We Are the Carriers of Water

A conversation with Maggie Sanders, the Executive Secretary for the Nisqually Department of Natural Resources, about the importance of storytelling, the transference of traditional ecological knowledge and how to reclaim your voice.

Maggie Sanders has a commanding presence.

That thought emerges and crystallizes within a few seconds of meeting her. She gives me a rundown of the projects she’s currently tackling and my eyes widen with each addition to the growing list.

Stacks of applications, research articles and project proposals litter the perimeter of her desk. It is evidence of her tireless commitment to studying climate change resiliency, which she doggedly pursues along with her full-time responsibilities as the Executive Secretary for the Nisqually Department of Natural Resources. As the representative to the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification (OA Alliance), my colleague, Melia Paguirigan had the opportunity to learn about how the Nisqually Tribe emphasizes education and outreach to protect their treaty trust resources, culture and community from the impacts of ocean acidification.

Maggie spoke to me about the importance of storytelling, the transference of traditional ecological knowledge and how to reclaim your voice. I hope she inspires you as she inspired me.


Emily Okikawa: What role does storytelling play in educating people about environmental challenges?

Maggie Sanders: When I attended The Rising Voices: Collaborative Science with Indigenous Knowledge for Climate Solutions program in March, it was challenging to collaborate with Western-based science that does not understand federal Indian law or policy or even what a treaty is. When they were talking about traditional ecological knowledge—what is was, what it means and why it is important—they just didn’t understand. So I told them a story.

I come from the last whale hunter of the Makah nation. My great-grandfather would immerse himself in the environment for two to three months. However long it took. He would bathe in the waters and scrape his skin with cedar to prepare himself to go out and whale hunt. Traditional ecological knowledge is important because the ceremonial hunting traditions my great-grandfather practiced needed to be passed down to my grandfather who needed to pass it down to my brother who needed to pass it down to his son. And so on. It was a pivotal moment in understanding the importance of storytelling and how traditional ecological knowledge meshes with Western science. We’re still stumbling, but it’s working because we’re collaborating and working for the same goal.

Okikawa: Thank you for sharing such a powerful story—I have goosebumps! How have you seen these spaces changing over time?

Sanders: The first time I attended the conference, I was shocked to see that there were very little indigenous people, let alone women in the field. I was discouraged and I almost didn’t want to stay. I kept thinking and wondering where’s my place? What’s my role here? Should I be here? But, this year the women really took over the conference. I received words of encouragement from other strong indigenous women and I learned a lot about how to interact and work with outside entities and people. When we did a water ceremony, another indigenous woman told me, “Women are the carriers of life. We are the carriers of water. Respect women.” It was powerful.

Okikawa: That is really inspiring—especially for young women of color working in the environmental field. What advice would you give to the next generation who are looking to follow in your footsteps?

Sanders: Remember that your ancestors really sacrificed a lot to get us to where we are now and what we’re doing here today. I feel that it’s extremely important that the next generation knows their culture and their history and how they relate to Mother Earth. They need to know how important it is to protect their treaty trust resources for their children in the next generations to come. They need to teach their children their traditional ways through culture, language, traditional ecological knowledge and bringing the elders to tell their story to the children so that it can be passed down to the next 10 generations.


Okikawa: Environmental work can often be challenging, what gives you hope?

Sanders: I feel that it’s a part of my moral obligation and duty as a Makah tribal member. It’s a part of my identity and culture. It’s a part of who I am. My grandfather bathed in the Wa’atch River every single day. So water is sacred. All our animals and plants are sacred. To me, the work is rewarding in itself and the outcomes that are produced are enough to make me happy.

Okikawa: Do you have a message for non-indigenous people about how we can be better allies and accomplices?

Sanders: That’s a tough one. Well, everyone wants to work together and collaborate and I think the key is communication and cultural sensitivity. Know whose land you’re on. Acknowledge when you’re walking into someone’s space and if there was a treaty involved before engaging with indigenous communities regarding treaty trust resources.

Maggie is a testament to how the salient role of knowing and understanding your roots is the basis of a community’s strength and resilience. For those of us who exist at the crossroads of intersectionality, I want to leave you with this piece of advice that Maggie shared with me about navigating situations where you feel like you have to fight to have your voice heard.

“Don’t compromise who you are or your integrity for the benefit of another.

Be who you are and stand for what you believe in and for what you feel is right.”

Our work is focused on solving some of the greatest threats facing our ocean today. We bring people, science and policy together to champion innovative solutions and fight for a sustainable ocean.
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