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Darrell Hillaire

Indigenous Knowledge
Darrell Hillaire

Children of the Setting Sun Productions Executive Director Darrell is a member of Lummi Nation (original inhabitants of Washington's northernmost coast and southern British Columbia), former Lummi Nation Council Member for 15 years, LIBC Chairman for 3 years, founded and directed the Lummi Youth Academy for 15 years, and Children of the Setting Sun Productions Producer and Writer. His works include: What About Those Promises stage production, It’s Good To Be Home stage production and short film, Sonny Sixkiller Buys the Washington Redskins stage production, Beginnings audiobook, Jesintel publication, numerous videos and The Friends and Relatives podcast series. Today he is leading the development and production of the Salmon People Project- a multi-faceted strategy to help save salmon and restore rivers.

Darrell’s interests include Multi- Media Storytelling, War Canoe Racing, promoting Youth Wellness and Family reunification, creating modern definitions of inherent rights, indigenous rights and sovereignty. Darrell is passionate about providing the proper structure and opportunities for young people to thrive both culturally and professionally. He endeavors to follow the instruction of his great-grandfather “Heytu-luk” Frank Hillaire to “Keep My Fires Burning”; including the youth is key to this mission.

Get To Know Darrell

Podcast Transcript

Larry Greene 00:00

We are launching our Navigating Our Future podcast series with Darryl Hilaire, Executive Director of Children of the Setting Sun Productions company. I really appreciated learning more about our indigenous peoples culture, history and perspective from Darryl. Like most of us, I have so much to learn from them when it comes to becoming a life-affirming society. After all, they have  been nurturing life in this region for 1000s of years. Darrell's tribe, the Lummi Nation (original inhabitants of Washington's northernmost coast and southern British Columbia), served several terms on the Lummi Indian Business Council, including as chair before retiring from the council in 2008. 

To fund and direct the Lummi Youth Academy in 2013, he wrote the acclaimed play:  "What about those promises?"  which was about the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855.   The United States promised certain rights to the tribes but ignored issues of sovereignty, jurisdiction, and land claims for generations.  Darrell founded Children's of the Setting Sun Production, to stage the play. Since then, he has led the growth of Children of the Setting Sun Productions , to create, share, and educate the people they work with, to influence one another's perception in a positive light. They are currently working on a documentary on the Salmon People of the Pacific Coast, as well as working to create a Salmon People Alliance to show how essential salmon are, culturally, to a number of different tribes throughout the Pacific coast. 

Darrell emphasizes the importance that salmon play both as a first indicator, the canaries in the coal mine, so to speak, of ecological health, and as part of our interconnected world of people, the environment, and its non-human inhabitants. To Coast Salish, salmon are connected to all living things because of the way they live their lives. They respect them because they give their lives to the next generations. And as they decompose, they are also returned to us as new life. 

He underscores the necessity for the dominant mainstream society to change in order to combat the growing climate crises. He believes that the values that Salmon People practice and live by are values that everyone else should be living by as well. The political and scientific levels of work don't work if we don't change as a people. The narrative around solving the climate crisis is the narrative of generosity, which he and others feel is so lacking in our capitalistic society. 

For as long as I have lived in this region, as I listened to Darrell share his experiences and perspective of life, I understand at a deeper level, why their values and principles are so important in informing us in designing our path with them to our common future. In fact, we are inviting them to participate in this community designing work, because of their expertise. So let's get into my conversation with Darrell. Welcome to Navigating Our Future, Daryl.  It's so great to have you here. 

Darrell:  Good to be here. 

So Darryl, I'd love to hear more about you. What was your path in life that led you to create Setting Suns Productions? Can you tell us your story growing up in this region?

Darrell Hillaire 04:16

Sure. And I thank you and I really appreciate and understand your method of knowing your history so people can better understand themselves and make plans for the future. It's very wise to be thinking and acting in that manner. That's how we think and that's how we like to make our plans for the future in order to really understand who we are and where we come from, and bring that forward. But for me,  at my office here in Bellingham, where we have Children of the Setting Sun Productions, I I like to look back  and understand where  we are today based upon my journey. 

