Think Out Loud

Coquille Tribe co-manages fish and wildlife with state of Oregon

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
Sept. 13, 2022 3:32 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Sept. 13

Brenda Meade, chair of the Coquille Tribal Council, on a boat on the Coquille river.

Brenda Meade, chair of the Coquille Tribal Council, on a boat on the Coquille river.

Dave Miller / OPB


Earlier this summer, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission formally agreed to give the Coquille Tribe more power to manage fish and wildlife in a large area of southwest Oregon. We talk to Brenda Meade, chair of the Coquille Tribal Council, about the historic nature of that agreement, and what it means to the tribe.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: Coming to you this week from Coos Bay, we’re actually gonna start today on the Coquille River about 20 miles south of Coos Bay. We went there because earlier this summer the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission formally agreed to give the Coquille tribe more power to manage fish and wildlife in the Coquille watershed which spans five counties in southwest Oregon. We wanted to know what this would actually mean, how the management of the river could change. So we joined Brenda Meade, the chair of the Coquille Tribal Council, in a small boat, on the river.

Brenda Meade:  I guess I would just first say “dicé la”.  Greetings. Thank you for joining us out here on the Coquille River. These are ancestral homelands of the Coquille people. And we’re out here doing some really hard work right now responding to an emergency that we found out about a couple of years ago from ODF&W (Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife). Just the low return numbers of our fall chinook salmon. It was not very long after we got that report that our tribal council initiated an emergency declaration to respond to this issue of 30,000 returning salmon in 2010 to a number that we received - 275 returning salmon in 2019.

Miller:  From 30,000 to under 300?

Meade:  Yes, a 99% decrease in 10 years of our salmon returning into our river. And it was devastating to hear. The report from ODF&W was devastating to hear, all of the issues because it wasn’t just one or two or three things that were happening. It was like the perfect storm and it was about a number of things, water quality issues that we’re dealing with, water temperature issues, invasive species, an issue that we just didn’t have a grasp on how bad it was.

Miller:  What did that gigantic decline mean culturally for the tribe?

Meade:  I think it was actually the tribal council sitting at the table after ODF&W left. And some of the people in the meeting that we were just sitting around asking ourselves, “What does it mean to be Coquille people without salmon in our river?” And it was not a question we can answer because we are people here that have gone through termination acts, assimilation programs that were devastating to our people. And to think about how we regain our cultural heritage without some of our most important resources, our salmon ceremony, that happens here on the river. How do we teach our kids and our grandkids to uphold their stewardship responsibilities of this land without these resources? And with the word extinction being used about our salmon on the river, I can’t even explain what that feels like.

Miller:  What happened after you declared that emergency?

Meade:  We talked a lot about strategy. We talked a lot about who we talk to? How do we get a response that is adequate? Because what we heard from ODF&W was they really didn’t have a plan. There were so many issues that they and they were talking about ocean acidification and ocean temperatures and all of these things that I knew that the state of Oregon doesn’t have authority over many of those issues. And we just started talking about who we talk to? It felt like, that day, that you just needed to stand up and scream to anyone and everyone that would listen. And that’s kind of what we did. We called the Governor’s office. We began talking to the tribes, we began talking to anyone who would listen.

Miller: You mean neighboring tribes?

Meade:  Yes. All of the Oregon tribes actually. The Oregon tribal chairs have a good relationship. We talk a lot. We went through the COVID pandemic together working with the state and it was those relationships that helped us have those conversations. Just telling anyone and everyone who would listen what was happening here on the river. I visited every single city council and county commissioner on the Coquille River that would listen. And they all did. And we just said ‘we have to figure out how to come together. ODF&W, the state of Oregon cannot fix these issues by themselves. And the Coquille Indian tribe can’t fix it by themselves either. And we just said we have to figure out how to come together and work on this together. Let all of those bad feelings or failures or we’ve tried those things, let those all go away and just hit a reset and start talking to our biologists, start talking to our community and just recognize what the issues are. Not shaming or blaming anyone. Just really try to figure out how to come together.

