Quileute tribal chairwoman tells Senate committee of fear of tsunamis

By:  Paige Dickerson, Peninsula Daily News
Source: Peninsula Daily News

LAPUSH — During five minutes of oral testimony before the Senate's Committee on Indian Affairs on Thursday, Quileute Tribal Chairwoman Bonita Cleveland talked about living with fear.

She told the committee members about the constant fear that a massive quake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the coast of Washington state or elsewhere would drive water into their sea-level village, its homes, school and senior center.

“Thank you for allowing me to speak about how our children and elders could be killed in a tsunami unless we can move our village to higher ground,” Cleveland said during her testimony in Washington, D.C.

Transfer of 772 acres

Legislation introduced in both houses of Congress on March 17 would transfer 772 acres of Olympic National Park land to the Quileute tribe, which lives on a 1-square-mile reservation at the mouth of the Quillayute River.

The legislation also would transfer 492 acres at the northern part of the reservation to resolve a longstanding boundary dispute of more than 50 years with Olympic National Park, which surrounds the reservation.

The Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Mountlake Terrace, was referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs.

Cleveland said the tribe needs higher ground not only because of the threat of a large tsunami, but also because of the river flooding that often makes the one road in and out of LaPush impassable.

“There's only one road in and one road out of LaPush, and this road is usually under 3 [feet] to 4 feet of water when flooded,” Cleveland said. 

A resolution to the longstanding dispute with the park also is eagerly awaited, she told the committee.

Negotiated for decades

“For decades, my uncles negotiated with the Olympic National Park to try to bring resolution to a dispute over the boundary of our reservation,” she said.

“Finally, last year, we were able to reach an agreement with the park to settle this dispute.

“We would like to express our deepest appreciation to [Olympic National Park] Superintendent Karen Gustin for her hard work and her understanding of the dangers our tribe faces.”

A representative of the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs spoke in favor of the bill Thursday.

“Recent tsunamis in the Pacific Ocean, including the one that struck Japan last month and created a huge disaster, clearly demonstrate the risk for the tribe and its citizens and the need to move housing and infrastructure inland,” said Donald Laverdure, senior official with the bureau.

Cantwell also spoke of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan earlier this month.

“Fortunately in that case, the Quileute had hours of advance warning, and the tsunami that eventually arrived was small,” Cantwell said.

“But if there was ever an earthquake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone just off the Washington coast, it would arrive much more quickly, and the tribe would have only minutes to evacuate hundreds of people.”

Quileute Executive Director Bill Peach, who attended the hearing without testifying, said he had heard positive things.

“We are very optimistic that the process is being followed and that we have some really, really solid support.”

The House bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, is identical to the bill in the Senate.

It was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources. Dicks represents the 6th Congressional District, which includes the North Olympic Peninsula.

The group had no plans to talk with the House committee but said they would be willing to do so if asked.

In March, the tribe released a video describing the tribe's peril should a tsunami hit LaPush. The video is posted on the Quileute Nation website at www.quileutenation.org and on the tribe's Youtube page at http://tinyurl.com/662qk2u.