And my journey is that I was raised on the Lummi Reservation for the first part of my life, one of 14 kids of Henry and Violet Hilaire. And there were 14 of us that lived in a house. We lived on the Lummi Reservation and moved in my teenage years after my mother sold her land on a place called {?), where she was born. And when she sold her land, she was able to afford to buy a house that had running water,  that had a toilet, facilities and bathtubs. 

So that's what she did. And we moved from the Lummi reservation into Bellingham. And from there we learned another world.  So we had the world of living on the reservation instilled us at a young age and understanding how our tribal community worked and our tribal community functioned, if you will, around the effects of colonialism, which means poverty, which means lack of infrastructure, which means broken promises under the treaty, and the ill effects of the colonizers on us in terms of boarding school experiences from my grandparents and parents, introduction of alcohol, and the like, and the the guilt surrounding Christianity.   All of that was part of the fabric at that point. 

And having that experience, and then moving to Bellingham, and learning how the outside world works, and understanding what privilege is and from there as a young adult, coming back to Lummi, and participating in the different activities  on the rez,  getting involved with our community and watching our community grow from the termination era into the era of self-determination was actually kind of like a defining moment for me. That got me to witness my parents and the people of their generation pick themselves up and decide that they're not going to be terminated, deciding that they're going to fight back, deciding to become self-governing. And through that time there was  the bold decision, which affirmed, what we knew all along:  we had primary rights, and as they said,(?)entitled to 50% of the harvest of all cash, but in our mind, it was all of our cash, and we were just sharing.  But the victory itself actually just got the state off of our back.  At that point, we created partnerships across the different governments and from that, and from the other activities that allow me  to work on the construction of the Lummi aquaculture, which was going to be a place where we're going to try to grow seafood. But what that  stimulated the idea that people can move home from the relocation program from the 50s, which was all part of termination, and people started moving home. 

When I was a little boy, there was 600, Lummi tribal members. Today there are over 5000 Lummi tribal members. So in my lifetime, we've increased almost tenfold. Then we began thinking about the idea of Columbia aquaculture, which was the birthplace of the Northwest Indian College.  The idea was that we need an education to run our own businesses and to govern ourselves. So, leadership at that time started some classes that morphed into a college today where we actually provide four year degrees to people. So it's pretty cool to see that in my lifetime and then  going through all those things you do as a young person trying different things out: fishing, construction, working at a refinery working for myself.   In my mid 30s, it really became apparent that I am here to serve my people. So I ran for the Council and became a Council member for 15 years and was part of the Council when we were able to win some water rights for our people were able to fully expand the Northwest Indian College and build a school for ourselves. And then the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act came along, and we were able to get into tribal gaming, which provides the resources for a lot of really innovative things that we do.

Larry Greene 11:16

To go a little bit deeper, I want to go into more about your culture and history. But, from your perspective, from the perspective of your peoples, how would you describe the current health of the Salish Sea?

Darrell Hillaire 11:31

 We think salmon are the miner's canary, (?) or the sailor.   As the salmon goes, so goes the rest of the ecosystem. It indicates the health of the ecosystem here that I suppose as salmon begins to disappear, it's because of these factors related to the health of the Salish Sea --  the pollution, the water temperature, the habitat, thinking, destruction. And these things are all major factors in the health of the salmon, in the disappearance of salmon.  We know that, so that's really what we're trying to do is bring that total view to light, with the work that we're doing.

Larry Greene 12:21

Yeah. And are you? And I believe you're working with many different groups who are concerned about the same issues? Can you talk a little bit more about the relationships that you've developed to really help us change this "business as usual" approach in the in the region?

