Dam breaching proponents addressed salmon’s role in tribal history and culture
By Kathy Hedberg
Oct 1, 2023
It was a spirit-filled gathering under a pavilion at Hells Gate State Park in the drizzling rain Saturday morning to focus energy toward breaching the lower Snake River dams and restoring the fish.
“This is a big critical issue with our people,” said Julian Matthews, one of the organizers of Saturday’s event.
“We have a treaty right. The 1855 treaty was signed by the U.S. government and is still in place. … We have the right to take salmon from there. We’re not doing it for commercial fisheries; we’re not doing it to make money. It’s about being part of our culture; our history.”
The gathering was the next-to-the-last stop for the Native Organizers Alliance, an environmental justice grassroots group from throughout the Northwest that began its campaign Monday to demonstrate the broad support for the removal of the dams and restoration of a free-flowing lower Snake River. The campaign included stops across the Pacific Northwest and featured an 8-foot steel sculpture by Lummi Nation member A. Cyaltsa Finkbonner.
About 80 people milled around the pavilion, sipping hot coffee and eating muffins before the ceremony began, many carrying signs urging the immediate removal of the dams.
After the Nez Perce elders were seated, Lucy Simpson lit a smudge pot and moved about the circle, whisking light smoke over the onlookers. Then David Scott offered a prayer to “Creator, Grandfather,” accompanied by his brother, A.K. Scott on an elk skin drum and chanting quietly.
“We come today thinking not of ourselves,” David Scott prayed, “but the restoration of terrible events that happened long ago. We come here to honor, Grandfather, the salmon and all living species.”
Dorothy Wheeler and her husband, Francis Sherwood, also offered a prayerful song and then a family of totem carvers from the Lummi Nation, including two little boys, sprinkled tobacco on the ground as an offering for the salmon.
“They’ve gone many miles for us,” Wheeler said of the totem carvers. “These are very special people — they’re very spiritual people. They’re helping us with the things that we’re doing. We need to keep teaching our families the ways.”
Passing on these ancient traditions to younger generations, in fact, seemed to be the main point of Saturday’s gathering. Matthews pointed out a dugout canoe a group of fourth and fifth graders have been working on and noted that it’s the first dugout canoe made on the Nez Perce reservation in more than 100 years.
“We’re trying to figure out what happened,” Matthews said. “Why did they quit carving canoes? … I think the thing that we’re really doing, what we’re talking about, is revitalizing this part of our culture.
“These issues are really critical. We have to keep pushing. Like with the kids, we’re teaching them stuff; how to carve canoes, how to carve paddles. We’re trying to bring back this part of our culture.
“The dams have affected our livelihood … and that’s one reason, the main reason I’m doing this now. I don’t want those youngsters we work with not to be able to take salmon from this river at all 20 years from now.
“I don’t want money, I want fish,” Matthews said. “I want salmon.”