This interview with Rachel Heaton is part of the series, American Indian Women Speak Out on Mercury Standards.
Rachel Heaton is an enrolled member of the Muckleshoot Tribe of Auburn, Washington, and a descendant of the Duwamish Tribe. She is also a proud mother to three children. Rachel was one of many Natives and other folks who helped the City of Seattle divest its $3 billion from Wells Fargo, in part because of its funding of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This victory prompted her to co-found Mazaska Talks, an indigenous-developed tool to help other communities divest their cities and organizations from banks contributing to the desecration of Mother Earth. She is also currently a Lead Culture Educator in her Tribal Community.
I live about 25 miles south of Seattle near my Tribe’s reservation in Auburn, Washington, which lies near and in the foothills of Mount Rainier. This is our ancestral land. We gather medicines out here, we harvest cedar trees and we use the land also for our cultural projects. Our reservation lies between two rivers, the White River and the Green River. Both are extremely important waterways to our community and they help provide a way of life through gathering and fishing. We also fish out of the waters of Puget Sound along the shores of Seattle, and traditionally we used to fish along the Duwamish River.
Fishing is a huge part of who we are as Muckleshoot people. We eat the fish, honor it, and understand its role in our lives and this way of living. We live in coastal Salish territory which means that we are surrounded by water.
Our people have always depended on the salmon. We serve our salmon at everything from cultural events, to community events, to school events, down to the everyday person who is fishing just to supply food into their home.
They call us the “Salmon People.” When there are issues involving pollution, issues with our rivers, it literally affects every single person in our community as the entire community relies on fish as a main food source.
I have three children: a 21-year-old daughter, a 13-year-old daughter, and a 16-month old son. Mercury was an ongoing concern with my doctor during my pregnancies. I was told to not eat as much fish, to be careful, to limit it if I do eat it, to know where it comes from, because of the chemical poisoning from mercury.
I don’t want to jeopardize my baby by exposing him to mercury. But this has been our food source for thousands of years. As a mother who grew up learning the importance and health benefits that our fish provides, and then not being able to eat it, it does have an impact on your life. When my baby was born, I asked myself, “Do I feed this to him very often or do I not?” Having to be aware of these things is frustrating. I read that the average baby in the Unites States is born with 84 known chemicals in his body, and mercury is one of them. How do we start changing that? It’s frustrating that I don’t know what our people will do when the fish don’t return, or when the chemical numbers are so high in our fish that they can’t be eaten. We rely on it so much.
EPA has not consulted with tribes about the mercury ruling. But that’s not new. I’ve done a lot of work around the pipelines. I was out at Standing Rock. Tribal consultation didn’t happen there either. We get the direct impact – we are the ones most affected by climate change, we have the highest rates of death due to heart disease, we’re the last ones to be talked to, if we are talked to at all.
Fish is the food source that feeds our people. When you look at the genocide of Native people, which has been ongoing for hundreds of years, there are tactics that they’ve used to get rid of US. Sometimes it’s been assimilation, sometimes boarding schools, sometimes harming our food sources.
There are 29 federally recognized tribes here in Washington. There are coal plants located next to some of the reservations here. But this thing is, all of our waterways are joined. So at some point, something that affects us in the north also affects us in the south, because all of our waterways are connected.
I am a cultural educator. I collect medicines and plants for my community. I regularly go to our rivers. We have ceremonies that take place on our waterways.
Along the Duwamish River, we see businesses and warehouses. Any time they are producing or working with harmful chemicals, they run directly into the river. This is where our boats are, where we fish, it’s where our longhouses were before the government came in and removed them. All of these waterways are our ancestral highways.
We participate in “Canoe Journey.” During this yearly event, hundreds of canoes go out into our waters. It is a huge part of who we are. This year, we actually passed a coal refinery when we were leaving one of the reservations. As we took our canoes out, we talked about what we were swimming in, and what our canoes were sitting in. We view our canoes as living beings, they come from our trees, which are living beings. Putting our canoes in the water, knowing that there’s pollution and contaminants, is a concern for us. If we don’t address these issues it actually stops our cultural practices and the traditions that were left for us from our ancestors.
Photo: Conchita Sophia