Darrell Hillaire 12:42

Yeah, it's really about retelling the story of the Lummi people and salmon, as told through an elder that was a good friend of mine. We began working on this film over four years ago. And through that work, we took notice on what other people are doing up and down the Pacific coast, and those people that identify as Salmon People.  So we start visiting them and gathering their stories, and it all lines up in a manner that it seems like we all carry the same responsibilities and the same manner for which we need to move forward, which is really just practicing our culture and asking those really important questions like, Who are we without salmon? 

Our identity is tied to salmon. We're one with salmon and so those questions are being asked of ourselves, who are we, without salmon?  So we bring that out and what salmon does for people and share those stories and sing those songs. And at the end of the day, it makes me realize that what salmon teach us is how to be grateful, that gratitude is so important for everybody to realize in their daily lives so that they will be less apt to destroy anything, less apt to just disrespect anything that they can see. This life here in the Salish Sea is something that we all should be very proud of and grateful for. And then from that, the idea that being grateful means that you want to share more of what you have, and that there should be enough for everybody. So learning how to share rather than accumulate for your own wealth. It isn't about that kind of wealth. Wealth is measured by how much you can give away, not how much you can keep. So that's kind of a different manner within this capitalist society that we live in. So I think that's really key...that people know that and understand them. So that's why we do this, we try to share those kinds of stories that really describe how the Salmon People think and act in that manner.

Larry Greene 15:34

Is there a particular story that comes to mind that you'd like to share? 

Darrell Hillaire 15:38

I just think in the gatherings that we have ourselves.  We gather the same people once a year, and we come to the longhouse and, and it's all about sharing.   It's all about bringing the songs out.   It's all about bringing the salmon out and the food out, and the gifts and the stories and  that really strengthens all of us towards a common end that we want this life to continue. Well, this life won't continue if the salmon are not here.  They are a big part of who we are.

Larry Greene 16:15

So, tell us a little bit more about your work in this regard, particularly, your Salmon People program?  Can you go a little bit further into into that program and what you're doing, and also what reception you're getting within the greater community?

Darrell Hillaire 16:32

Yeah, we went down to the Native Americans Philanthropy National Conference these past few days and we shared our work with the folks there.  They wanted to understand better the art of storytelling, and what that is that makes it so effective. It's really about how connected you are to your world, whether you live on the water, in the forest, or in the desert, how connected are you are and  how do you relate to where you live? If you can clearly and deeply articulate that in such a way that it brings people alive to the idea of respect, you have something.  It's not about the science and data, because there's enough of that. But it's the inspiration of the heart and inspiration of the Spirit that is needed, along with a science and data.

 I think you have a more effective argument for what you want to protect here, or restore, the whole world's animals, except, we don't want to be part of it when we really we are.  We all are connected and we all  carry a spirit, and that spirit needs to come to life. What it really is, is for future generations, and impacting those people that are falling behind us.  We do this work because of them, it begins there and it ends there. We create, share and educate with our stories. And with that, there's a healing that we typically have with the people that we presented ourselves to.   But then from there, I think we have to come together and figure out well, who is this for?  It's not an individual or a selfish endeavor.   It's really for those people  who are inheriting  what we're doing here, the work that we've left for them,  The glaring problem with all of this is that we might be waking up too late. 

People of our generation, we're pretty blind to the destruction of Mother Earth up until these last few decades.  But it's really just been a place, the United States, that has really been the leader in the destruction of the planet and we haven't taken full responsibility for that. But there are people waking up to it and we want to be part of that awakening with what we have to share. And what we have to share really is just a values change. Change our values, we might have a chance.   If we can share more, we might have a chance.

Larry Greene 19:51

How is that coming? How is that message being received  in the greater community, in this particular bio-region?

Darrell Hillaire 20:00

Yeah, that's actually the work, trying to throw the pebble in the water and have it echo out.   We're a drop in the ocean, just like you, we just got to put all of our drops together. But  it's those people that we want to really inspire are those younger people. So we're being very deliberate and trying to develop curriculum around our work to get it into the school system. We're doing research that we hope to make available to school districts, and that doesn't mean we're not involved with activism and trying to get into places that we're typically not found, like we've been invited to the National American  Applied Anthropological Association Conference. So we'll go to that.  We went to the conferences we can.  We'll try to go to those places that typically you won't find native people speaking up. We'll be there.

