In the 1960s and 70s, Billy Frank Jr. was arrested some 50 times—all in the name of salmon.

The Washington resident and member of the Nisqually Tribe is famous for his fight to preserve tribal fishing rights. His grassroots campaign–an effort marked by fish-ins and arrests– culminated in a landmark decision by federal Judge George Boldt that said tribes were entitled to half the salmon harvest in their traditional waters. It made them co-managers of the fisheries in Washington.

Today Billy Frank Jr. is 80 years old, and he’s still fighting. This time the fight is about saving salmon, which he says are essential to the survival of his people.

“We’ve got to work together,” he says. “We’re running out of time.”

Billy Frank, an environmental icon in Washington and beyond, was at The Nature Conservancy’s Seattle office recently for a panel discussion with indigenous leaders from Kenya, Australia and Washington’s own Yakama Nation. The Conservancy has long relied on partnerships with indigenous communities to accomplish its mission. These guests came to share their ideas and lessons learned.

I was privileged to listen in on the forum and get an inside look at conservation from an indigenous perspective—one rooted in tradition, culture and in some cases, spirituality. In an era of computers, cell phones and increasing development, I’d venture we could learn a lot from what they have to say about protecting and respecting the planet.

One of the speakers was Joe Morrison, an indigenous leader from Northern Australia. He said that conservation and human rights are “inextricably linked.”

Joe has both Dagoman and Torres Strait Islander heritage. He heads the Northern Australian Indigenous Lands and Sea Management Alliance, an organization that helps indigenous communities preserve their culture and protect their land from the increasing pressures of development. “There’s been a long struggle for recognition of ingenious people’s place in the nation,” he said. “In Northern Australia, we’ve got an opportunity here to get things right, and we can do it through the lens of conservation.”

How deeply should indigenous people be involved in conservation projects? According to these speakers, they should be right in the middle of it all. Joe stressed the importance of empowering indigenous groups to be managers of their land. Getting the communities involved—and getting them to own the projects— presents a better chance of success. It’s critical, given that indigenous people live on some of the most threatened and biologically diverse lands.

This sentiment was echoed by others at the panel, including Paul Ward, Conservancy board member and Fisheries Manager for the Yakama Nation, who described success the Yakama Nation has had developing staff resources to protect salmon.

Salmon have long been a source of conflict between tribes, fishermen and even farmers in Washington. Their decline affects economies, tradition and something even deeper. Paul says, “Taking a child out there, teaching him to fish, being able to catch that fish and bring it back, that ties you back to who you are, who your grandparents were. It’s part of who you are, how you identify yourself in this world. If there’s not Chinook salmon there to catch, that’s when things start falling apart.”

This is powerful stuff. The speakers at this panel stressed the necessity of conservation for people. I was reminded of a Native American Studies course I took in college, in which the professor equated the relationship that Native Americans have with the land to the relationship Christians have with church. This analogy has stuck with me for years. How would I feel if people tore down my church and built skyscrapers on top of it?

We also heard from Tom Lalampaa, a member of the Samburu tribe who lives in Northern Kenya, an area that’s experienced massive degradation and fragmentation of land. His organization facilitates community-led conservation projects across more than 3 million acres.

Where Tom is from, rangelands are communal and purely owned by communities – some of which speak different languages and have longstanding conflicts. Getting people to come together isn’t easy, he said. It takes time. “First of all they have to trust you,” he said. “The process of building trust and confidence, it takes time, but it’s working for us.”

I appreciate what these folks have to teach. Perhaps the most compelling theme from their discussion was the call for all people to come together to protect nature. But who will bring us together? That’s a role I think organizations like The Nature Conservancy can take the lead on.

As Billy Frank Jr. says, “Our world is just little. Whatever we do over here, it affects us over there. We’ve got to start making decisions about how we’re going to work together and make it happen.”

Katherine Sather works as digital marketing specialist for The Nature Conservancy. A former journalist, she left the world of breaking news reports and daily deadlines in 2009 to work for the Conservancy’s Washington program. She lives in Seattle.

(Image: Billy Frank Jr. Image credit: Barbie Hull)

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