Miller:  And then specifically, in time, you asked to basically be co-managers of this land and this river. Right? I mean that was eventually the request with the Fish and Wildlife Commission?

Meade:  Yes, it took us a little bit and looking back, it really happened fast. So I would say maybe it didn’t take so long. But I remember Chief Ivy, my chief at the time, said ‘if we are going to do this, we have to go all the way. We have to be prepared to step up and commit to being the steward of this river and this land and this resource, even if we don’t have partners. If we’re going to do this, do it all the way, don’t do it halfway. I want to see boats out in the river with the Coquille Indian tribe’s logo and our staff and our teams and do this in the right way’. And we agreed.

And we realized as we were meeting with ODF&W [that] we speak different languages. (nervous laughter) We definitely speak a different language when we talk about things. And it’s not a reflection or anything bad. It was just that it was interesting to talk about things like termination policies. The State of Oregon operates on ‘if we do an agreement, we need a termination policy so we can walk away if this isn’t working for us.’

Miller:  When you said “termination”, I thought you were talking about the federal government saying ‘no, now you’re not a tribe.’

Meade:  That’s what I thought they were talking about too. (nervous laughter) They weren’t.

Miller:  Okay, so when you heard that, your mind went to the terrible, not even that long ago, history of the federal government relationship to sovereign nations, Indigenous nations. They were talking about, how do we walk away from some kind of agreement we’re going to make?

Meade:  And it was so interesting just that conversation that we had that day because I immediately got defensive and thought it’s almost like going into a marriage and talking about how we’re going to get divorced before we’re even married.

Miller:  They were talking about salmon prenups?

Meade:  (laughing) Yeah. And it was just like they explained that, well all of the State of Oregon MOAs (Memorandums of Agreement) always have a termination policy. And we went, ‘oh okay, we recognize and we all agreed we weren’t gonna have a termination policy. It later came about that it was important to the Commission. And by then we said, okay, it’s worth it to us to do this.

Miller:  Let me take a step back. You said your chief told you ‘we’re gonna do this one way or another’ which makes it seem like, on some level, you didn’t think the state was going to actually seize control - did you think they would actually agree to this?

Meade:  We were preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.

Miller:  What were you assuming was going to happen?

Meade:  Well, we weren’t sure. We weren’t sure if they were going to value what we brought to the table. We weren’t even sure exactly what we were bringing to the table because we just came through the COVID pandemic and financially, [in terms of] resources, we weren’t even sure what we could pull together and do. But we knew we had expertise, we knew what we wanted to see and we knew we couldn’t give up. We couldn’t talk about extinction of this resource or any resource. And I think that’s where we were different. Sometimes we hear conversations at the state level of termination and extinction and things like that. And it’s used really fluidly. And that’s not something that we’re going to do.

Miller:  It’s just not even a future you can contemplate or put on the table as a possibility?

Meade:  Nope.  We can’t fail.

Miller:  You mentioned resources. In the articles I’ve read they’ve said that the Coquille tribe is bringing resources to bear here. But they didn’t actually spell out what it is. And it made me wonder, first of all, how much money or resources we’re talking about that you are now putting in as a tribe, as a sovereign nation, toward this effort that the state is not doing now?


Meade:  Well, we are going to look to the state. This is their responsibility as well as Oregonians. What we are able to bring, though, is other resources that maybe the state can’t get. And the tribe initially committed $1M in general funds at the very beginning to say whatever resources we need, whether it’s boats or equipment or whether it is (sniggering) banks to have a lot of overtime…

Miller:  You’re looking at, right now as you say that, the woman who took us to the spot where we are in this boat.

