people talk about the importance of fish to our people, which cannot be understated.
Rebecca: Fish are sacred. They are integral to sustenance and economics as well as to the people's cultural and religious practices. Climate change is affecting the abundance and quality of salmon. Already, because of dam construction, industry pollution, and other water-quality factors, anadromous fish in this region are endangered. Climate change will only create more complex alterations, further damaging the aquatic environment. Warming water temperatures threaten spawning, and the natural stream-flow regimes are altered because we have less snow and more rain, making it more difficult for juvenile salmon to get from fresh to salt water and more difficult for the adults to complete the migration to spawn in their natal streams.
How is the Yakama Nation responding?
Moses: Indigenous people have much to teach. We know how to manage natural resources. We can rely on our ancient knowledge base to protect the land and the resources necessary for quality of life.
Rebecca: Non-Indians talk about everything having a purpose, but they don't live it. By comparison, the indigenous peoples of this continent are tied to the physical environment from which they come. Living in one place—the same place—for centuries upon centuries defines a person's relationship to all things. People need to form a relationship with the environment. We are part of and sustained by an ecosystem. Some Americans think they control the ecosystem, but if climate change is teaching us anything, it's that the natural environment controls us in all ways. Non-Indians have exploited it for economic gain for four hundred years, but now we're paying a great price in our health, well-being, and economics.
What would you like people to know about the Yakama Nation?
Moses: We are a very capable people. We were nearly destroyed upon contact with Americans and afterward. I laugh when I hear people say we were "discovered." We experienced conflict, war, and disease, and our societal structure suffered, but it only diminished to a certain point, and since then we've been coming back as a people. We are now entering our sixth generation since the treaty was established. Our people are at a very important time in our history. It is up to us to determine our destiny and direction and our own sustainability. And we need Americans to understand our path. We must continue to practice our culture and recapture our language.
Rebecca: Yakamas are a wonderful, generous people. Their history is intrinsically linked to the environment, which I have cared deeply about since I was a child. They have a lot to teach us, and Moses was generous enough to tell me his story for this anthology. The written word is such a powerful medium. Your book seemed like a good place to start.
Any books you'd like to recommend?
Moses: I'm currently reading Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. All Americans should read it to get a better understanding of water usage and U.S.-Indian relations.
Rebecca: I just finished A Thousand Splendid Suns, the sequel to The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. I love stories of survival about people from different cultures.
As do we, and we're glad we can share the Yakama story in Thoreau's Legacy.