Larry Greene 21:15

Tell me more about your educational programs?   How's that been received? Because I think that a big part of your project is really having people begin to learn something other than the histories that they've learned in their history books, to help them understand the truth and the facts of what's going on here. How well received are you in school districts with your program?

Darrell Hillaire 21:43

I'm actually getting a kick out of it, we're getting a lot of interest from the University of Washington and Western Washington University, Northwest Indian College, University of Minnesota,  we just got contacted by the Applied Anthropology Association. And they're in Southern California.  They directed  us to MIT.   We had one of our young people over at MIT a few months ago. So they know of our work, and now they want to utilize it.  So the interest is there.  They see that what we do is stuff that's never been taught before. How could that be?  Because it's matters of the heart, matters of spirt.  You really don't learn that in academia.  It's all about slicing and dicing something to prove it,  to have it proven in a scientific manner.  That's not who we are as people.

Larry Greene 22:45

What is your vision beyond even your tribal lands for the greater region? Because if we don't do it all together, we're not going to do it? So how would you envision your work going forward?

Darrell Hillaire 22:57

Definitely open to providing leadership, to showing up wherever we're needed. We want to be there.  It's really about hope.   Hope means getting off your ass, getting out of your silo and joining up with people who want to do something.  It really is changing minds and changing mindsets, as we say, values. This whole idea of respect and responsibility is something we can learn together and is also what  we're up against.

 I know there's  a lot of fear and concern out there with the war, with our democracy being threatened, with COVID but Mother Earth is talking to us, and I think we need to respond.  We're pretty lucky in this neck of the woods, but it's going to close in on us and we need to be there, we need to be there for each other, because I think we're going to need each other somewhere.  We need each other right now, and I know there's a lot of healing that needs to happen through what happened to our people and why it's not taught in the school district.  We will continue to do that. We continue to recognize that slavery is not taught in the school system. We need to continue to bring that up. But in the meantime, we still gotta move. This agenda forward for this is what I think is either major values change or preparation for how we're going to adapt.

Larry Greene 24:41

What else would you like to share about your culture and also  what can we do on our site to continue to tell your story and and to open this up to a greater dialogue in our regional community?

Darrell Hillaire 25:01

I think it'd be good for folks -- whatever audience this might be...I'm not too sure who they are -- but if they really embrace indigenous knowledge, that is really a good path forward.   There are probably many pathways forward and to get us out of this,  with science with research with innovation, but also that doesn't change us as a people. So indigenous knowledge will give us that opportunity because of the notion that the values are quite different from the capitalist industrial way of thinking, the captains of industry don't care about us. And we have to realize that or else we wouldn't be in this inflationary moment right now.   If the rich would just pay their fair share, but stuff like that's not going to happen unless we can change as a people and  set an example for future generations, which will influence how we govern ourselves.

Larry Greene 26:14

Absolutely! So we keep on coming back to the values and principles that guide your life. Is there  anything more you would like to share about those values and principles that we haven't touched on? 

'Darrell Hillaire 26:32

What we see when we gathered at the (We were at Salado Falls?) in May, and we're gonna go down to Yurok next year.   We'll go up to the Fraser River, the (Sto:Lo?) village up there.  We're not wanting to disconnect ourselves from our spiritual way of moving. When we have these talks about the environment, climate change, and in protection of the environment, we're front and center with the ways of the old people when  we gather, and then we bring it together with the science. So that's where science and spirit meet.  That's as our intention. 

So I think that gives you a better understanding and a better picture of why we do what we do when we're putting the spotlight on fighting coal trains or fighting pipelines.  We're bringing our whole selves to the work, not just our lawyers. People understand that this is really just all of us, not just the best technicians and best lawyers that money can buy.   We're bringing ourselves.

Larry Greene 28:03

What do you do to keep on going when you get discouraged?

