Narrative Summary (cont.)

"Sustainability:" The word and concept

The term "sustainability" is being used more and more frequently as greater attention is being giving to a broad set of problems for which the human species is responsible. Most of us use the word "sustainability" to some extent, while just less than half of us regularly use the word (see Table 7). In using and hearing the term, most of us hold some reservations about how it is applied. We recognize that many people, particularly in industry, use the term to serve their own interests without seriously considering its meaning and the context within which it is applied.(5,11,13) By itself, sustainability is a very abstract term, thus it needs to be broken down a bit to understand its meaning.(13) For starters, Table 8 provides some definitions and initial thoughts about the word itself. Further, Figure 8 illustrates some of the key topics that come to mind when we think of sustainability. As indicated by this figure, sustainability is linked with many other things. In other words, the issue of sustainability is tied up with pretty much everything we could talk about.(2,11,13)

Table 7
Participant use of the term "sustainability"

"Sustainability" the term

Use regularly

Use, but not regularly

Use rarely if at all

Use with reservation/ qualification

Participant use of term





Closely associated terms:

Sustenance, conservation, preservation, taking care, protecting, respect, humility, cultural sustainability, diversification, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), reciprocity, resilience, adaptability, reclamation, identity, knowledge, nature, harmony, balance, the natural way of life

Table 8
Excerpted responses to question(s) regarding use of term sustainability and/or "how would you define 'sustainability'"?

Use/definition of "sustainability"


"A short definition for sustain is to keep intact, to maintain, and that is a deliberate decision.  It's a deliberate thing to sustain, because you understand the system, you understand its nature, so you take action not to harm irreparably that system."

Antone Minthorn (Cayuse)

"I would probably say it's similar to 'nature.' I was asked how to define 'nature,' and it's every living thing on earth…So, I think sustainability goes back to nature, and everything that's here."

Carol Craig (Yakama)

"Sustainability is a very high level abstraction word.  When I think of sustainability, I have to break it down a bit and say what does that mean for indigenous people in this struggle? What does it mean for the land, the struggle to restore the land? Words that come to mind are resilience, the capacity to adapt to change, reclamation of our voice and vision, identity, knowledge, places, names of places, land, harmony."

Dennis Martinez (O'odham / Anglo / Chicano)

"As we (Haida) see it, it is living from the land without spoiling it."

Guujaaw (Haida)

"Sustainability on one level means to be able to maintain and sustain the fullness of health that needs to be there for us to thrive, and for everything else to thrive."

Jeannette Armstrong (Syilx)

"Home...Sustainability to me is keeping in touch with Mother Nature, valuing a resource, conservation, preservation, the beauty of it all…Realizing that everything that mother earth provides is how you eat.  There is a big chain.  Everything serves a purpose.  You take away one thing and it hurts everything else."

Joeneal Hicks (Ahtna)

"I don't know if I so much use "sustainability," because what I see is more taking care of things, and protecting it, what we have, and trying to make sure we will have that in the future."

Kathryn Martin (Ahtna)

"My way of thinking is that we have something for today, and something for the future too.  That's how I define it.  Something that we have today that we are going to need tomorrow too."

Nicholas Jackson (Ahtna)

"I don't have one really fantastic definition…what comes to mind is our individual and our collective consciousness, that our resources and our land and our time here on earth don't necessarily belong to us, it belongs to our children and our children's children and it's really that consciousness and that thought of being stewards of whatever that resource is.  Be it our culture, be it our values, be it our environment, be it the land, those are all resources that we have and how do we protect it and sustain it for our children's children."

Nichole Maher (Tlingit)

"The part that I think is so interesting about the word "sustain," is sustenance.   The roots of the word have to do with giving life and livability."

Roberta Conner (Cayuse)

"I guess I would define it as…it's got to start back at our culture.  I mean, that's the foundation for our sustainability is our culture, our identity, who we are.  You don't have that, you don't have people that have ownership in who the tribe is."

Shawn Yanity (Stillaguamish)

"Sustainability is all about the links between your traditions, your culture and the norms that are being imposed upon you by an outside society.  The links that I am talking about have to do with the ability of any particular group of people…to absorb what needs to be absorbed from the world at large, to protect and preserve what it has to have in order to sustain itself."

