Tribes/First Nations:

Alexandria Marie Johnson


The Swinomish Reservation is located at the southeastern corner of Fidalgo Island in the San Juan Islands of Washington State, surrounded by the beautiful Salish Sea, cascading valleys, and snowy mountains. The reservation is listed as the second most vulnerable location to sea-level rise in Washington State (Swinomish). For the Swinomish people, climate change threatens shellfish, salmon, and fresh water that give spiritual strength and a source of income. This page will discuss the history of fossil fuel projects imposed on the tribe, and current tribal action being taken to mitigate climate change and educate the community. 

History of Environmental Injustice

The Swinomish have faced land dispossession since they were colonized by the United States government and white settlers. The Swinomish people were relocated from northern Whidbey Island to the southeast corner of Fidalgo Island along with nine other tribes. This removal presented significant challenges then, and the ramifications continue today.

The Treaty of Point Elliott was signed in 1855 guaranteeing reservation land for the tribe in perpetuity, and access to natural resources outside the reservation. However President Ulysses S. Grant and the federal government detached March Point, a large beach area, from the reservation by Executive Order. March Point was developed by Texaco Company into a refinery in the 1950s. March Point now hosts two oil refineries operated by Tesoro and Shell (See Anacortes Oil Refinery). In 2010 a deadly explosion at the plant killed seven workers.  In 2013 the Tesoro refinery released a toxic flume of hydrogen sulfides and hydrocarbons into the air, sickening residents and sending two to the hospital, no compensation was given (Walker).


Image Credit:  Sydney Brownstone

Image Credit: Sydney Brownstone

In 1889 the acting Commissioner of Indian Affairs heard a rumor that Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad was illegally laying rail tracks through the reservation. He sent this telegram to the company, saying the railroad has “no authority” to cross reservation land, but soon realized there was no way to stop the project (Brownstone). Now, 100 years later, Shell is illegally running oil trains through the reservation. (See Oil Trains Issues; Bakken Oil Shale Basin). Shell Co. and the Swinomish had a treaty agreement that the rail company will run no more than one train through the reservation per day and disclose all materials on board, but Shell has broken both parts of this easement agreement. The Tribe filed a lawsuit in federal court against Shell, in April 2015 (Lekanof). The suit is still in progress as of July 2016.

These are two examples of invasive fossil fuel development projects that have imposed risk onto the Swinomish community. It is important to learn this history when considering current project proposals to expand refineries. How much can one community and one ecosystem take? Thinking of climate change and fossil fuels in a historical and colonial context can help people understand environmental injustice and inform them to make better decisions in the future. 

Place-based Cultures

The Swinomish people have a place-based culture, based on stewardship and relation to an environment that is of historical and spiritual importance. I spoke with a Swinomish tribal woman who began to explain to me her relationship with the environment. She explained how water, trees, and salmon gave her spiritual strength and can teach humans how to cooperate and live harmoniously. When these things become threatened, so does spirituality and culture. It is out of respect and solidarity that the effort to curb this destruction should be made.

Pollutants and warming waters are leading to low salmon and crab runs, putting strain on fisher-families and the industry. Sea level rise and saltwater inundation are threatening residents to move their homes to higher ground. Toxins from the refineries have sunk into the sand beaches and made shellfish inedible. These are all example of how the environment is at risk. To a place-based culture, this means more than relocating or finding a different job. 


View from the Swinomish Channel Bridge Overlooking Part of the Reservation. (Credit: Ali Johnson)    

View from the Swinomish Channel Bridge Overlooking Part of the Reservation. (Credit: Ali Johnson) 


Fighting Back With Grants and Education; Next Steps

Around the Northwest, different tribes are taking a strong stance against harmful fossil fuel developments in the name of protection. (See Lummi & Coal). Many Indigenous people see the climate crisis as the final straw in the long history of colonization and domination. Northwest tribes are finding creative ways to fight against climate change and the power holders who refuse to take meaningful action. 

The Swinomish Tribe is responding to climate change by educating members, holding large fossil fuel companies accountable, and creating the Swinomish Climate Change Initiative. The Initiative seeks to educate tribal members and build capacity for mitigating climate change. It involves youth through the Northwest Indian College and partners with many local non-profit environmental, tribal, and state organizations. Workers of the Office of Planning and Community Development work to write grants to receive funding money from federal agencies. (Swinomish Indian Tribal Community).


Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Office of Planning and Community Development, where planning of the Swinomish Climate Change Initiative takes place. (Credit: Ali Johnson) 

Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Office of Planning and Community Development, where planning of the Swinomish Climate Change Initiative takes place. (Credit: Ali Johnson) 

Raising community awareness around climate change is another goal of the Swinomish Climate Change Initiative. The Initiative also seeks to use Indigenous knowledge to find solutions to climate change. As stated by the initiative, “The ultimate goal is to develop an action plan for the future based on a comprehensive study of where potential risks and impacts are expected to occur.” (Swinomish). The effort continues today as the initiative seeks funding from federal agencies to continue educating tribal members and mitigating climate change. 


Brownstone, S. (2015, April 15). How One Tribe Could Slow the Rate of "Bomb Trains" Through Seattle. The Stranger. 

Lekanof, D., & Fryer, A. (2015, September 11). Federal Judge Allows Swinomish Tribe Lawsuit Against Bakken Crude Oil Trains to Proceed. Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. 

Walker, R. (2015, December 1). Shell Refinery Fined $77,000 for Releasing Toxins Near Swinomish Reservation Read. Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. 

Swinomish Indian Tribal Community (2009-10). Swinomish Climate Change Initiative, Impact Assessment Technical Report; Climate Adaptation Action Plan.