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James Lawrence Joseph, Sauk-Suiattle Tribe, Natural Resources Director

Interview with Sauk-Suiattle Tribal Elder
by Bryce Little, Earthwatch Teacher, North Carolina

Today we interviewed James Lawrence Joseph, Natural Resources Director of the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe at the tribe's Social Service Center. I was the notetaker for the interview.

Sara Breslow, the project co-leader started the interview with the lead question "Can you tell us a little about yourself?" Joseph needed little prompting from there. He spoke at length about his tribe's traditions, and the teachings passed down over generations about protecting the river and its fish.

Joseph explained that the name for his tribe means "river people" and that children in his culture are forbidden to run up and down the stream just anywhere. "That's the home of the salmon," he said. "That's their home. If you walk in there, you'll find the salmon lays ots eggs in that water, and buries them under rocks where you walk. We have to take care of that fish."

Joseph recalled his grandfather's saying, "If somebody came into your house and messed in your house, hurt your children, you'd get mad, you'd want to defend that territory because it's your place of living — and there's where you have to look how the salmon feels when you walk into its home. You don't disturb its home. They don't have a voice to speak for themselves. They can't say, 'Help, people don't run over my children.' Yet people run over them."

as James Lawrence Joseph recalls wisdom his grandfather passed on to him.

Joseph also noted that the old-timers in his tribe regularly checked the rivers and monitored where the salmon were returning to keep track of which creeks were going to have more fish. They would go to those places. They might take one or two fish for meals, but they would not overharvest by taking all the salmon. "The people had that respect for the salmon."

Joseph expressed concern that the salmon did not seem to be returning. "So I have a dilemma when I sit here and think about the salmon. Where has it gone? What is the problem with it? I'm willing to acknowledge the home of the people, fish people, where they live in that river, where they put their little children, respect the plants and shrubs that protect that fish, that produce flies, bugs, and insects, whatever they live on. And the decaying salmon serves its purpose too, when they die, rot, and break up into pieces. Small fish get to eat the parts of that."

Joseph explained that he had a big problem with the people that wade into the water to fish, because they step on the salmon eggs. "I can't make a rule against them because it's the white man's law that allows them to go fishing. But these are some of the things my culture would have forbidden, and it's not forbidden by the white culture."

He does not see any easy solution especially with the increasing numbers of people coming to the valley. "I can voice my opinion, but people have to change within themselves."

Photos courtesy of Earthwatch