Darrell Hillaire 28:07

I think recognizing the victories that we've been able to realize over the last few years, beginning with Cherry Point and stopping the coal port terminal.  Then we went down to (Ottawa?) and they took down two dams down there, down on the Klamath River, the Yurok and we got Warren Buffett to agree to take four of his dams down off of that river. So these things are starting to happen. There are others ( ?), scattered.   They've been able to free the river, if you will,  so we just want to just keep building on that, amplifying those voices and sharing with the people that they did this not for money, but for their way of life. You know, this is really a beautiful way of life.

Larry Greene 28:56

How do you balance your life and work? What are the things that you do to really, as you mentioned, be very grateful in the moment about what we have? Can you talk a little bit more about how you are able to balance all of this?

Darrell Hillaire 29:11

Well, just being in the community brings balance.  Last weekend, I heard  the stick game songs again after a two year absence, really woke up the spirit in our community.  The joy of our people came to life  with fair game songs being the soundtrack for the whole weekend. Watching races. The young ones competing in the canoe races.  Seeing all the vendors sharing their craft and eating salmon and halibut and clam chowder. You walk on that  place there and you just feel the old people there because that's what they did, just spent time together.   A time together sharing and knowing that this is really a place where you fill yourself up for the joy of being who you are and where you come from. So it's not one of the movies or I don't go to the football game. I just got to be with the people.

Larry Greene 30:21

Wonderful. Well, that really speaks to us in terms as to how you feel about  the past generations, the ancestors that are there with you.   That's a real sense of place that I think most people today who are not indigenous to this area, really have a problem with.  I don't think they have a good sense of place. And that seems to be something that is actually core to your way of life. Would that be a correct assumption?

Darrell Hillaire 30:58

Oh, yeah, this is our homeland.

Larry Greene 31:00


Darrell Hillaire 31:03

This is who we are, and where we come from.  Right here. And everywhere you go, you recognize bits of our culture, bits of art history and knowing who had families living here and recognizing the relationship with those families through time. It's  pretty strong.

Larry Greene 31:23

Wonderful. I think you've touched on this a number of times, but I just want to know if you have any further thoughts on this.  What do you hold most sacred?

Darrell Hillaire 31:36

Yeah, my family and those that are falling behind me. And then deep, deep respect for those that have gone before me and the instructions they've left me and the example that they have shown me on how to live in this world.  I think this has to be the strongest influence on who I am today.

Larry Greene 32:07

Yeah, I believe your grandfather had some advice for those who follow Him. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

Darrell Hillaire 32:17

Yeah, that's my great grandfather. His name was Greater Luck, because English name is Frank Hillaire. You can Google him and you'll see him all over the internet because he did get around and shared stories, sang songs and welcomed the newcomers into the area. He formed a dance group named  Children of the Setting Sun. And he did just that from as far north as Vancouver, far south of Seattle. 

There he is, dressed in full regalia. During that time, when the United States government and the church were trying to beat that out of us and prohibited song and dance and practice of our spiritual way of life there.   He was doing just that, and in full public view, so he set a strong example for all of us to follow, , so we did. His kids and his grandkids.  And now I'm his grandchild and  I follow what he did as an example for how to share.

Larry Greene 33:29

Do you have any further thoughts that you'd like to share with with our listeners?

Darrell Hillaire 33:34

Oh, yeah, we have the Salmon People Project which is our number one project and we're finishing the film about the Sockeye return here in the Salish Sea, ending up in the Fraser River. And all the tribes are getting ready to go. 

Fish Sockeye this summer will be the only run of the four. They run every four years. This is one that's really only got enough salmon coming back to allow a harvest in our communities  to come to life. It's just amazing. The vibe that you feel when everybody's getting ready to do the same thing, and their children and grandchildren with them. They're telling them those stories, they're teaching those children and they're sharing a feeling that probably really can't be quantified. 

