|Dr. Liebow joined us for a live interview on February 10. The following is a transcript from that interview.
Question: How bad is the decline of salmon in the Skagit River?
Ed Liebow: Over the course of the last 100 years, the decline has been very substantial. Down by 80 percent. However, the last few years, maybe dating back ten years, there has been a remarkable resurgence in some of the species. You have to appreciate that the Skagit is quite unusual in that it hosts five different salmon species coho, sockeye, king or chinook, chum, and the steelhead (which is actually a seagoing trout related to the salmon). The last several years there have been some of the best runs in recent memory. One reason for the improvement is there have been cooperative efforts on the part of the electrical utility operating the dams in the upper watershed to regulate the flow of water in a fish-friendly way, along with research by the three Indian tribes in the watershed and by state and federal scientists.
Question: What was causing the decrease in salmon?
Ed Liebow: This is very complex. It is a combination of factors. The dams, which altered the flow of water in the river; logging in the upper watershed, which caused silt to run into the streams and disrupt spawning grounds; farming in the lower watershed, which to protect the agricultural fields, levees, and dikes were built but cut the fish off from the river. Another problem is urban development this is an attractive place for retirement and vacation homes. Also over-fishing. And we are beginning to understand that small changes in the temperature of the ocean water significantly affect the food chain on which salmon depend when they are in the ocean. Salmon are at the top of the food chain when they are in ocean and eat herring and smelt. When the temperature goes up, the phytoplankton prosper. That means the herring and smelt numbers grow, and the salmon have a lot food and are happy. Just so you know, some of the salmon from the Skagit River swim all the way to Japan and back!
Question: How was the decline in salmon affecting Native Americans?
Ed Liebow: It is a source of great distress. Economically, the Native Americans in the Skagit Watershed depend heavily on having fish to sell. Culturally, the Indian people are so closely identified with the salmon that as the salmon have declined, this has sent shockwaves through the whole culture. It is a threat to the very survival of the people.
Question: How did you get involved with Native American cultures?
Ed Liebow: When I was a boy growing up in Chicago, I lived in a neighborhood to which many Indian people were relocated as a result of a government policy that aimed to assimilate reservation Indians by moving them to cities. So many of my friends growing up in the big city were Indian kids from Arizona. In high school, I took an anthropology class and discovered a way of talking about culture that helped me understand the mosaic of different groups that make up cities like Chicago. So I studied anthropology in college and then moved to Arizona to attend graduate school, where I could see close-up where my childhood friends had come from. So that's how I got involved.
Question: Could you explain your job? What does it mean to be an anthropologist?
Ed Liebow: An anthropologist is a researcher who collects information about people's view of their own experiences in life by talking to them directly in their language and telling their stories in their own words. So I spend nearly all of my time interviewing people. For example, this past weekend, I was out on the Quinault Indian reservation where we are also doing some fisheries work. Then on Saturday, I was interviewing Somali refugees for another project. If the Native Americans don't speak English (or the Somalis), I need a translator.
The local Indian language is called Lashootseed. Not very many Indian people still speak this language fluently. Together, some of our interviews have been to work with elders, who are keepers of the language, to build a vocabulary and keep the language from dying.
Question: With the Indians, what are the stories mostly about?
Ed Liebow: The stories are mostly about places that figure in their personal and community history, family members and their experiences, either at home or away, and sometimes the stories we have been collecting deal specifically with fishing. Those stories involve places to fish, how to cook a fish, how to catch a fish good strategies and who your fishing partners are, conflict with non-Indians over fishing rights, etc.
Question: Why are oral histories important?
Ed Liebow: Oral histories are important in this setting because much of the Native point of view is not written down anywhere. History generally depends on records that have been created at the time of events that they describe like diaries, letters, photographs, interviews by journalists and much of the Native perspective was not a part of the record to which outsiders like myself have had any access. So the oral accounts of the remembered past become a very important set of additions of our understanding of local history.
Question: Is it hard to do oral histories?
Ed Liebow: You have to be a good, active listener! You have to be interested in letting people tell you their own story and not the one you think you want to hear. You have to encourage them to be specific, with the narrator telling details about the people and places. For example, rather than saying "We fish the river in the summer" or "I can remember every day after school going fishing," I would want people to tell me the grade they were in, where they went fishing, and how they got there from school. One woman told us that in her family, her mother was the fisher, and the school-bus driver had instructions to drop this girl off wherever the bus driver saw her mom's car parked by the side of the road that day.
Question: How do you get them to talk about stuff?
