Aspen Institute fellow stresses native customs, sovereignty

For the Basin Business Journal | May 12, 2024 1:00 AM

SPOKANE — Sophia Turning Robe grew up learning about the importance of salmon, and by extension the natural world, to her ancestors, her contemporaries and hopefully generations to come.

“I know how important it is to our people, and to natives of the Pacific Northwest,” she said. 

Turning Robe is a citizen of the Spokane Tribe through her mom, she said, and a descendant of the Siksika Nation (Alberta and Saskatchewan) through her dad. While her family had always explained the place of salmon in the lives of the people who lived along the Columbia and Snake rivers and the tributaries, not everybody had the same experience, she said.

“I have lots of friends, even other natives, yet they don’t know the importance and high status that salmon has for us in the Pacific Northwest,” she said. “A lot of our culture is centered around our relationship to salmon – the way that we care for it, how we eat it, the ceremonies that we go through when we eat salmon, when we butcher and gut our salmon. When I talk to my other friends that aren’t from the Pacific Northwest and they’re native, they might not understand how important it is to us.”

A fellowship from the Aspen Institute is giving Turning Robe an opportunity to tell the story of salmon and its place in native life in the Pacific Northwest. She was one of 10 native young people to receive the Brave Heart Fellowship for 2024. The fellowship is open to native young people 18 to 24 years of age living in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and northern California. 

She’s using the opportunity to teach people about salmon, the native culture and the environment, and how people can use that information when they vote in the race for the Fifth District seat in the U.S. Congress this fall.

“I want to, of course, share all this history, but I also think information without action is nothing,” she said. “I really want to inform people about (the candidates’) policy towards our environment, towards salmon. So I’ve been researching who’s running and what their policy is, looking at their website (and) their past work.”

What she has found, she said, is that some of the candidates don’t seem to know much about the relationship between the native tribes, who are nations in their own right, and the U.S. government. There’s also a lack of knowledge about the role of salmon in native culture, she said.

“They haven’t, from what I’ve seen on their websites, (discussed) the importance of our environment. They haven’t really touched on native salmon rights,” she said. 

Turning Robe is a recent graduate of Whitworth University and plans to attend law school at the University of Montana.

“They have a great program that focuses specifically on American Indian law,” she said. “What I hope to do is continue advocating for tribal sovereignty and for the rights of Native Americans and the rights of tribes. Not only that, but also keep present our cultural values and our moral values, things that keep us rooted in our culture.”