They call it a buzz, I guess, if you will. Well, that swells up and down Coast Salish territory for the salmon that's going to return. So there's that.   We're trying to capture that. And then, recognizing all the other Salmon People from Klamath River up to the Fraser River. They're doing the very same thing  and preparing for salmon and, by that, creating a bond there.  

That is  probably, in the outside world,  called an alliance or an association or something. It's very informal at this point.  We stay away from those governing type of conversations. We don't want to bog ourselves down with that kind of framework.  We just want the people to be who they are. And we'll capture their stories and get it out to the world so that people understand that this really is a beautiful place to live, that it really is worth protecting and everybody can have a part in that protection.

Larry Greene 35:38

Yeah, that's really critical. It occurs to me that you don't necessarily have boundaries as such. But the Coast Salish people and the other tribes of the region, all have this challenge, in that you're dealing with two governments, really two national governments, Canada, and the US as well as BC and Washington state. How are things working over in Canada? It?  Are you finding that the same sense of partnership  exists? In both countries? Are they coming together in alliance with you?

Darrell Hillaire 36:24

Well, I think the tribes there have the same challenges we have. That all boils down to, we just have a different view of the world. And that's always going to be there.   I think our view of the world is something that's often misunderstood, because it has to go to government, it has to go to a government that doesn't really recognize our view of the world.  They just understand legal standing. We have to fight through that whole maze of technical, legal and political considerations, to just be who want to be as a people and that's why we're sharing these stories now.  Let's start with who we are as a people so that the legal political, technical arguments have a deeper meaning.

Larry Greene 37:22

So are you finding more receptivity in both Western Washington and and southwestern BC?

Darrell Hillaire 37:33

Well, I think we're just getting started.  We have a think tank we've called the Setting Sun Institute, getting resounding approval of that idea that's bringing indigenous knowledge together with science and data, to influence research and to influence policy and curriculum development which is much needed. They've always gone about it in these different forms. They just kind of go by the book. It's important,  but now we're telling the story from our perspective,  in our manner, which is oral, and which is rooted in song and ceremony so that everybody's included,  and that's very different from what we see in these different institutions. So, they're really given us a big round of applause for doing this.

Larry Greene 38:31

Oh, wonderful. And we want to continue to work with you to share your wisdom and stories. So please consider our effort at Navigating Our Future being another channel for distribution of your message. And we certainly want to have you and others from the local tribes back so that we can continue to inform the greater population in the area about these keys to a more healthy, resilient and regenerative way of life. So I want to thank you very much, Darryl, for your time. Again, we'd love to have you back again and please pass on any news to us so that we can share it through our our distribution channels.

Darrell Hillaire 39:21

I'll do that we'll send over a video from Seattle Falls. We did a highlight video that I'll have you take a look at it

Larry Greene 39:30

 Wonderful.  I've just greatly appreciated this time with you and look forward to future conversations. Thank you. 

I hope you enjoyed my very informative and inspiring conversation with Darryl Hillaire sharing the very simple, straight forward and clearly wise Lummi approach to our future. They have a long term perspective that begins with a simple philosophical understanding: To know where we are going, we need to know where we are now. To know where we are now, we need to know where we have come from,  and then we can move forward to our future. 

Through their cultural practices, they have reinforced the commitment to be grateful with the belief that there is enough for everyone if we learn how to share.   Their sense of place, inspiration flowing from the heart, and respect for all life,  connects them with the world. They believe that all life is connected and that this spirit needs to come to life in all of us. 

The work is all about being done for the people who will inherit what we are doing now. The goal is to help the broader community to change our values, and share more of what we have. 

Navigating Our Future intends to continue our conversations with our regional indigenous community. And we invite them to continue sharing their stories and their wisdom with us. We are all in this together and the history and the culture of our indigenous peoples are invaluable to us charting our future. 

Much more information about Darrell,  the Setting Sun Productions, and their full range of educational programs and services are on Darrell's page on our website,, and if you appreciate our ongoing series Navigating Our Future, please consider contributing to sustain our work on our subscribe/donate page. Navigating Our Future is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, so your contribution is tax deductible. Thank you for your support.

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