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Q&A: President Fawn Sharp on why Tribal Nations are poised to lead the global response to climate change

Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp was recently elected president of the National Congress of American Indians, winning 61 percent of the vote. Sharp ran a campaign centered around addressing climate change.

Tribal Nations have been on the front lines of climate advocacy, especially in the Pacific Northwest. In their unique history, President Sharp told me, Tribal Nations can find a path forward for themselves, as well as the rest of the world.

Michael Goldberg: In the wake of your landslide victory, can you identify what factors allowed you to resonate with voters in such a definitive way? 

President Fawn Sharp: I believe Indian County is ready to unify. We’re ready to elevate, amplify, and unleash our voice. We’re ready to tap into, as a brain trust, the strength and the vision we have for the issues of our generation. I think it was my message that every aspect of the solutions to the challenges facing not only Indian Country but the entire country and the world quite frankly, needs us at the table and needs our leadership.

People are concerned about the political landscape, they’re concerned about our future, and I think I provided that type of vision — that we are the leaders and the generation that our ancestors dreamed and hoped for when all hope was lost. 

MG: You’ve rightly pointed out that Tribal Nations have been at the forefront of climate advocacy. Can you explain why you think Tribal Nations are uniquely positioned to lead not only this country, but perhaps the world on crafting a climate agenda to meet the urgency of the problem?

FS: Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have gone through a tremendous amount of litigation over the last 50 years. The Fish Wars and Culvert Case are just two examples. It’s ironic that I’m having this conversation here, I’m at the Billy Frank Jr. 2nd annual Salmon Summit. He always told us that the salmon cannot get out of the rivers to walk through the halls of Congress and advocate for themselves. We have to be that voice. 

I think the issues of climate change require strategic thinking. We had to go through an era of termination and Fish Wars to understand deeply and passionately the value of our national resources. And now our relatives in the ocean, our relatives in the Salish Sea — the orcas, the salmon — are facing termination and a very aggressive onslaught of annihilation. 

I think we were called for this time, born for this time, and trained for this time. Like Billy Frank Jr. and all of our other mentors who have gone before us, we are poised to win this next battle against the fossil fuel industry and those who are directly responsible for causing the widespread global crisis that we’re all facing. 

I think we had to go through that era to become strong and resilient, to appreciate the natural world. Now we are ready to take that traditional knowledge as well as generations of teaching, ceremonies, and prayers that continue to guide us. Our Almighty Creator gave us a basic instruction to justly steward the natural resources and protect them. And unfortunately, yesterday is another example where the Trump Administration once again arrogantly defied those basic instructions of our Almighty Creator in withdrawing from the Paris Accord. 

Those are the things that tribal nations are uniquely positioned to take a leadership role on, especially when there’s an absence of leadership. 

MG: You’ve been outspoken about your intention to engage youth in the planning and implementation of climate policy. Can you talk about why you see engaging the youth in particular to be so important to addressing climate change?  

FS: One of the primary reasons is that the issue of climate change, and contending with it, is multigenerational. While our generation can devise the next strategy, it’s up to future generations to implement those strategies and the work that’s necessary. I firmly believe they should be at the table now to be informed.

Our youth are paying attention. They have a great deal of energy and passion about this subject matter, to the point where they’re taking to the streets, they’re sailing across the Atlantic. Why would we not harness that power, energy, and inspiration. 

MG: As you’ve previously pointed out, the president is the voice of the National Congress of American Indians. Being that voice, you directly engage with the executive and legislative branches of the United States government. So I’m wondering if you can give me an idea of the potential points of collaboration you will seek with the legislative and executive branches going forward?

FS: With regard to the legislative branches of government, both here in the United States and globally, we want to be able to advance a voice around the future we see with regard to innovation and building a new economy. I think we are in a transitional period, but there is a great deal of opportunity and potential for mitigating the impact of climate change.

Tribal nations are uniquely positioned to attract and engage foreign nations, both in terms of investment as well as cultural and political exchanges, and bilateral and multilateral agreements with other countries who have wanted Tribal Nations at the table for climate discussions.

I think we are but one part of a very broad and inclusive global strategy to address the impacts of climate change. I’ve discovered that among Democrats, among Republicans, among leaders within the business community, among nonprofits, and faith-based communities, you can find leaders and politicians in those circles. And we are about meeting with everyone across a broad sector because we know what we bring to the table is just as critical as every other voice.

I’ve been waiting for a clear vision coming out of the White House for Indian County, but in the absence of that we continue to engage and make offers to be at the table. 

MG: Now that you’re fresh off a victory and out of election mode, what priorities, in addition to climate policy, are at the top of your agenda for the upcoming term?

FS: Another part of my agenda is addressing the need for truth and reconciliation in this country. Many understand and recognize that tribal nations have been marginalized for centuries, and some see that as a damaging thing that happened years ago. But I don’t think people understand that, while it was egregious centuries ago, there are still very oppressive issues that Tribal Nations face every day. I think our role is to highlight not only the depth of the pain and suffering that affects every single tribal nation, but the strength that we need not only among our Tribal nations, but across this county.

The United States was founded on these basic principles learned from tribal nations: equality and justice. I’m looking forward to having these types of conversations, both internally among tribal nations as well as telling our story and educating the American public on the real history of this country, of their country. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.