Living Wellness

Environmental Racism Transforms Swinomish Teens

by Philip D’Arbanville and Nicole Kidder

Three years ago, the choice between doing time in a teen detention center for drug possession or shooting a film seemed like an easy one to Cody Cayou (Swinomish), Nick Clark (Grand Ronde/Swinomish) and Travis Tom (Swinomish/Lummi). The boys envisioned meeting girls while creating a rap video or maybe even a gangsta movie.

What they didn’t foresee was how their mistakes would end up transforming not only their lives, but also the future of the entire Swinomish community. Childhood friends who grew up on the Rez skateboarding and playing basketball, Clark’s father had split, Cayou’s mother had passed away and Tom had just recently lost his sister.

Hurting, rebellious teenagers without a clear direction, the boys were desperately seeking a place to fit in. As they descended into a world filled with drugs, alcohol and violence, they finally attracted the attention of local law enforcement. Instead of being abandoned in the juvenile justice system, they were lovingly guided to Longhouse Media, an educational film program for Native teens.

According to co-founder Tracy Rector (Seminole), the nonprofit organization was founded in 2005 to “catalyze indigenous people and communities to use media as a tool for self-expression, cultural preservation and social change.” The group’s primary program, Native Lens, brings digital media training to Native youth in rural and urban settings. “We believe youth can use this technology to explore personal and community issues, such as education, environmental degradation, traditional health care and cultural pride.”

Just ten months after Longhouse Media opened its doors, co-founder Annie Silverstein found herself sitting across a table from the three beanie-clad, chair-spinning teens on a cold October day. Silverstein informed the boys that Native Lens had received an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant, which meant their video would focus on the environmental impacts two local oil refineries - Shell and Tesoro - have had on their tribal lands.

Less than thrilled with the turn of events, the boys reluctantly agreed to do the project. In the end, their journey produced the incredibly candid, heartfelt documentary March Point, which unearthed more than a century of hidden corruption about their people’s history, heritage, land and natural commerce.

A Winding Journey of Discovery

During their initial research, the boys discovered that several Coastal Salish speaking tribes, including the Swinomish, Samish, Kikyalus and Lower Skagit, have inhabited the valleys and shorelines of northwest Washington’s Skagit, San Juan and Island counties for centuries.

Established under the 1855 Elliott Point Treaty, the Swinomish Reservation is situated on the peninsula of Fidalgo Island, about 70 miles north of Seattle. Most residents are nestled along the Swinomish Channel, which serves as the Reservation’s eastern boundary.

Two historic events finally caught the boys’ attention. In 1873, President Grant retracted a portion of the Swinomish Reservation, known as March Point, and gave it to non-Native settlers. Nearly 60 years later, two oil refineries that process crude oil into diesel, gasoline, propane and other fuels, were constructed on the land.

In the 1960s, as community and environmental health concerns grew, some leaders began to question whether the oil refineries even had a right to be on the land. Claiming the seizure of March Point was an illegal breach of their treaty rights, the tribe petitioned the Indian Claims Commission to reestablish their original boundaries. When their pleas fell upon deaf ears, the tribe launched a plan to buy back the lost land; as of 2004, more than 1,000 acres were once again under Swinomish control.

In the film, when Allan Olson, general manager for the tribe, tells the boys that the oil companies should owe the tribe “millions and millions of dollars for leasing the land”, Cayou asked, “You mean, we should be bling-blingin’ like the oil company executives?”

Community concerns about the unusually high number of toxic illnesses and cancer cases during the past 25 years eventually led the boys to tribal elder Brian Cladoosby, who told the boys, “Every year, they have a cleanup of the refinery. It’s called The Shutdown. During the 60s and 70s, they took a lot of that cleanup material and they dumped it in the middle of our reservation.”

Cladoosby also believes the community should be worried about other things. “I’m not sure how toxic the chemicals are that are released into the atmosphere. I know I see a lot of smoke or steam or things coming out of those plants, so I imagine when the north wind is blowing, and that stuff is flowing toward our Swinomish Reservation, the air quality is being impacted.”

Subsequent research by Cayou, Clark and Tom turned up published reports indicating the presence of heavy metals and chemical contamination in the Tribal tidelands and waters, where many of the community’s residents harvest clams, crabs and fish. Tribal lore claims that the salmonwere once so numerous that one could walk across the river on their backs. Today, there are large areas of the coastline considered unsafe, even though tribal-enforced testing of shellfish has not turned up any unacceptable levels of contamination, to date.

“It’s scary,” says one resident in the film with a shrug, “but, I’m not going to quit eating it. It’s an important part of who we are.”

The Awakening

As the boys delved deeper into the community’s accusations of pollution and political corruption, they become painfully aware that their tribe’s health and future were being systematically destroyed.

In a Discussion Guide on the documentary, published in conjunction with PBS, Rector writes, “The problems that Native communities face today are directly linked to a history of forced isolation, oppression and genocide. This inheritance and its impact on Native culture have contributed to violence, hopelessness, addiction and low self-esteem among Native youth…Throughout tribal communities in the Pacific Northwest, drug abuse, illiteracy, child abuse, poor health and nutrition and post-traumatic stress disorder are all well documented.”

