Anyone who lives on the Puyallup Reservation – and even those who drive through on occasion – has witnessed the sprawling landscape of refuse that has piled up over the years, generated by senseless littering, illegal dumping and homeless encampments. The Puyallup Tribal Council has retaliated by authorizing a massive clean-up project called Clean Our Rez, and the results so far have been nothing short of amazing.
Gina LaPointe is the director of the Tribal Workforce Development department and it was she who ignited the fire to unsoil the reservation. Living in Milton and driving to work each day, Gina decided to do something about the blight of trash that, over the years, has become an uncontrollable nuisance.
“I approached Tribal Council to ask if it would be possible to start a Clean Our Rez crew and to start with the Puyallup River, and Council was gracious enough to allow me to start the program,” she said. “This will be a year-round program and we’re going to clean our rez as much as we can.”
After getting Council’s blessing, Tribal Workforce Development set out to hire members of the Puyallup Tribal community to form the work crew. William Kukona-Sonn, the Clean Our Rez supervisor, said work began in February, and since then they have made immense aesthetic and environmental improvements to the Puyallup River bed.
We’ve done at least 70,000 pounds,” he said during a clean-up along River Road on April 5. Tribal members Lance Keating and Peter Kalama have been working with William from day one of the Clean Our Rez Program. “Slowly we got more crew and did the big work in the beginning with a crew of 10,” William said. On this day along River Road, the aforementioned were also working alongside with crew members Nancy Sam and Mary Sportsman.
“I’m really concerned about the river because nobody wants their children to go down there,” Mary said. “When our fishermen go fishing down there, there’s all the garbage and the danger with the needles and all kinds of things like that. Our kids get out and run around and play there and they should be able to enjoy the river, not be in a disaster.”
There have indeed been hundreds of needles collectively disposed of thus far (a conservative estimate), along with everything from discarded mattresses and furniture to an abandoned RV that the crew disassembled and disposed of. Puyallup Tribal Police and surrounding area law enforcement departments have been assisting in clearing out homeless encampments, which is a substantial source of the garbage pile-up. It’s something no one really wants to do, but the fate of the river – and the salmon – is at stake and something has to be done to save them.
“They got a camp right next to the river, and we can see their garbage going right down the hill and it will end up in the river,” Mary Sportsman said.
“It’s a shame,” Gina LaPointe said. “They have nowhere else to go, but our river isn’t the place for them to land.”
The Clean Our Rez Program initiative is to start with the Puyallup River and branch out to other areas of the reservation upon completion, eventually only returning to completed jobs sites for future maintenance. The crew is certainly a hard-working bunch, as anyone watching them can see, and their hearts are obviously in their work to bring beauty and respect back to their ancestral lands – the Puyallup Indian Reservation – which are their home and source of life for the tribal community.
“I’m so proud of that crew. They’re really taking initiative to clean up our river,” said Gina LaPointe, whose father, Arnold Williams, was a fisherman in the 1950s-60s and was honored with “Arnold’s Drift” – named after him in honor of the record-breaking number of fish he caught in the Puyallup River. “That’s why I’m so passionate about getting this river cleaned up,” she said.
William Kukona-Sonn is passionate about it too. Taking care of Mother Earth is his Hawaiian and Puyallup heritage, he said,
“This is my journey to give back and take care of the land – Mother Earth. My mom was a Hawaiian cultural activist so I’m trying to follow her footsteps. To me, I believe picking up the trash and making Mother Earth beautiful again is part of our culture – to get it back to what it once was.”
To join the Clean Our Rez crew, there are several requirements:
The Clean Our Rez program is 240 hours with the possibility of acceptance into the one-year Program. For more information, contact Tribal Workforce Development’s Gina LaPointe at (253) 573-7857, Heidi Bostrom at (253) 573-6033, and Daniel Duenas at (253) 573-7924. Please swing by to pick up an application at the Puyallup Tribe’s Administration Building, Room 120 or 119.