Meade:  Thank you. Our team is just dedicated. But it was really about what we need, what tools do we need to come forward. And we’re talking about habitat restoration projects that are millions of millions of dollars. The tribe has been doing this work for decades. But to understand the immediate need on the river, we still need to do habitat restoration, still need to work on the water quality issues upriver and we still have to find other resources for each of these pieces that need to be addressed.

Miller: What’s going to be different now because you have not just a voice but a true seat at the table. If I understand correctly, and correct me if this is an exaggeration, but you’re copartners with the state in the management and restoration of this river. So how is the management going to be different now?

Meade:  We are coming to the table as a sovereign nation. And we are coming together as equal partners that will have a voice in decisions that are made in the management of this river. Because we’re bringing that piece to the discussion about the need for cultural resources, for these traditional foods, for our people and for our community as well, we’re giving a voice to our community about how important these foods are. I hope that ODF&W and the state see us as a partner who is bringing more to the table to help them achieve their goal, which is to increase those resources for Oregonians. And I just hope, also, that other tribes join in as well. As we were going through that process, we were really sharing a lot of information with the tribes and just saying ‘please cut and paste this agreement and let’s get to work’.

Miller:  Well, I’m curious about that. I mean for the other federally recognized tribes in Oregon, what kinds of conversations have you had with other leaders who are dealing with very similar, gigantic, reductions in salmon that, in many ways, are just as central to their, thousands of years long, identities and cultures? But you’re the only tribe, if I’m not mistaken, that actually has this kind of relationship with the state right now. Are they saying ‘we want one too’?

Meade: Well, it’s important to say that each tribe, all nine tribes in Oregon are different. We’re very different. And each tribe has to decide what’s best for them. We have treaty tribes, we have restored tribes. I think each one of them has to find their right path to do that. For us, this was the right path. We wanted to be very vocal in the sovereignty piece, talking about equal partnerships. That’s why we were going off of our Coquille Restoration Act, which is our legislation that restored us and recognized where these lands are and that we haven’t given up any rights to these resources, ever.

So I think each of the tribes are looking at this. We have kept in contact with all of the tribes through this process even before, just telling them our concerns, hoping that we were all thinking the same things or at least thinking about it at all. And what we found too is that everyone’s thinking about it. We’re just trying to find the right path to, I guess, get to work. figure out how to work together and not have these big divides, that silo us in different ways.

Miller:  Were you able to have salmon celebrations the last couple of years?

Meade:  We just actually celebrated our salmon celebration this last weekend at the Mill Casino. We have canceled it the last two years. We struggled with that but it was important for us to have it this year and to say that we’re all together and working on those things and recognize how important those resources are, still.

Miller: So the two years when it was canceled, was it because of salmon numbers or because of COVID?

Meade:  A little of both. It’s an outside event. We’ve been dying to have some events for the community and for us to get together. But it just felt right for both reasons to come together this year and be careful about it. But those fish that we were serving were coming from the Columbia River, so we will celebrate the tribes that are working on the Columbia River and the numbers that they’re - encouraging there - for their people. It’s pretty incredible. I got to go visit the Umatilla tribe this last week and see their new hatchery. You know there’s a lot of conversations about hatcheries and a lot of people that don’t support hatcheries and some that think they’re the best thing in the world.

I have gotten to visit most of the hatcheries in the state now, at least the ones that the Coquille River operates on. And I have to say that hatcheries - the way we’ve done it in the past for the State of Oregon - I don’t love them so much either. I just think there’s a better way to do things. And it was nice to go to Umatilla and see Indian people doing it. Because they really thought about the fact that you don’t want your fish coming back to concrete and you don’t want your fish in concrete raceways, big square raceways, where they rub up against them and it causes damage to them.

They’ve built these big round tanks that are beautiful. They swim just the way they would in the wild and [with] barely any hands on. I just thought it was a beautiful thing. And I think we’re going to try and get some of our representatives, our congressional representatives to come out and see that jointly and see if we can talk about doing some work on the State of Oregon’s hatcheries and do it in a better way.