Ed Liebow: You need to explain before the interview takes place: who you are, what the purpose of the interview is, what the general subject matter is, and how this information will be used. Sometimes people are a little worried about telling stories that just anybody can hear. Here in the Pacific Northwest, among Native peoples, stories, dances, songs all belong to a particular family, and you need their permission to use those stories. So getting a narrator to talk about stuff requires permission first. We actually get written permission. We ask people to sign a form that says that they understand where this information will be made available. And they are offered the chance to put limits on how the information will be used. For example, families have told us that we could use the stories, but not in a book or record that will make you money. In other cases, because fishing is such a politically hot topic, people have asked us to send them a copy of the written transcript the text version of the interview so they can look at it before they give us permission to use the interview material. With all of that said, getting permission ahead of time, it has been our experience that people are flattered to tell us their stories. All you have to do is show interest, and people are happy to share their stories. Being an outsider, it takes time and I try to earn people's trust by being around for many years. Also, any time I start working with people who do not know me, I begin by looking for people who I do know and who are willing to vouch for me and will say "It's okay, you can talk to Ed." The word we sometimes use in this work for people like that is a "gatekeeper" a person who's job it is to protect the privacy of their communities. The first thing anthropologists do when they come into a community that is new to us is to meet with these gatekeepers and get to know them to earn their confidence. Nowadays, what that means is doing things on behalf of the community. For example, for the Skagit watershed, we have invited some Native American high school kids to work with us as interviewers-in-training because we know that the tribes are interested in expanding their own cultural programs. So professional training for the next generation of tribal members is important, and a service we can offer. We also lent some volunteers to the planning department from the Swimonish. These volunteers helped the planning department do field surveys of creek beds that the tribe wants to restore as salmon-bearing streams. In order for us, as scientists, to get something of value from the community, we know that we must first put some value into the community. That is how you build trust. Too many times, anthropologists have "ripped off" the Indian people by taking their stories and publishing them to promote ourselves and all they (the Native peoples) get is their privacy invaded.
Question: Do you interview kids?
Ed Liebow: Not on this project.
Question: What are the Indian reservations like?
Ed Liebow: In the Skagit, they are small towns that are close by to little-bit-bigger towns. So the small reservation town has maybe 500 people living in it, but it's right across the bridge from a town that has 5,000 people living in it. There is a lot of open space on the reservations, which is basically woods and beach. And, in two of the three reservations in the Skagit, way off away from the Native American settlement taking advantage of highways that cross the edge of the reservation, there are tribal stores. The Swinomish reservation is right on the saltwater, so you can see fishing boats in front yards. The Upper Skagit reservation, like its name sounds, is upriver and it is carved out of the woods adjacent to a railroad town that was built up to ship logs out to the coastal ports, where they were then taken to Seattle and San Francisco to be turned into boats and buildings. Logging was at its height through the 1960s but it has declined since the late 1970s. The third reservation, Sauk-Suiattle, is a little postage stamp of land that is on a highway, a couple of miles from a small 1,000-person town. It is right at the base of these gorgeous, snow-covered mountains. It's a very small area that has room for about 20 houses and the community center. It's a tiny leftover piece of a much larger area of land that the tribe used to use.
Question: What are some of the environmental issues involved with this project?
Ed Liebow: There are two of them. One of them is habitat restoration and the other one is harvest management. Habitat restoration is complex because of the life cycle of the salmon they go from freshwater to saltwater and then back to freshwater. The different species have very different patterns within this general cycle. Some hang around in the freshwater until they are teenagers and then head out to sea. Other species leave the freshwater just as fast as they can and then hang out in the near-shore estuaries in the saltwater and bulk up before they head out to the open ocean. So where do you think the most attractive vacation homes are? They are on the oceanfront. So all this development has destroyed this near-shore rearing habitat some estimates say as much as 90 percent where these little fish like to hang out to buff up before heading to the ocean. For the other fish who hang out in the freshwater as they mature, they need trees that have fallen in the water we call it "large woody debris" that gives whirlpools and quiet places as well as faster places in the river so the little fish can be protected from their predators. But this debris gets in the way of river navigation and makes flooding problems worse, so people have been clearing the wooded debris. We only recently learned that this is a problem for the small salmon, so we are now working at recruiting woody debris and restoring the near-shore saltwater rearing areas. The tribes, in fact, have this one project (Deepwater Slough) where they swapped land with the state of Washington and took away the flood-control dikes to let the shoreline area go back to its natural wetland condition to increase the habitat available for the juvenile chinooks. "Harvest management" is trying to get people to catch just enough fish that the fish population can stand. "Escapement" is the word we use to describe the numbers of fish that HAVE to be allowed to swim back to spawning grounds before any fish can be caught. Restoring and growing the fish population have been very important goals in harvest management. Those are the two main environmental issues: restoring the habitat and making sure there are fish in that habitat.
Question: Greetings from Canada it's Maureen Lynch! What advice do you have for participants who are interested in starting a similar project in their community?
Ed Liebow: Hi Maureen! (Maureen is a community organizer who worked with us in the Skagit watershed this past year.) Nice to hear from you. I would say that the themes of watershed management and community involvement in science are themes that communities all over North America can rally around. All it takes is a little bit of planning around ideas of who would be good to talk to, encouraging those people to look through their own private family historical materials diaries, letters, photo albums deciding what of that they would be willing to make public, and setting up times to talk with them about their own family histories. It helps to have a local institution like a library or a museum that is willing to serve as a storage place. One of the advantages of using a library or a museum is that there is then a knowledgeable person who can make sure the materials are used properly and not for commercial purposes. History should not be bought and sold but for the community.
Question: What advice would you give to students who want to be anthropologists?
Ed Liebow: You can start learning early on with world geography or cultural studies or social studies classes. Many high schools also offer anthropology classes too. Many communities have museums of the local culture and you can volunteer for leading school tours or working on writing projects. As you think about going to college, there are anthropology departments in almost every college and university in North America. Community colleges, too. You will need to take lots of classes to be an anthropologist, and it is important to learn foreign languages, and it helps to be an active listener something you can start on right now. You can also do oral histories of your own families to start your career today. Teachers: you can find more information about teaching anthropology in your classroom with the American Anthropological Association at www.aaanet.org.
Thanks for allowing me to take part in this interview.