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March | 2012 | Engaging Resources
New Anthropological Perspectives on Natural Resource Environments

The Skagit River Watershed: Histories Submerged

By Molly Malone, PhD Candidate, University of British Columbia

If you have been to Seattle, Washington, you have seen the Skagit River. Not directly, of course—the Skagit runs from southwestern British Columbia for 150 miles through the North Cascade Mountains into Puget Sound. It takes an hour and a half to get anywhere close to the river if you drive north on Interstate 5. But Seattle “sees” the Skagit every day in the form of the electricity that powers the city thanks to the three hydroelectric dams that comprise the Skagit Hydroelectric Project.

The Project, operated by the publicly-owned utility Seattle City Light, is nothing new. Construction of the first dam, Gorge Dam, began in 1917 and the largest of the three, Ross Dam, was completed in 1952. Today these three dams provide approximately 20% of Seattle’s electricity and, with planned improvements and a relicensing through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2025, this will continue to be the case.

When J.D. Ross first conceived of the Skagit Hydroelectric Project in the early 20th century, consultation with Native Americans living in the Skagit River valley was not required. In fact those people, the Upper Skagit, were not a federally recognized tribe at the time and, as far as the federal government knew, they had long since been absorbed into neighboring tribes closer to the saltwater such as Swinomish and Lummi. The Skagit Valley seemed free for the taking, an ideal site to build the dams that would help Seattle thrive.

These people, however, had not been absorbed into neighboring tribes. They had not moved downstream. Upper Skagit people held onto their places in the watershed as they held onto their collective group identity, eventually gaining federal recognition and salmon fishing rights through the case US v. Washington 384 F. Supp. 312 (W.D. Wash. 1974).

Since 2009 I have worked with Upper Skagit, now a tribe of 1100 with a reservation in Sedro-Woolley, Washington and, thanks to changing attitudes towards resource development and extraction in Native American territories, more of a say in how the hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River are operated. Seattle City Light must comply with FERC’s Policy on Consultation with Indian Tribes, which “articulate[s] its commitment to promote a government-to-government relationship between itself and federally recognized Indian tribes. The policy statement recognizes the sovereignty of tribal nations and the Commission’s trust responsibility to Indian tribes.” Furthermore, FERC “recognizes the unique relationship between the United States and Indian tribes as defined by treaties, statutes, and judicial decisions,” and acknowledges that “Indian tribes have various sovereign authorities, including the power to make and enforce laws, administer justice, and manage and control their lands and resources.” (more here: http://www.ferc.gov/industries/hydropower/indus-act/order-2002/tribal-policy.pdf)

The relationship between Upper Skagit and Seattle City Light is not antagonistic, but neither is it simple. The watershed was stripped of its Native American history and transformed into a space of hydroelectric production surrounded by wilderness. The dams formed Ross and Diablo Lakes, both of which are popular recreation destinations today nestled within the larger North Cascades National Park, home to glaciers and peaks made famous by Jack Kerouac (http://www.amazon.ca/Dharma-Bums-Jack-Kerouac/dp/0140042520) and Gary Snyder (http://www.amazon.ca/Riprap-Cold-Mountain-Poems-Snyder/dp/1593760159) and a destination for mountaineers from around the globe (http://www.amazon.ca/Challenge-North-Cascades-Fred-Beckey/dp/0898864798).

I am interested in how, with the building of the dams, thousands of years of human history are submerged beneath millions of megawatts of potential power. Under the peaceful surface of Ross Lake lie many layers of meaning for Upper Skagit people even though nobody alive at Upper Skagit today remembers what it was like before the dams were there. We as outside scholars try to hold onto that history in the form of “sites,” reified and catalogued by the archaeological record: spirit questing sites, chert quarry sites, hunting and fishing and gathering sites, meeting sites where they interacted with neighbors from the north, camp sites along a trail that ran up to interior British Columbia.

Sometimes Seattle City Light draws down the lake and you can see some of these sites, pieces of history resting on a former riverbed, quietly silted over by decades of glacial runoff. What can we do with this deep history that permeates our resources? As we frame a history of sites, how do Upper Skagit people understand their ties to the submerged histories through oral tradition? What do they think when they turn on a light switch or television and know, as some said to me, that the power comes from the river they know as a part of themselves?

Photo 1: Upper Skagit fishermen park on a gravel bar in the
Skagit River during a salmon fishery opening, during which river flows are
controlled by hydroelectric dam releases upstream. Credit: Molly Malone

Photo 2: Original course of the Skagit riverbed shown during
Ross Lake drawdown, 1978. Credit: City of Seattle Archives

Photo 3: Diablo Dam construction, part of the Skagit River
Hydroelectric Project, 1928. Credit: City of Seattle Archives