Centering Cascadia: Pacific Northwest of What?

by Lansing Scott and Brandon Letsinger

This piece was originally published in Cascadia Spoke, a community publication dedicated to raising awareness of the Cascadia movement and bioregionalism.

When we use the continental landmass of North America as the frame of reference, we find that the “Pacific Northwest” is not in the northwest at all. That’s why people who use the Earth as the frame of reference have begun to refer to the region as “Cascadia” in reference to the major landform in the region, the Cascade Mountains, the Cascadia Subduction Zone, and also in reference to the plentiful waters cascading from the mountains to the sea. Cascadia is an endonym, meaning a word created by the people living here to help describe our place. First Nations of Cascadia have similarly come together to call this region “Salmon Nation” in reverence to the rivers that flow and stretch from Northern California to Alaska, and where the Salmon ran at their fullest extent before colonial contact.

While the states of Washington, Idaho, and Oregon are known as belonging to the Pacific Northwest, this term “Northwest” is only a framework that makes sense in respect to the 48 contiguous states of the United States and to our relationship with Washington DC. Go ask someone from British Columbia what region they are a part of and see how many come back with the “Northwest.”

The boundaries of this enormous nation-state constitute the frame of reference within which the designation “northwest” makes sense, but for us, it is time to begin to break away from this juggernaut and rethink our own relationship as citizens of our watersheds and place. Instead, we choose to use rivers and mountains and the Earth itself as a frame of reference we find important. Unilateral borders imposed by the United States and Canada are irrelevant, arbitrary, and non-representative of the people, inhabitants, and place. Where you were born matters less than where you choose to live, and the watershed you live in now.

When we define our places using the Earth as the frame of reference, taking into account flora, fauna, landforms, climate, and so on, we are talking in terms of bioregions. Can we move from our status as an internal colony of the American and Canadian industrial system, used for resource extraction, technology services, and holiday vacationing, to a more self-reliant and self-determining bioregional community? Can we gain greater control of our common destiny at the local level?

Can we? Perhaps. But it all depends. It depends on what we do and how we do it. The challenge of change is great. Without a clearly articulated, collective vision for what we want to do and coordinated strategies for how to move forward, our ability to affect deep and widespread change is stymied. Is there a way to create greater “connective tissue” between various parts of our movement for change, so that we can strengthen and nourish one another? Can we interject a clear and comprehensive agenda for change into the stale debate that passes for politics these days?

These are the questions and challenges that we must face, and it is in that hope tha twe have drafted and created these documents, not as an answer to this debate, but hopefully, to open up a conversation.

It is up to Cascadians, each in their own way, to create and promote these changes, and lead the way forward, rather than wait for someone else to do it for us.

Lansing Scott and Brandon Letsinger are writers, activists, and organizers living in the Lake Union watershed of Seattle. Scott worked as part of the Portland Alliance, Cascadia bioregional congresses, Seattle Community Catalyst, Eat the State!, and Catalytic Community. Letsinger coordinates Department of Bioregion (publisher of this newspaper) and has led many other Cascadian projects.

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