Wilson Justin (Althsetnay)

In our worldview, everything is profoundly connected.(2,8,12,13)  Sustainability is a term that should be used with awareness of the whole and our connection there within.  When used with a consciousness disconnected from our profound connection with all of creation, then "sustainability" is a disconnected term that will fail to take the whole into consideration.  Whatever decisions we make from such a place will have domino effects, merely displacing problems at best.(13) We must embody our awareness of the intimate and profound connection among all things. We posses an inherent intelligence, and if we operate with our minds and our hearts connected, then we will move in greater harmony with creation.

We believe that sustainability is about living with a consciousness that our time here on Earth, and all the gifts here are not ours; they are borrowed from our children and our children's children. As such, it is our responsibility to be stewards of the Earth during our time here to ensure that future generations are able to experience those same gifts during their time here.(2,4,7,9,10,11,12,13) Doing so calls for making a deliberate decision that we will sustain these gifts.(2,6)  "We need to look at the big picture and say once and for all that we want to protect this creation for our future generations." (2)

Even if we commit to this decision, given the interconnectedness of our world, we recognize that for our communities to be sustainable, sustainability must be achieved globally.(5,10,12,13)  "My people now includes every person…because you are all connected to what happens in my home, and in my land, and what happens to my children, and my grandchildren." (12)  We accept our responsibility to tend to our respective places in the world, and to share our knowledge and understanding with others who are willing to accept the same responsibility.(9,12,13)

Figure 8. Mapping of topics closely related to the concept of sustainability, and some of their interconnections. Each node represents a theme or topic that reoccurred in numerous interviews. Links among nodes are based upon associations among those themes and topics as discussed by the participants. Note that all linking arrows are double-headed to facilitate some ability to trace the linkages. As such, the links simply imply an association without specifying the nature of that association. Many of these links are made more specific in the narrative.

Taking Care

At its most basic level, sustainability is about survival: we have to have water and air and we have to have some form of sustenance.(8,9,10,11)  The shared roots of the words sustainability and sustenance, "have to do with giving life and livability." (9) Had it not been for all our relatives, including the deer, the elk, the moose, the berries, the roots, the salmon, and many others, we would not be here today.(6,8,10,11)  Especially during challenging times, we must take care of and protect these things that are our life source, that give us sustenance and sustain us.(2,3,4,8,9,10,11)  "If you take care of it, it will take care of you." (3)

Taking care is about living in accordance with natural law.  All our plant and animal relatives live according to natural law and require certain cyclical processes to sustain themselves.  We must respect these processes so that we do not destroy the foods.(2,3,6,9,10,13)  "If you violate that law, to where you break that cycle, then you pay the consequence and whatever that may be." (6)  In other words, "there is an order to things, there is a balance to things, and that balance is sustaining.  If things are out of balance, we have difficult times." 9 Decisions such as clear-cutting a forest to maximize immediate economic gain compromise the balance, violate natural law and create difficult times.(9,11,13)

Considering natural law, the true meaning of sustainability is not theoretical, it is practical.(7,9,12)  There are clear implications for what to do and what not to do.  Our traditional laws, ceremonies, and teachings are all about giving guidance to appropriate ways of living and interacting with the landscape and as a community to ensure that our behaviors are not a danger to ourselves, all else around us, and the generations to come.(5,7,9,12,13)  Maintaining and sustaining the fullness of health needed for us and everything else to thrive is our responsibility, and that is what our intelligence, creativity and the gift of being human is about.  "If we cannot measure up to that, and we cannot live up to that, we're not needed here, and we won't be here." (12)  Alternatively, we can accept responsibility to live in balance with natural law by looking after the land that provides for our needs and by not abusing the gifts of the Creator.(3,8,9,10,11,13)

