Corpsmember Perspective: A Renewed Hope

By Washington Conservation Corps/The Corps Network AmeriCorps Member:
Mary Powell
May 26, 2016

The walk that we took that day was not a new route.  I have walked the trails at Nisqually more times than I count after serving here for seven months.  But seeing it through the eyes of the former chair of the Nisqually tribe was revealing.  I could see the refuge for what it was, for what it meant to a whole group of people. I have always enjoyed walking around and seeing the flocks of waterfowl, muskrats, deer, and the odd seal swimming up river.  I relish seeing them so content in their native habitat.  But seeing this land as part of a way of life had a profound effect on me. No longer was this land solely habitat for animals, or a playground for birders, it was home for a group of people to weave cedar into baskets and ceremonial clothing, to fish along the river to feed their families and trade with neighboring tribes.  Before me the land was transformed into something that can benefit people and animals together.

On April 7, 2016 two representatives from the Nisqually Tribe, Nano Perez and Cynthia Iyall visited three Washington Conservation Corps crews at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge as an educational field trip to remind us how people occupied the landscape long before the refuge was designated. We began with a walking tour of the refuge.  The stories Cynthia told of the Nisqually people and how they used the land gave me goose-bumps.  She spoke of restorative properties of the Medicine Creek, and the bounty of salmon in the Nisqually River.

She told us about when relations between the tribe and settlers went sour.  As a relative of Chief Leschi’s brother, Cynthia told how much her people wanted to come to some sort of agreement with the federal government, but the government at the time had no such intentions.  The treaty at Medicine Creek was signed in 1854, and the Nisqually were put on a reservation upland from the river, a place they did not inhabit historically.

Seeing parks I used to play hide-and-seek in turn to housing developments, or seeing my favorite trails turn into a parking lots turned me into a rather cynical young woman.  It is hard for me to believe that people can live with nature.  When I heard Cynthia speak about how her people used to live along the Nisqually River, it gave me hope.  It is a beautiful thing to hear that people and nature can live together. Knowing that we are working to restore Native lands to the way they once were, feels as if we are honoring not only nature the way it is meant to be, but also the people who revere this site. It gave the crews a renewed sense of purpose, a new reason to get up and view our cuts and bruises as battle scars, not just another mark on our vanity.

After our walk with Cynthia, Nano took us to see one of the Nisqually tribe’s hatcheries. I never gave much thought to hatcheries outside of the fact that they help supplement the native populations. I never gave thought to how much work went into them or what they do for the environment and our economy. I had not considered all the research opportunities are possible because other people are raising and releasing fish into the ecosystem.  Seeing the giant ponds in which hundreds of thousands of juvenile salmon are kept is astonishing. To think, they had close to one million fish and only ten percent would return to spawn—it is hard to fathom. Technicians and biologists work at the hatchery, spending so much time and effort to spawn thousands of fish, and incubate hundreds of thousands of eggs, and keep predators away only to have ten percent return years later astounded me. It may not seem like much, yet the hatchery keeps going, native populations increase, and it provides jobs for the area. Watching everyone come together to benefit both humans and the environment was impressive to say the least.

For the second time on that day I was finding renewed hope that maybe the service we are doing can be for more than just the environment but also for the people. I had begun to feel stagnant in our project; it was the same invasive removal for the same area to help some native plants and animals. However, learning about the Nisqually people then and now, and trying to do what is right by not only their people but also by nature, shook me out of my funk. It reminded me why I got into this field. Cynthia and Nano helped give me renewed hope and energy for the hot, summer months, reminding me that what I am doing is important.  To me, that is a good reason to get up every morning and go outside.

While serving for the Washington Conservation Corps and AmeriCorps, it is very easy to get swept up in the mentality “It’s for the trees. It’s for the shrubs. And it’s for the animals!” However, that means that we lose sight of “It’s also for the people. It’s to help people.” I don’t think that it’s wrong to focus on the good that we do strictly for the environment, but I also think it’s important to remember the people we are helping. The mission of the WCC is to conserve and help the environment, but by extension, we are also helping people.