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Representative Debra Lekanoff Works to Protect Washington’s Communities, Both Human and Salmon

On the floor of the state legislature, Representative Debra Lekanoff stands and waves.
Representative Debra Lekanoff, the only Native American woman serving in the Washington State Legislature, stands as she is recognized in Governor Jay Inslee’s 2019 State of the State speech. Source: Governor Jay and First Lady Trudi Inslee on Flickr

Debra Lekanoff, a member of Washington State’s House of Representatives since 2019, is working to protect all Washingtonians affected by environmental change — including the region’s animals. An Alaska Native and a member of the Tlingit tribe, she has devoted over 20 years to government and public service in the Pacific Northwest.

During those two decades, Lekanoff was the lead strategist for tribes posing legal challenges to mines in Washington, a supporter of the Gwich’in people’s protests against oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and more. 

Referring to herself as a “generational decision-maker,” Lekanoff is aware that her decisions impact generations before and after her, not just the people that she is representing today. Learning from history and creating a sustainable world for the next generation is integral to Lekanoff’s identity.

“My name comes from the name for the cool tributaries where baby frogs live. It goes back 10,000 years and has passed down through generations, through my grandmother’s grandmother,” she told GlacierHub. “My name is interconnected with the resources and the environment. So when the environment dies, my name will no longer exist. The spirit of who I am will no longer exist.”

One essential element of Alaska and Washington’s environments is salmon. While Lekanoff was growing up in Alaska, salmon were abundant. “My upbringing was focused on healthy salmon,” she said. “When the tide went out, the table was set. Literally. We had all species of salmon. We had halibut, king crab, berries, roots for medicine. We had everything, and nothing was contaminated. I could eat seal meat every day and it wasn’t contaminated with bioaccumulated toxins like the seal down here in Washington. There was fish in every river, and we ate king salmon all year round. Our ceremonies were all about our resources.” 

When she moved to Washington state in her twenties to work with the state’s tribes, she noticed that salmon and shellfish were scarce. “Every river in Washington state is supported by hatcheries. The wild salmon population has depleted. Hatchery salmon has become a treaty fish. Seals were being taken to toxin dump sites because they were so full of toxins. Baby killer whales were dying because they were so full of toxins. They had places where you could drop off your shellfish and have all of the toxins taken out so you could eat them. This is how Washington state lived. I was heartbroken.”

Salmon are a keystone species that signal the health of human populations and habitats. As an anadromous species, salmon hatch in freshwater rivers, migrate to the oceans as young adults, and return to rivers to spawn; in this way, they link terrestrial and marine systems. In Washington state, glaciers provide the cool water that salmon need to survive. With increases in global temperatures, glacial meltwater hasn’t been enough to keep rivers cool enough to support salmon populations. 

To explain the significance of salmon, Lekanoff shared a conversation she had with a Lummi tribal leader. “Randy Kinley taught me this and I never forgot it. The salmon is this,” she said as she raised her forearm and moved her other hand around it like a ticking clock. “If you have a healthy salmon, then you have a healthy economy, healthy people, and a healthy social structure because people are enjoying the outdoors and working hard. People are healthy because they’re drinking clean water and eating good food. All of those things are going to be gone once that salmon is gone.”

“And when I step back and look at that salmon from a cultural perspective,” she continued, “once that salmon’s gone, all of the ceremonies, traditional songs, values, cultural laws, way of life, and names will all be gone. We become, as Native people, a shell of what we are.” 

Earlier this month, Lekanoff proposed a bill that would revise the state’s existing development planning framework to include funding for salmon protection. In April of 2019, she also expressed concern that logging and mining operations in Canada could contaminate the rivers that flow downstream and harm Washington’s salmon recovery efforts. 

Salmon may be a distant thought for those facing COVID-19 and a struggling economy. But for Lekanoff and many others, salmon are an essential indicator of a generationally healthy community. As Lekanoff told GlacierHub, “when I look at salmon and I look at every decision that’s being made, whether that be health care, child care, or taxes, all of it comes back to what’s healthy for a community that sustains us.”

Promoting sustainable and healthy communities, she has supported and proposed significant environmental legislation. Lekanoff and two other Democrats in the legislature proposed the Washington Strong Act alongside the Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act at the end of 2020. These measures would fund green infrastructure and jobs and turn governmental policy focus towards environmental health disparities. 

Lekanoff’s policies and community involvement showcase her commitment to comprehensive and inclusive legislation. “My policy needs to represent all Washingtonians, all people, and that means my wingspan at my table needs to be wide,” she told GlacierHub. To accomplish this goal, Lekanoff has created legislation that protects not only the people of Washington but also salmon and their habitats.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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