Earth Day Message from Jay Julius, W’tot lhem

The following message is shared by Jay Julius, W’tot lhem. Jay is the former Chairman of the Lummi Nation, a full-time fisherman and father, and the Founder and President of Se’Si’Le.  

The organization Se’Si’Le offers workshops, symposiums, forums, and direct-action campaigns that “bring people and organizations into a deeper and truer understanding of Indigenous histories and worldviews. [They] offer strategies for integrating ancestral knowledge into policies, projects, and partnerships with the will of right and respectful relations.” 

In 2022, Se’Si’Le hosted a workshop for Friends of the San Juans board and staff: Indigenous Worldviews and Perspectives. Jay’s ancestral wisdom and knowledge guide us in earnest action as we work to protect the land and waters of the Salish Sea, and all that call this place home.

Ey Kw’elhsh en-sela’Iexw 
{“Take good care of the elders”} 
By W’tot lhem (Jay Julius) 

I am here on Swa’lax (Orcas Island) with other members of our indigenous-led nonprofit Se’Si’Le (“Our Grandmother”) to work on our book, Right and Respectful Relations. It is good we are here where the Lummi people lived for countless generations back to the ancestral before-time of Xales (“the Transformer”) and where our Ancient Ones live on in sacred songs, oral histories, and in the spirit of place. Like other members of the Lummi Nation, I am often out on these waters in the company of our ancestors and with our elders scha’enexw (“the salmon”), qwe’lhol mechen (“the killer whales”), and all our other relations in Xw’ullemy (“the Salish Sea”).

We call them our elders because they are the ones who came first. We were the young and weak ones who could not survive without their generosity, their pity and compassion, and their spiritual strength. I sometimes wonder what a qwe’lhol mechen would say if they could speak about their two-legged relatives on the land. I believe they would ask us if we know we are destroying their home, their way of life, and are starving their families and driving them to extinction. I believe they would ask why we have forgotten an inviolable and sacred obligation we made with them long ago. 

The same is true for the scha’enexw who have been in these waters for thousands of years and once were so many in the streams it is said you could walk on their backs. scha’enexw  would remind us of our covenant, our promise to Salmon Woman. When we were starving, she came and said to our people, “I am Salmon Woman. I have many children. My children play in the oceans all around you. They follow me wherever I go and lead them. My children are beautiful, healthy, and their color glows like the sparkle of the sun off the waters surface.”1  Every year, our First Salmon Ceremony reminds the people to always respect Salmon Woman and her children. But the salmon people are disappearing, down almost 99% of what their numbers were in the Salish Sea just one hundred years ago. They, too, would ask if we have forgotten or forsaken our covenant with Salmon Woman. 

We have not forgotten or forsaken this sacred obligation, this covenant. Like our Xw’ullemy relatives, we, too, are living through a catastrophic disruption that arrived just six generations ago to our lands and waters, and that is driving our Xw’ullemy to a catastrophic ecological collapse. The salmon are disappearing from their ancestral waters from the Yukon River in Alaska, to the Frasier River in British Columbia, to the Columbia River, down the west coast to the Sacramento River and across the Bering Sea to the Russian Far East. We need to ask, and have answered, the question: According to what higher moral authority are these extinctions allowed, and what is the price to be paid by the Salmon Nations whose lifeway, cultural identity, and spirituality relies on our salmon relatives? 

Scientists will give you their theories for the precipitous decline of the salmon population. Politicians will talk about stakeholders, economic trade-offs, and constituents, while agencies will tell you how they are—at least in our view—managing salmon, along with the Southern Resident Killer Whales, to extinction. If that sounds harsh, it is because it is the hard reality: ecocide leading to extinction and, with it, genocide. Our salmon and orca relatives are being dishonored, along with the rights and promises made by the settler sovereign to the Salmon Nations of the Xw’ullemy just six generations ago. The First Peoples of the Xw’ullemy are awake to this reality. 

This betrayal of trust and broken promises is occurring now on the Lower Snake River. The urgent ecological, cultural and spiritual crisis on the Lower Snake River led Se’Si’Le in May of 2022 to request a letter from the Washington Catholic Conference. The letter, “Caring for Creation and the Common Good in the Lower Snake River Region,” signed by five Catholic Bishops, arrived on October 30, 2022. It was read at a public event by Archbishop Etienne during our International Indigenous Salmon Seas Summit. The letter, signed by all five Bishops of the Washington Catholic Conference, cites Pope Francis in his Laudato Si where he states: “It is essential to show special care for Indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners.” The Bishops’ letter draws on Pope Francis’ statement and places it in the context of the Lower Snake River dams: “We urge federal and state policy makers to develop and implement a holistic plan for the Lower Snake River region that seeks input from the Original Peoples of Washington State as principal dialogue partners.

These are good and necessary words, but are not sufficient in themselves to prevent the great dying of the salmon or the end of the Southern Resident Killer Whales. We appeal to state and federal politicians to honor the spirit and intent of the treaties by breaching the Lower Snake River dams and stand on the right side of history and on the moral high ground. They know and understand this is a matter of the survival of our lifeway and the spirit of our people. But, as in Matthew 13 in the Parable of the Sower, we find in them “hearts that are waxed gross, ears are dull of hearing, and eyes they have closed.” We have been, and are being, betrayed by descendants of those who made promises to our people in the name of every American.

We are all called upon to lift up and engage our resilience and our empathy with the hope that comes from reconnecting and working together. This is the moment and we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We must be strong before the struggle, moving together with hope in our hearts and our minds, guided by Xa xalh Xechnging, “our sacred obligation,”  to the forces that bring us together, to Mother Earth and all her children, to the Ancestors, and to all those yet unborn.

I will close with the words and feelings of a Lummi elder that I hope speaks to the deeper meaning of our spiritual struggle for our relatives, and to the sacred obligation of honoring the Creator by stewarding in right and respectful relations the Creation:

The Salmon People aren’t hardly here no more. We need to talk to them. We need you, Salmon People; the life-givers. You gave up your lives so we can live. It is important for our people, about who we really are. We sit in the lap of Mother Earth learning all there is to learn…not all at once, but built up over a lifetime, every day. We need to keep learning to never quit learning.
 — W’tot lhem is former Chairman of the Lummi Nation, a full-time fisher and father, and the Founder and President of Se’Se’Le. 
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image.jpeg
Photo: Lest we forget — An early 1900’s postcard showing 150,000 salmon on a cannery floor in Bellingham WA. 

Learn more about Friends' commitment to amplifying Indigenous wisdom here. 

Friends of the San Juans was vital for the San Juan Islands’ protection in 1979 and it is still vital today.

Mike and Susan Krieger

members, Orcas Island