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Prosperous Ecosystems

Interview with Micah McCarty

headshot of Mica McCarty
Micah McCarty, Executive Officer for the Nisqually Tribe, former Tribal Chairman of the Makah Tribe

Micah has an incredible story. From growing up away from the Makah Indian Reservation and nearly dropping out of high school, he went on to become the Tribal Chairman of the Makah Nation for three straight terms. He has a firm grasp of the intricacies of tribal and governmental relations. And he sees very clearly the urgent need for all parties—tribes, federal and state governments, environmentalists, fishermen and all concerned citizens— to work together to address the very real, very urgent needs of the ecosystem of the Puget Sound watershed. Here's his story...


The work I do comes from a deep passion to improve the welfare and self-determination of American Indians. This put me on a spiritual and self-educative pathway, which, in large part, stems from some early childhood exposure to important teachings from the Baha’i Faith: individual investigation of truth. That is, learning to learn for yourself what things are important and how things came to be the way they are. Digging deeper, rather than just accepting the superficial, one-sided version of history that’s usually written by the victors.

I was born to a full-blooded Makah father and a New England “refugee,” so to speak. My mother wanted to get away from some of the sickness of the affluenza of New England. She went from the Northeast to the Northwest on a mission, and ended up on the Makah Reservation where she met my father. I was born in Port Angeles, Washington on the Winter Solstice, 1970.

There was a lot of alcoholism on the Reservation and a rather hostile environment due to the fishing wars my dad was involved in. My mother also had ambitions to finish college. So she took her two young kids away from the Reservation. But she made a point to make sure we got back to the Rez (Reservation) every summer and that we learned as much of our father’s family history as possible. She wanted to make sure we knew who we were and where we came from.

When I finished high school, my dad, who saw me grow up from a distance, said, “Give me one year, Son. I want to have some time with you before you become the man you’re going to become.” So I went back to the Rez and became a treaty fisherman.

A Profound Learning Experience

One day, I walked into the Fisheries Director’s office with my dad to see what the prospects were for different kinds of fall and winter fisheries. We found out the California Grey Whale had been taken off the Endangered Species List. My great-grandfather was one of the last Makah whale hunters. My dad’s uncle had helped sew up the mouth of the whale to make it easier to tow home. Whale hunting is an important cultural tradition to my people. The possibility of holding a whale hunt created such a sense of excitement for me— being involved in something that was to become very historical.

The process to get to the whale hunt was a profound learning experience for me. I quickly learned about the competing jurisdictions within the federal family (of government). I learned how animal rights activists exploit public environmental law, like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which provides public participation in government decision making. It was a whole new scene: national politics, international politics, local and regional politics, even intra-indigenous politics. It was just a profound learning experience.

Before tribal governments became actively involved in managing their own resources, the Bureau of Indian Affairs managed those resources on behalf of the tribes. But agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs were often corrupt and received kickbacks from crony-ism. As a result, Makah forestry and fisheries and other resources were completely mismanaged to the extreme benefit of outsiders, at the expense of the tribes.

I started assisting people who had grievances about how the Reservation was being mismanaged. In the process, I started promoting some former Tribal Council members to run for tribal office, only to be nominated myself. I was asked to run for Tribal Council at a time when I wasn’t really ready to commit to something like that. But once I was successful in getting into office, it opened the door to a huge, immense interdisciplinary learning experience. Suddenly I had to be knowledgeable about Indian Health Services, best practices in the judicial system, Family Services, restorative justice, behavioral health patterns, education, tribal sovereignty, tribal jurisdiction, the overlapping jurisdictions of the feds and the state, treaty resource management, the science and ecology of treaty resource management, federal and tribal political relations, political party process… You name it, it crossed the desk of the Chairman or the Tribal Council. I had to figure things out really quickly.

The Significance of the Treaties

It’s important to understand the circumstances around the Indian treaties. The United States government, through an act of Congress, formally recognized Indian title to the land before they negotiated the treaty. The President’s office sent a delegation, representing the highest office in the land, to negotiate treaties with the tribal chiefs—as equals. The first benefit of the treaties to the United States was a foreign policy tool which allowed them to lay legitimate claim to the lands of the West and tell England “Your claims lie above this border, because we negotiated the territories from the original owners, rightfully.” Then they could use the same language to push the Spanish south into Mexico. The federal government, of course, didn’t have full intention to live up to the treaties, so they relegated tribal relations to downstream decision makers. And so my pathway has been pre-prepared to take a loftier approach to intergovernmental relations, working more directly with senior political officials and senior government officials in Washington, D.C., no matter what the issue was, from EPA to the U.S. Coast Guard to Indian Health Services to national marine sanctuary. Whatever was important to my people and to Indian Country in general.

