TOPICS > Science

Quileute ‘Twilight’ Tribe Deals With Rising Sea Levels That Threaten Way of Life

November 26, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Located west of Olympic National Park, La Push, Wash., is idyllic at first glance. But the beauty of the place is matched by danger and vulnerability. Located at sea level, La Push lies directly in a flood and tsunami zone. Hari Sreenivasan reports on how the Quileute tribe culture is adapting to new climate challenges.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

HARI SREENIVASAN: To much of the world, the Quileute are known as the Clan of Shape-Shifting Werewolves in the popular book and movie series, “Twilight.”

ACTOR: We have to protect the tribe before it’s too late.

ANN PENN CHARLES, Quileute Tribe: It’s brought us a lot of national attention. And, you know, there’s still people that are just so amazed when they come out here to visit us. Whoa, they’re really here, you know, there are really Quileute people.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tourists may come here to see the imaginary werewolves, but what they find is the real story of a people who have endured.

On the beaches of La Push, Wash., Ann Penn Charles — or Ms. Ann, as she’s known — is passing on the tradition of fishing for smelts to her grandchildren.

She tells stories and sings songs in the ancient Quileute language of a tribe that has relied on these waters for centuries.

As fishermen and whalers, the Quileute have always considered themselves stewards of the coast, says Chris Morganroth, a Quileute elder.

CHRIS MORGANROTH, Quileute elder: It’s been a great quality of life since the time of our beginning here, that all the things that were made available to us by the Creator, all the salmon, the cedar trees, just a wide variety of different life that’s here on the coast.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Hundreds of years ago, the tribe adapted to shifts in the weather by migrating within their expansive territory that stretched thousands of miles across the Olympic Peninsula. But now their village is just one square mile.

In 1855, the Quileute signed a treaty giving up most of their land to the federal government in exchange for fishing rights. They were restricted to a small reservation bounded by the Pacific Ocean and the QuileuteRiver on one side and Olympic National Park on the other.

But now even that land is threatened. La Push sits right at sea level. And the tribe’s dependence on the ocean leaves them vulnerable, says Morganroth.

CHRIS MORGANROTH: As the climate changes, as the environment changes, we have to change with it in order to survive as we lose that quality of life.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In recent years, flooding and erosion have destroyed vital hunting and fishing grounds and homes in the low-lying areas of the reservation. Ms. Ann lives just across from the marina.

ANN PENN CHARLES: 2006 was the biggest flood. I have neighbors that live on the side of me and by the time I got one of the elders out of her house, the water was all the way to the kneecaps of my leg.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Researchers at the University of Washington have been studying the climate behind the higher waters here. They say that while this region always gets a lot of rain, rising temperatures over the last century mean that there is more intense rainfall in winter. Instead of snow that melts slowly, the extra bursts of rain lead to flooding.

Pacific Northwest rainfall now exceeds the global average by about 25 percent. Those rising temperatures have also melted glaciers. The nearby Olympic Mountains have lost about one-third of their mass in the last 30 years alone.

That water, added to warming oceans around the world, will continue to increase global sea levels, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They expect an average rise of 19 inches by the year 2100. The result is higher storm surges and flooding in coastal areas.

La Push is also in a tsunami risk zone. The tribal school and elder center, located next to the beach, are particularly at risk. It’s a threat that tribal elders like Morganroth fear has gotten worse.

CHRIS MORGANROTH: Because of the water rising in the ocean, a wave that’s created by that tsunami is probably going to reach farther into the rivers. And people upstream in these rivers are going to be affected from it, from a tsunami. And let’s say if it happened 100 years ago, it was probably not as devastating as it might be.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Scientists warn that cool water animals will face increasing stress from warming waters and shifting currents. Native fishermen here have already seen many of the usually marine fish and mammals moving further north, says Tony Foster, chairman of the Quileute tribe.

TONY FOSTER, Quileute Tribe: We’re a fishing community. We don’t see as much smelt as we used to have. And what’s going to happen if, you know, we have this happening with the salmon happening with our seals, our sea lions and the whales, it’s going to be a difficult time for all of us if we start losing that, which was a way of live, our livelihood and the way we’ve done things.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But the Quileute are survivors and they are preparing. An important part of that survival is more land. The Quileute have been fighting for more than 50 years to get back part of the land that they ceded, most of it on high ground that could keep them safe.

In February of this year, they finally won. Congress overwhelmingly voted to transfer 785 acres of Olympic National Park back to the tribe.

The tribal council has recently begun meetings with federal agencies officials to discuss details of reclaiming the land. Foster says the larger land base will allow tribal members living elsewhere to return to the community. But relocation won’t happen immediately.

TONY FOSTER: Well, of course, there’s many different challenges we face. I mean, money one is an issue because it’s going to be difficult to pay for all of this. I mean, it’s going to be a long, drawn-out process.

And this is still new to us, you know, on what we can and cannot do. So and that’s what we’re trying to figure out, you know. We’re trying to put everybody’s heads together to make this thing become a reality.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Her tribe’s preparations give Ms. Ann hope for the future.

ANN PENN CHARLES: We always have dreams that our village is going to be a lot better for our children and our grandchildren. And let’s just all work together and move forward to take care of what we got now.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And that means the Quileute’s traditions will continue for generations to come.