Economic Development

Sustainability is about harmony between ecology and the economy that a community of people engages to meet their needs.(6,9,10,11,12,13)  Such harmony requires very intimate knowledge among the people about the local ecology.(10,13)  We possess greater knowledge than many give us credit for, and with empowerment to design our own economic systems, much can be done to provide for culture and economy and environment.(6,9,11,13)  That does not call for a hands-off approach: it is "a matter of how you do it and where the limits are drawn.  For instance, taking all of the fish from a river will give you a pocket of money, but taking only a portion of those fish over many decades provides far more over time, potentially in perpetuity." (11)  Such an approach requires people to be "able to maintain their need level consistent with their ability to meet that need." (5)  This calls for personal humility and resisting temptations to accumulate more personal wealth than is necessary.(2,9,11)  "There should be enough here for everybody to live, eat well and be comfortable, the trouble is that too many people want more than enough." (11)  A guiding rule is to always take only what you need, and make good use of that which you take.(3,9)  Perhaps such an orientation is the antidote to concerns of overpopulation.  This has not been tested, and we believe it is a possibility worth testing.(11,12)

Given the difficulties of today's circumstances, there are some aspects of our thinking on economic development that differ among us.  Some of us believe that given the context of the larger socio-economic system within which we are embedded, we cannot let progress pass us by, and we have to keep up with the times.(6,8)  Conversely, some of us call for a completely radical realignment in the way we think and how the socio-economic systems operate.(5,10,11,12,13)  We can agree that an economy is necessary to provide for our needs, but questions remain as to how to achieve an economy that aligns with our cultural values and restores the environment.  Answers to these questions are likely to vary with each community's degree of empowerment and the amount of viable opportunities available.

A Human Focus

While appropriate economic development is important, we believe that the conversation around sustainability should be more focused on us as human, as opposed to focused on commerce and how to sustain levels of resource utilization for human purposes.(5,12)  A human focus calls for attention to the knowledge we have of ourselves and our environment, with focus on how to make a good life in coexistence with one another and other species.(5,7,8,11,12,13)  A human focus means a focus on how our families and communities function, and how to equitably distribute our resources.(5,7,8,12,13)  A human focus in this sense forces reflection on some very important questions: What does it mean to be human?  What does it mean to be indigenous?  What does it mean to be a part of this planet and one of the life forms?  What is our role and what knowledge and skills and values do we need to cultivate to be responsible participants?  How do we build community where we are all cared for and belong?  How do we build community so that we function in balance and unity as a whole healthy organism? (7,8,9,12,13)

In reflecting on these questions, kincentricity may be a useful word to represent a key aspect of our thinking.  Kincentricity means living with recognition that we are all related, not just with our biological family and other human relations, but also with plants and animals with which we depend upon and share the landscape.(2,8,9,10,11,12,13)  If all people were to really believe, internalize, and act on the idea of kincentricity then "there will be more harmony between natural systems and human societies," (13) because as members of a kinship system we are a part of an agreement to be responsible for all of our relatives.  Honoring that responsibility will translate to respect, care and stewardship for the welfare of all our relations.(9,13)  "If we consider that as being the paramount value we have, then everything we do, everything we think about and so on, and the ways we derive our economic livelihoods, we should make every effort to include our relatives in a respectful way, and do things that promote their welfare.  That is coming from a spiritual place." (13)


Spirituality is important and relevant in this conversation about sustainability.(2,3,5,7,8,9,10,12,13)  First, we acknowledge that each individual has their own experience and personal truth, and is entitled to pursue their own path.(5)  While words can never fully capture its full essence, we speak of spirituality in part as being centered and living from the heart,(8) being connected,(3) being whole,(9) being respectful of all things.(2,3) and fulfilling our responsibility as caretakers of the gifts from the Creator.(8,12)

Spirituality includes knowledge that while we are individuals and temporary in our bodies we are part of a larger living life force.  Within that larger life force we have a role as humans to maintain the balance.  Our essential nature calls upon us to be responsible for the care, protection, and love of the whole outside of our temporary selves.(12)  In these terms, it is easy to see the link between spirituality and sustainability.  In a sense, they are no different, for we must have the knowledge of ourselves as part of everything else, feel that understanding and give expression to it through our lives in balance with all things so that we may carry it forward as human beings from generation to generation.(12)

Our ceremonies and traditional practices are vehicles for helping people experience that spiritual connection.(5,13)  They also teach people the ways to live out their responsibilities, and help put people in a positive place to do good work in their lives.(13)  Maintaining and restoring these aspects of our culture is critical to overall sustainability.

