by Ben Adlin
Shape Our Water is a community-centered project from Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) and KVRU 105.7 FM, a hyperlocal low-power FM station in South Seattle, to plan the next 50 years of Seattle’s drainage and wastewater systems. Funded by SPU, the project spotlights members of local community-based organizations and asks them to share how water shapes their lives. Our latest conversation is with Pah-tu Pitt, a small-business owner of Native Kut, course instructor at the University of Washington, and member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.
When smoke from wildfires turned skies in the Pacific Northwest an otherworldly orange last summer, many of the region’s longest residents knew that more than climate change was to blame. Pah-tu Pitt, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, recognized that the fires also symbolized a rejection of Indigenous wisdom of how to care for the land.
“We really saw, on a large scale, what removing traditional fire practices from landscapes can lead to,” Pitt told the Shape Our Water project. Prevailing forest management practices [particularly in dry landscapes] relied on the idea that minor fires should be extinguished before they could spread and grow, while Pitt’s tribe had long understood that the smaller fires actually cleared underbrush — reducing the likelihood of larger blazes.
“My tribe has been a leader in using fires to reduce fuels within the system, to make it so fires tend to not be so catastrophic,” Pitt explained. Pitt, who currently lives in Seattle, expressed a sense of disconnect when she reflected on the many ways tribal lands benefit from traditional fire practices and how devastating wildfires have now become to their ecology and regional air quality.
The observation underscored Pitt’s belief in the need for Western institutions to better respect and incorporate the knowledge embodied in traditional place-based practices. As an educator and small business owner who has a background in environmental science, she now works to amplify the voices and perspectives of underrepresented groups.
“Just because you don’t see yourself reflected in the field doesn’t mean that your people didn’t do science,” she said. “White supremacy just plays such a large role in excluding and dismissing our ideas. I don’t think that there are sustainable futures without us being able to reclaim those spaces.”
The theme of reclamation reverberates through Pitt’s career. After graduating with an environmental science degree, she decided to chart her own course and launch a small business, Native Kut, which began by producing carving tools for Native artists.
“We really started out with carving knives, because a lot of the carving-knife market was taken over by non-Native carvers that didn’t really have any type of responsibility towards our communities,” she said. By producing their own knives from locally sourced supplies, Native Kut was able to better serve the needs of Indigenous artists while also building community self-sufficiency.
“Typically a lot of our artwork has been really disrupted by Western commodification and kind of having the market tell people, ‘Oh, this is what you should be making,’” said Pitt, who was working with Native youth at the time and felt it was important that they be able to express themselves purely.
“The carving knives took back some of that freedom,” she recalled, “and doing it in a way that was holistic in the sense that they didn’t have to reach out to a non-Native source to get their knives.”
The success inspired Native Kut’s expansion into traditional cooking knives and utensils, which Pitt described as part of the company’s emphasis on food sovereignty. “If somebody is processing traditional foods, they could also reclaim that and not have a knife from outside of our community to help kind of do that work,” she said. “It just felt like another way to really have people be able to align to take care of family, community, and ecosystems in a way that was in line with our business values.”
The focus of Native Kut shifted toward more art, environmental consulting, and advocacy with the occasional knife releases. Native Kut also gave Pitt more autonomy to be her authentic self.
“Part of it for me is just to have the freedom to step away from oppressive work environments, where people might not really want the full me,” she said. “They might like my ideas, but they might not really respect who I am as a Native scientist or really just kind of connect with some of the viewpoints that I bring to the situation.”
Launching her own business also gave Pitt a sense of purpose and self-worth. “My tribes do a lot with traditional trade and traditional trade networks,” she added, “and feminine-like roles in that context are really powerful in being able to share and provide for families. And so for me, it was a helpful way to get in touch with that part of myself and reclaim some of that heritage and how I interact with community.”
With global climate change continuing to bring more frequent and severe disasters to the region, Pitt sees the need to draw on Indigenous experiences as ever more important. As an educator, Pitt works to transcend the historic barrier between Western colonizers and Indigenous peoples. The qualitative research and ethics class she teaches at the University of Washington Tacoma draws on texts and methodologies from both Western and Native sources.
Indigenous experiences and teachings are deeply connected to water and water supply. “We’re so blessed with water that sometimes it’s something that feels like we’re able to take for granted, but I don’t think that’s something we can do long-term,” she said, “and it’s not within the best interests of the kind of futures that our communities deserve.”
She’s noticed declines in seasonal snowpacks when gathering berries and other plants, a traditional tribal practice protected through a treaty with the federal government. “Within the context of gathering, you typically see a lot of green and a lot of lusciousness,” she said. In more recent years, “it just feels like you’re in a tinderbox, and this year we really saw and felt that.”
“A lot of our teachings are really central to water and taking care of water and how water is life,” Pitt said. Even today, she noted, the Columbia River and its tributaries are essential to the region’s economic and environmental health.
Native communities in the American Southwest are already experiencing failures in water infrastructure as resources dwindle, Pitt said. “We’ve got to learn from them and have some of those exchanges” she says, in order to ensure equitable access to safe, clean water going forward.
As someone who lives in an urban environment, Pitt is in touch with urban creeks’ importance to countering the effects of climate change and mitigating storm surge and flooding. “Creeks are really a really important part of that process,” Pitt shared.
“We’re really being taken care of by this water,” Pitt said, “so why not in turn have that same reverence, just kind of give back into the world what we’re getting?”
Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.
📸 Featured Image: Pah-tu Pitt. (Photo: Chloe Collyer)
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