Guest Opinion: COVID-19 impacts tribal natural resources management, traditions

Like communities across Washington state, treaty Indian tribes are coping with what we all hope are the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic that has disrupted every part of our daily lives, economies and traditions.

High rates of certain illnesses, combined with limited access to medical care, put tribal members at increased health risks due to COVID-19 and led tribes to take quick preventive action to close our reservation boundaries.

That came with a huge financial cost as we closed our casinos, resorts and other businesses that are the economic engines of our own and nearby communities. Tribes are among the top 10 employers in the state and most employees are non-Indian.

Like any sovereign government, the health and well-being of our members is the top priority of tribes, especially the most vulnerable – our elders. According to the American Indian Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles the recent top five infection rates nationwide would all be found in tribal nations if tribes were states.

Our economic problems were compounded with the collapse of the seafood market due to both COVID-19 and trade policy issues with China over new tariffs on shellfish such as geoduck. The giant clams harvested in western Washington are much loved in China and other Asian countries and fetch as much as $50 per pound.

Tribes quickly shut down most of their fisheries and delayed or canceled other fisheries. As restaurants closed, markets dried up for salmon, crab, shrimp and other species. Fish buyers were scarce and our fishermen were paid about half of normal prices.

In times like these we have come to rely more on ceremonial and subsistence harvests of fish and shellfish to feed our families and cultures. Even these limited fisheries have been difficult to conduct due to social distancing requirements. These fisheries provide important nutrition when

many tribal members have limited options for groceries or are furloughed or unemployed. Many tribes are distributing fish, elk and other foods to members unable to go shopping.

We’ve also had to modify some aspects of our ceremonies to deal with the impacts of COVID-19.

My tribe, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, holds a First Salmon Ceremony and Blessing of the Fleet in May each year. It is our largest community celebration. We welcome the salmon with drums, songs and prayers. We invite our neighbors to share this food that has always sustained us and we pray for the safety of our fishermen and their boats.

Like many tribes, we had to make some changes this year, but were able to prepare salmon meals and deliver them to tribal members in their homes.

In South Sound, the Puyallup Tribe held a socially distanced First Salmon Ceremony on the Puyallup River waterfront on Memorial Day weekend.

Most of those who attended watched the ceremony from their cars as the first salmon was brought to shore in a tribal canoe. Those outside wore masks and practiced social distancing. Salmon was cooked on site and passed out drive-through style along with camas bulbs and other traditional foods. The ceremony was live-streamed on Facebook for those who couldn’t attend.

These changes we have had to make to our ceremonies because of the pandemic in no way lessen their importance. In fact, they remind us just how important they are. From smallpox to tuberculosis, tribes have dealt with many diseases over the years and we will survive COVID-19 as well. One way is with the ceremonies that preserve our culture, honor our natural resources and enable us to survive as a people.

Lorraine Loomis is chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. See

More in Opinion

Being Frank: Salmon recovery will take more than money

There’s no doubt about it. The Biden administration is working hard to… Continue reading

Guest Opinion: Didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions?

January is usually the month that begins with effusive pledges, generally known… Continue reading

Bertha Cooper
Think About It: Looking on the bright side

The best part of this new year or that which we are… Continue reading

Don Brunell
Guest Opinion: Time to replace state’s long term care law

The first order of business when Washington state’s Legislature convenes in Olympia… Continue reading

Linda B. Myers
From the Back Nine: Survival plan

Some people face the future with joy. Others — like me —… Continue reading

Don Brunell
Guest Opinion: Pumped storage electricity can benefit everyone

Increasing river flows to wash young salmon to sea works; however, once… Continue reading

Kris Johnson is president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce and manufacturers association.
Guest Opinion: State should seize opportunity to champion the economy

After two years of COVID-19, many Washington state families and small businesses… Continue reading

Bertha Cooper
Think About It: What will the chickens do?

I bet you didn’t have a morning coffee conversation with your partner… Continue reading

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at
Guest opinion: Memories from Christmas past inspirational for future Christmases

’Tis the season when we take stock of our lives and wonder… Continue reading

Guest opinion: Holiday season brings emphasis on DUI patrols

This holiday season, law enforcement across Washington state will be proactively checking… Continue reading

Guest opinion: The rise of the un-retired

The un-retired are those who are retiring from retirement. They are those… Continue reading

Aging Successfully: New Year’s and anniversaries

As we look forward to the rapidly approaching new year, I invite… Continue reading