Cultural Sustainability

Much of our focus is on cultural sustainability, and "really focusing on the gifts and the strengths and the values and the beliefs that we have and carrying that forward." (7)  Because culture and the environment are so inter-connected, we must work towards achieving both.  Our principles and values promote conservation and environmental consciousness, and, we need healthy, abundant places to practice our culture.  So again, both cultural and environmental sustainability are really essential and support one another.(2,7,12,13)

Cultural sustainability means continuously passing along the "the gifts of our values, the gifts of our beliefs, the gifts of our principles to our children, to our descendants, and a series of tools as well, about how to live." (7)  It also means giving our children a strong sense of who they are, that they are wanted and needed and truly belong in our communities, and that they play an important role as our leaders of tomorrow.(4,7,8,10) Some primary values and principles of our cultures that we believe are of utmost importance to pass onto our children and instill in them as our future leaders include: respect, reciprocity, and humility.  "A value has value because it's multigenerational.  It stays in place," (5) and these are a few values we see as worth sustaining as they are important to sustainability.

Respect.  "Respect is one of the core operative principles of law amongst our people," (11) and it is a central value and practice needed for sustainability.(2,3,6,7,9,13)  Respect for the land and all life forms is shown through taking only what you need, making good use of what you take without wasting, and being appreciative of all the gifts.  Respect for others is shown by sharing,(2,3) not being judgmental, having love and understanding in your heart,(8,12) being very thoughtful in what you do and say,(7) and honoring ways of life that differ from yours.(2,4,5)  All this comes back to having respect for yourself, as you are dependent on others and the gifts of the Creator.(4,6,9,11)

Reciprocity.  Closely related to respect, reciprocity is about maintaining the balance of coexisting and being in relationship with other species and other people.(7,9,13)  Reciprocity means being in true partnership in the sharing of space and resources.(7)   You are mutually dependent on the other, so you never take all of anything and you give something back whenever you take anything.  This maintains balance and ensures something is left for others and yourself in future years.(9,13)

Humility.  "People aren't the most important thing in the universe.  We're not more important than other things." (9) We are a part of this world, we are not in charge of it, and should not assume we know which parts of the whole are more important.   Taking more than we need lacks humility and runs the risk of upsetting the balance.(9)  We have much to be grateful for, and showing our appreciation is part of having humility.(9) Also, others may hold knowledge we do not, so we must be humble to be open to learn from what they know.(5,12)

In addition to promoting these values, our diverse cultural traditions serve to keep us healthy, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  Our cultures provide the space through ceremonies, dance, music and song, language, and art to help our people maintain free movement and flow of the life force within, keeping us individually and collectively in harmony with all of creation.(13)


An idea that ties together much of what has been mentioned thus far is that of home.  Home is the place that sustains us and has sustained our ancestors for thousands of years.(6,9,11,12)  Home is where our cultures developed.(2,6,10)  Home is where our kinships formed; the place of all our relations.(2,4,10,12,13)  Home is a place we can call our own and be empowered to make the decision to sustain all our relations for the benefit of future generations.(6,8,10)  If you know you are home, and never intend to leave, then it is never in your long-term interests to harm the place you live.(2,9,10) 

When you live in one place for many generations, an understanding and connection develops that is very deep,(9,12,13) "as people know if they're third and forth generation farmers or ranchers." (12)  "The more intimate and familial our knowledge is of landscapes and species, then it's no longer an impersonal destruction that we're involved in.  It's a personal reconstruction, a personal restoration." (9) When you develop a deep connection with, and a deep knowledge of a landscape and everything that belongs there, then sustainability is the natural byproduct, it is the natural way to live.(9,11)  Now is a critical time for us to demonstrate our love for the places we call home.(2,6,9,10,12,13)

Extending from these thoughts about sustainability, we offer the following as an expression of our hopeful vision for the future of our communities that call Salmon Nation home.

Our Vision