“It’s tough staying out of trouble here because of the many challenges we face every day,” Cayou says in the film. “But, we care about our family, our tribe and our culture.”

“There are a lot of drugs in this community,” Clark admits. “My life was just going down the drain. If I didn’t get involved in Native Lens, I don’t know where I’d be right now. Probably on the streets somewhere or locked up or…I don’t know.”

As storytellers, the boys’ passion grew organically, emerging in a sense of responsibility, discipline and focus. Cayou and Clark preferred a methodical approach, while Tom was more spontaneous. When they learned how to take charge of interviewing the subjects and began to master different shooting techniques, Rector and co-producer Annie Silverstein took a backseat.

“After screening a day’s footage, it was often surprising how intuitive the boys’ perceptions and comments were for the story,” says Rector, who estimates they shot about 50 percent of the film. “They would invariably address the issues at hand in their own way, which was often much more gutsy and powerful.”

As the story began to take shape, the teens realized that the burden of finding serious solutions to these problems now fell on their shoulders. Native American activist Billy Frank Jr. advised them, “One of your generation will be sitting in my chair very soon and younger tribe members will be asking you questions. What will you do for the Swinomish Tribe?”

Such startling questions lay heavy on the boys’ minds. Although they had grown tremendously throughout the project, Cayou, Clark and Tom still felt incapable of dealing with all these inherited responsibilities.

“Until we find a healthier way to make cars go without oil, we have to do everything we can to protect our home because the next generation is depending on it,” Cayou later reflects in the film.

Feeling Their Way Out of the Box

When the boys received the news that they would be able to attend the Constituents Coffee with Washington State Senator Patty Murray in Washington, D.C., they began diligently preparing for the meeting. Even the night before, lounging in plush animal-print robes in the “most luxurious room we’ve ever seen”, the boys reviewed Murray’s stance on environmental issues.

Still, they worried whether anyone would step forward to take responsibility for the wrongs the federal government had perpetrated upon the tribe. They feared no one would come forward to help them solve their concerns.

While the boys were unable to tape the interview, they do share a very poignant moment with the audience after the momentous meeting. Slumped on a park bench, huddled in oversized jackets and ski hats that protect them from the harsh winter chill, the boys’ disappointment is obvious:

“We asked her some questions and she asked us questions,” explains Travis as he shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head.

“Seems like she’s really supportive of the environment,” chimes in Cody.

“I thought it was pretty cool because there were a lot of rich people in there. I don’t know if they were rich, but it was bright in there. We were probably the only dark faces,” says Travis, looking at the ground.

“A lot of smart people,” Cody says, “and, we didn’t fit in because we didn’t have suits on.”

“Yeah,” Travis adds, “with ties.”

“And, we’re not pol-i-ti-cians,” says Nick, speaking up for the first time.

“Don’t have to be,” Travis quips. “All you need is a suit and a tie, Nick.”

Nick responds with a silent nod.

“We felt out of the box,” Travis explains awkwardly.

“Yeah, like we weren’t supposed to be there or something,” says Cody. “But, she listened to us, so it’s all good.”

“We should meet more Senators,” Cody suggests.

“No,” Travis says, “I’ll feel out of the box again.”

A Film Inspires Hope

According to PBS’ “Independent Lens” program, “March Point questions for the first time the legality of the reservation boundary adjustment and documents the refineries’ environmental impacts.” The documentary, which aired on November 18, has received widespread critical acclaim in the film festival circuit, including Best Documentary at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in Toronto in October.

To view a trailer of March Point, click on the link below:

Mikula, who posted a comment on the March Point website after seeing the PBS screening, says, “I laughed and cried and fell in love with the work and the young men behind this amazing effort. As an old oil refinery worker, I can tell you that there is no way that industry will be made safer for the environment…These men deserve a standing applause for all the work they have done to get the truth out and tell the story of their people’s connections to the land and water. My grandfather was Cherokee, so that makes me a Native with a ‘bright face’ and an inner fire for our Mother Earth. You are the glorious sons of your people.”

“We hope this film will give the audience a window into the unique beauty of the Coast Salish people and their way of life,” Rector recently told PBS. “Also, it is our desire that March Point will bring awareness to the issues of environmental racism and the resulting disparity of big corporations on tribal lands and near people of color. Finally, we hope that governmental officials and local citizens will be inspired to take action in the cleanup of pollution from Puget Sound so the First People of the region can continue subsistence practices which nurture their rich cultural heritage and support good health.”

The boys have not only inspired those who have come in contact with the film, but the experience transformed their own lives, as well. Now seniors at La Conner High School, all three have improved their grades and Cayou and Clark plan to study filmmaking in college.

Native Lens hopes it can inspire more youth to follow their example. Longhouse Media started with financial support from the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, but now receives funds from the Lummi Indian Nation, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, Puyallup Tribe of Indians, Skokomish Tribal Nation, Squaxin Island Tribe, Suquamish Tribe and the Tulalip Tribes, as well as National Geographic and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). The next large project for the youth at Swinomish is to produce a monthly show for the tribal television station and for Seattle’s cable station SCAN-TV.

March Point is available on DVD at Community screenings of the film are available throughout North America and a Discussion Guide is available for download PBS’ website. For more information about Longhouse Media or the Native Lens project, contact Tracy Rector at 206/387-2468 or

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