Miller:  You mentioned ocean acidification and warming, some things that just are so gigantic and literally downstream from here and that are global issues. How do you think about the work you can do that’s necessary and the work that you alone, even as a more appropriately recognized sovereign nation, that you still can’t do alone. How do you think about the stuff that you can do and the stuff you can’t?

Meade:  I think that’s what we had to decide at the very beginning as we had this huge list from ODF&W. And we just went through and said, ‘what can we control today? What can we affect, and what are the things we put on the longer goals’? And we’re not letting any of them go away just so you know. We might be talking to the federal government next about some of the issues out on the ocean and in their area because we’re not doing a very good job of protecting these resources and finding balance. And that’s where we are struggling is that we are so out of balance with the way we’ve been managing resources. When you pick a winner or a loser of resources at all costs, you pick a winner and don’t manage for anything else, you are going to lose something. And you’re not even going to realize you lost it and I think that’s been happening. Where we are right now on the river, you can see where habitat restoration work needs to happen.

Miller: What are you seeing that makes you say that?

Meade:  So we would love to see more trees along the river, a cooler spot. You noticed where we pulled up, we wanted to be where it was cooler, where the water could be cooler than you.

Miller:  It’s been a little while since we talked about this, but why is that important for salmon?

Meade:  Yeah. Well, this water is getting awfully warm and the more shade we can give it the better. We’ve also got to support those landowners that need to access that river as well and figure out how to have these conversations and support them and the needs they have as well. There’s a lot of land users on this river and they’re all important. But we’ve also got to think about what we are leaving for our kids and grandkids and that’s the conversations we have with landowners. They want their grandkids to be able to fish out here for salmon again. They’ve been incredible. Actually, I have to tell you every single one of those people that I went and talked to supported the Coquille Indian tribe.

Miller:  Non-tribal members that you’re talking to are supporting you? Did that surprise you?

Meade:  You know, there’s just been such a rub between ODF&W and landowners here, just really, it’s almost like a collide. You have ranchers out here that are just struggling to try to be able to use every bit of their land to support their family business that they’ve been here doing for the last 100 years. And you have the city abandoned, struggling for water. It’s just a competition of resources and what we’ve got to figure out is how to, instead of fighting over resources, figure out how to make the resources better and healthier and more abundant for everyone. I think that’s the only way that we’re going to fix any of these problems, is working together.

Miller:  If you take me out here 15 years from now, what do you hope to be able to show me?

Meade:  Well, I hope you’re salmon fishing with us. And maybe we’ll be preparing to gather some salmon for our elders and our community members. We’ll all be out here as well, especially this time of year and getting ready to fill their freezers. You’re gonna see a lot of this land use area, hopefully, with a lot more trees on there. We’re going to work on fast growing trees and we’re going to try to figure out how to get more fish in the system, the right fish. And we’ve got to be paying attention to all of them, not just one. I think that I need to be really clear about that. We initially came out because the number of returning fall chinook, but the truth is this entire system, if one goes, it’s a ripple effect.

The lamprey eel is another thing that we’re really concerned about. I’m really excited to hear that the Umatilla tribe is actually doing some work on lamprey and looking at how to encourage those numbers and find healthy ways to do that. Our team has been working on that as well. We just gotta pay attention to the people, boots on the ground, people that are paying attention and that’s our team.

Miller:  Is it?

Meade:  That must be.

Miller:  Is it different to look out and see that the people working here are your team?

Meade:  I’m really proud of it. Yeah. And you see our logo. See Helena’s hat? Yeah, it’s a good day. It is a good day. And we’re going to keep moving forward.

Miller:  Thank you so much for giving us your time. I really appreciate it. Thank you

Meade:  And thank you for getting the word out. We want to keep talking to our community members and our community partners and just thanking them so much for their support too.

Miller:  To Brenda Mead is the chair of the Coquille Tribal Council. Thanks also to Helena Lynell and Jaime Harrison, who let us join them on the boat.

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