Ethics in Action – Creating Solutions


The author, left, with the executive director for the Okanagon Nation Alliance, Pauline Terbasket.

Treaty negotiating between the U.S. and Native nations ended before the 1900s, but this past week I was witness to a component of treaty renegotiating that tribes can be a part of. Technically, it was a public education event providing material for key decision-making pertaining to the Columbia River Treaty, ratified in 1964. The treaty, when written, did not include input from Canadian First Nations or U.S. tribes, probably because Indigenous peoples along the Columbia River and its tributaries vehemently opposed dams being put in. Tribes were concerned about dams affecting now-protected fish species, including salmon, lamprey, bull trout, and sturgeon—all staple components for subsistence diets. In December 2017, Canada’s prime minister and the U.S. president met and agreed to renegotiate terms of the Columbia River Treaty, starting early this year. Currently, the treaty includes hydroelectric power and flood water management provisions, but as one speaker from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Energy Keepers said, “What the treaty talks about is just as important as what is doesn’t.” Mounting pressure to address the river’s ecology from tribes holding established trust relationships with the U.S. and who’ve been convening talks since 2014, including more recent input from state legislators and federal natural resource co-management agencies, are likely the reason for action finally being taken.

The one-day conference was entitled, “One River, Ethics Matter” and leaves the interpretation of ethics for tribes and utility consumers up to the audience. Have you ever tried to come to an agreement over some commodity that ideally is shared between equals? Have you ever been a party in such negotiations with little to no voice? I was part of a group that went through a case study exactly like this real-world application of renegotiating a treaty. Ours involved mock tribes forced to compete for access to resources that provide an economic foundation for significantly impoverished communities, rural irrigators also living off the land, power companies serving large urban areas, private natural resource NGOs concerned about ecology, and a mining corporation willing to give money to those offering the highest price or easiest buy off. Even with the mock tribes holding their own negotiations, we couldn’t reach a settlement that was inexpensive and up to environmental standards. Similar to my own after thoughts on the case study, this conference, and in particular the executive director for the Upper Columbia United Tribes, begged the question, “Where do our priorities lie?” It is hard to redress the past and its formidable mistakes and fraudulent injustices, but “why can we search for water on Mars and not use available technology to send salmon over a dam to go up or down a river?”

The tragedy of the commons is only a tragedy when interpersonal/business relationships do not operate with the best intentions. The tribal chairman for the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho emphasized that the issue’s focus cannot be only headwater benefit or downstream collaborations. The goal should not be “control,” which is impossible, as we do not control nature. We do not control each other either, but common ground is vital. The executive director for the Okanagon Nation Alliance in Canada, Pauline Terbasket, explained this beautifully: “The sacred responsibility to respect the water requires social movement and organization. That is the only action that does justice for all because we all need water!”

Water is, after all, the universal solvent.

Celina Gray (Blackfeet and Little Shell Chippewa) is a student at Salish Kootenai College and the mother of twins.

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