For more than 100 years, the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams blocked the passage of salmon in the lower part of the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. Since removal of the dams was completed in 2014, river restoration efforts persist and the ecosystem continues its slow regrowth.
In a new article published in Contexts, a quarterly magazine focused on cutting-edge sociological ideas and research, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Whitney Mauer examines the cultural impact the damning and undamming has had on the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. The lower Elwha River is deeply tied to Klallam identity and cultural practice.
In “Undamming the Elwha River,” Mauer explains that the Klallam “are a salmon people for whom salmon occupy a central role in cultural values, traditions, and social and economic systems.” The damming of the river and logging of adjacent land resulted in deterioration of the fish habitat and salmon runs, which in turn “undermined Klallam economies and cultural practices tied to salmon by submerging Klallam sacred sites and inhibiting Klallam access to traditional sites, villages, and resources,” she writes.
Mauer goes on to explore how resilience approaches to restoration take for granted that restoring the ecosystem will lead to cultural renewal. Her research with the Lower Elwha Klallam provides a cautionary note. “… in the present form, restoration practice risks reinscribing trauma by triggering memories of past colonial ecological violence,” she writes, noting that “the restoration of the landscape may help support Klallam survival, but without revitalization of Indigenous institutions and practices, it is unlikely to support Klallam resurgence and self-determination.”
The article details Mauer’s conversations with community members, conducted in collaboration with the Lower Elwha Tribal Council, about their experiences with the river restoration. “We heard members of the community express strong hopes for ecological restoration to contribute to cultural renewal,” she writes.
Extrapolating from the experiences of the Klallam, Mauer postulates that “sociologists can help bridge the gap between resilience-based environmental practice and Indigenous ecologies by critically questioning whether resilience approaches reproduce settler-colonial, eco-social structures or whether they center Indigenous systems and resurgence.”
To read the complete article, click here.