‘I’m not going anywhere’: Quinault residents stay in Taholah despite severe storms

Quinault River, Taholah, WA
The view from the mouth of the Quinault River looking toward the Pacific Ocean shows the breakwater meant to prevent waves from reaching the lower village in Taholah, Washington. (Kinsey Crowley/Medill)

By Kinsey Crowley
Medill Reports

“I live at the end of the street, and I’m not going anywhere.”

Lia Frenchman, the historic preservation technologist for the Quinault Indian Nation, emphatically declared her resolve to stay in her home in the lower village of Taholah, Washington, during a presentation for visiting students. Earlier this winter, a severe storm during the year’s highest tide, known as the King Tide, sent water crashing over the wall of logs and debris meant to protect houses along the shoreline. According to Quinault President Guy Capoeman, it was the first time a wave had come over breakwater in his lifetime.

The waves hit Frenchman’s home, causing flooding for the second time in the two years since she purchased it. Winter storms are not the only threat to inhabitants in the lower village. Rising sea levels due to climate change and predictions of a major tsunami have pushed the Quinault to formalize plans to move to higher ground. The Quinault Indian Nation Business Committee adopted the Taholah Relocation Plan in June 2016, and since then the Quinault Indian Nation has completed the new Generations Building in the upper village to house programs for elders and children 75 feet above sea level, out of tsunami flood zone.

Housing is the next priority for relocation efforts as listed in the relocation plan. However, many residents of the lower village share Frenchman’s sentiment: They do not want to relocate. This is in part due to the deep Quinault history with the land.

Tribal Elder Justine James said Taholah was once considered the land of riches as the salmon returning to spawn were most bountiful where the river meets the ocean. Archaeological digs show dwellings not only in Taholah but also clustered along the river that runs east to Lake Quinault. The land where those villages once stood, however, remains uninhabited today.

“I believe this — when smallpox and influenza came here, it really wiped out a lot of people,” said Capoeman, explaining how the people who used to live along the river moved what remained of their villages down to Taholah.

This knowledge, along with the greater history of Indigenous displacement, has an impact on some residents’ decision to stay despite environmental risks.

“​​It was like … in a way, the last thing they had, because all the other villages were decimated. We know this is a village site. And this was the area that everything happened,” Frenchman said. “It was just kind of like the last thing we were given to hold on to. So even though it’s not really like we’re moving away, it’s just weird having to uproot.”

Tia Allen, Quinault tribal member, secretary of the Cultural Committee and EPA tribal coordinator, said she has seen similar sentiments amongst other coastal tribes who are being displaced due to environmental risk. She says it is “just that sense of … always kind of having to be forced out by someone, something,” that makes people want to stay put.

Quinault Indian Nation land use planner Michael Cardwell said the sentimental attachment to the land isn’t the only factor that could prevent residents from moving uphill. Many homes in the lower village are multigenerational, and, while elders may want to live out the rest of their days in their homes, the younger generations are open to establishing themselves in the upper village. For some, this is not financially feasible. While the Quinault Housing Authority is expected to act as the developer of the houses, which will include a number of environmentally resistant and energy-efficient features, residents will be responsible for monthly payments, utilities and maintenance.

Although housing remains a priority in the move to higher ground, there are other external factors that impact decisions about the relocation process. According to Cardwell, funding for these projects primarily comes from four different sources: the Quinault gaming revenue, federal Housing & Urban Development loans, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other grants. However, gaming revenue has decreased due to COVID19, and other recent funding aims to provide immediate risk mitigation for the residents of the lower village. According to Quinault’s newspaper Nugguam, $1.7 million is on track to be approved by the Washington State Legislature for an emergency route out of Taholah, as part of the main access road is at high risk of landslide.

Cardwell’s office along with a few other government functions moved from the round house in the lower village to the Generations Building in the upper village when it opened last year. While residents like Frenchman continue to fight the elements in the lower village, Cardwell and his colleagues fight for more resources to prevent their village from being submerged in up to 50 feet of water in the aftermath of a tsunami.

“Indian tribes have to do that,” Cardwell said. “No one else is looking out for us. We have to look out for us.”

Kinsey Crowley is a social justice graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @kinseycrowley.

Editor’s note, March 29, 2022, 2:40 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct the name of the Quinault Indian Nation Business Committee.