The irony, too, is that one of the other immediate benefits of the treaty to the United States, was the formation of Washington as a state. The Washington territory couldn’t become a state without the ability to fund public education. The ceded lands that the Tribes granted to the United States, became the taxable land base from which the territory could fund public education and thus satisfy a requirement for statehood.

So many public officials, at both the state and the federal level, erroneously consider treaties as special privileges based on race and falsely believe that the United States gave or granted treaty rights to the Tribes. But it was, quite frankly, all the way the other way around.  The United States did not have the authority to give us something we already own. Treaties are legal agreements between tribal nations and the federal government.

I look at the longevity of tribal culture and the oral history of our people—the living breath of our ancestors, our living wisdom. Then I look at the infancy of a nation that’s less than 300 years old. And a state that’s less than two centuries old. These are junior governments to tribal government. They’ve got a lot to learn.

I served three straight terms on the Tribal Council—nine years in total, including one year as Vice-Chairman and three years as Chairman. After nearly a decade on Council, with young children to help raise, I decided not to run for a fourth straight term in order to spend more time with my family. Now I have a unique opportunity to play a supportive role to the Nisqually tribal government as senior policy advisor, program developer and just an interdisciplinary resource for the Tribal Council.

Prosperity of Biodiversity

Prosperity is a human right. It’s also a right of the planet to have prosperous ecosystems and a prosperous diversity of culture. We need to get back to the symbiotic relationship between biodiversity and cultural diversity where living cultures are, in fact, functioning elements of the ecosystems they came from.

The seasonal cycle of indigenous lifestyles are dependent on and cognizant of seasonal changes. In one’s traditional territory, what’s available in April isn’t the same as what’s available in August, for instance. The traditional organic almanac is traditional ecological knowledge. It’s a perspective and it’s a living memory. It means being in tune with and spreading your dependence across the ecology, as opposed to single species exploitation or single species management without understanding its interplay with the environment. It’s learning to understand those patterns so that you actually become part of the balance of that whole ecology.

Single species exploitation has caused conservation concerns, but, too often, society focuses on the overprotection of that species, without realizing that it’s really a part of a larger ecosystem. For instance, right now, the California sea lions are overpopulated and beyond their traditional range. This threatens the recovery plans for steelhead, rockfish and Chinook salmon. In fact, this problem is probably so big and so real that it could also be a limiting factor in the recovery plan of the Puget Sound orca whales.

California sea lions, in some ways, can be considered an invasive species in the Salish Sea. They breed in the Channel Islands off the coast of California and then migrate north, following the food. Now there’s a real conservation necessity to address the mortality rate of outward migrating steelhead smolts leaving the nursery of the Nisqually River: 90% of them are eaten before they get out of the Puget Sound. And these sea lions are now being found further up river systems than they’ve ever been seen before.

As a result of overprotection, the California sea lion ecosystem has reached a breaking point. This year, in fact, we’ve seen a mass-stranding of prematurely-weaned sea lion pups because the moms don’t have enough food to feed themselves, let alone make enough milk to keep feeding their pups. What we’re seeing is the animal rights activists, in protecting the sea lions, have created a crisis for other species. And the people who are in positions of responsibility to fix the problem are too scared to do anything about it. Meanwhile, sports fishermen, treaty fishermen, people who really do care about the overall ecosystem, are experiencing the collateral damage of this psychosis. And an ecosystem is ready to collapse.

There’s enough money already being spent in this area to address the problems. The funds just need to be reprogrammed into a more realistic and holistic approach to responsible resource management. I think of the legal fees the National Marine Fisheries Service has to spend because the Natural Resource Defense Council is suing it over their recovery plan of certain rockfish species. As a result, the science to understand the stock assessment of the rockfish doesn’t get enough money because the federal government has to put more money into litigation. I think about the prosperity of animal rights and environmentalist organizations that have the money to hold the government hostage in court. Why don’t they have the money to put into a partnership to improve the research and science to actually ground truth these situations? I think of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Is it even necessary now? How many millions of dollars are we putting into what was once needed, but which is now a problem?

There’s enough prosperity in Western Washington to improve the infrastructure that people depend on and to be more responsible to the watershed. There’s enough prosperity in the Puget Sound to live more sustainably and to reduce the salmon footprint of Western civilization here. There’s enough prosperity to be smarter about ecosystem-based management.

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