By Lynda V. Mapes and Isabella Breda
Nov 3, 2023
TULALIP — Salmon once came to the Spokane people.
Young salmon would hatch in the river, then travel hundreds of miles to the sea.
Some would grow big enough to feed the orcas, others would come back and feed the people — or spawn and carry on future generations.
That’s what happened for thousands of years, until Grand Coulee Dam was completed in 1942 and cut off salmon from their historical habitat, said Carol Evans, former chair of the Spokane Tribe, to a gathering this week of Northwest tribal nations and allies.
The nations convened here for a two-day summit, their fifth annual gathering and the largest yet in a growing movement for salmon and orca recovery. The more than 300 attending Salmon People and allies are determined to bring salmon populations across the Columbia Basin back to abundance.
They were hosted by the Tulalip Tribes during the event organized by the Nez Perce Tribe, which has made dam removal on the Lower Snake River, a tributary of the Columbia River in southeast Washington, the cornerstone of an ongoing commitment to restore salmon and health to the river and all of its beings, including southern resident orcas that each spring target the fattiest, most prized salmon that spawn in the river, spring Chinook.
It’s a cause now endorsed by tribes, environmentalists, elected officials, nonprofits and others from around the region and the nation.
Once thronged with 10 million to 16 million salmon, today returns of Chinook are down to a little over 1 million fish over Bonneville Dam, the lowest in the river, in a good year, and those are mostly hatchery fish. More than half — nearly 100,000 square miles — of the original spawning habitat for salmon in the Columbia Basin is blocked by dams.
On the Lower Snake, four dams produce about 5% of the region’s electricity and provide transportation through locks at each dam all the way to Lewiston, Idaho. One dam provides irrigation for farmland. All four are equipped with fish passage, but about 5% of out-migrating salmon are still lost at each of the eight dams from the Lower Snake to the sea.
The dams also impede passage to some of the best, high-elevation cold-water habitat left in the region, crucial to salmon survival as temperatures warm.
Scientists have found dam removal on the Lower Snake, combined with other recovery efforts, essential to rebuilding salmon runs in the Columbia Basin.
Bringing together tribes across the region as well as a range of environmental groups to join in the fight for dam removal has been a multiyear strategy that springs from tribal traditions of building alliances across families and boundaries of every kind.
“We talked about our common relative, the salmon,” Nez Perce Chair Shannon Wheeler said. “We have issues with declining numbers of salmon, and it affects our health and the economy; it affects our spirituality, our culture.”
Wheeler knew he had to go beyond the Columbia Basin. He went to the Coast Salish people and learned they too were affected by the decline of salmon, and had a similar obligation to care for them.
He brought the issue to the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, and the National Congress of American Indians, and would eventually deliver their resolutions, calling for dam breaching on the Lower Snake, to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Gov. Jay Inslee.
“The orca and the salmon are central to who we are and part of our identity,” said Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, and vice chair of the Quinault Indian Nation. “But it’s also part of our sacred duty and calling to protect them.”
“The salmon can’t get out of the river to march the halls of Congress,” Sharp said, quoting the late Nisqually salmon champion Billy Frank Jr. “They can’t get out of the river to go to court. We have to be their voice and their advocates and champions.”
Desperation sometimes creeps into the discussion over salmon.
Today, 13 Columbia Basin populations of salmon and steelhead have been listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act and none has recovered. Meanwhile, southern resident orcas, which depend on salmon for their survival, have become one of the most at-risk animals protected under the ESA, with only 75 orcas living today in the J, K and L pods that frequent Puget Sound.
The Shoshone Paiute Nations of Duck Valley, at the southernmost tip of the Columbia Basin, also suffer without salmon.
Just over a century ago, there was such an abundance of salmon the fish would spill into irrigation canals, tribal member Lyle Lowman said. His ancestors told stories of the days where family members could just scoop salmon out and share them with the community.
Today, because of dams that entirely block salmon from their home waters, the Shoshone Paiute people get their salmon by tanker truck driven upriver.
“It feels like they’re feeding us crackers,” said tribal member Derald Julianto. “One truckload, two truckloads … they’ve been putting them in the river for us to fish for maybe a week.”
It’s about more than fishing.
Even the quality of life itself is changed, as fish at the heart of their life ways for generations uncounted dwindle and disappear. “ … it changes that whole dynamic and relationship, and it changes us,” said Nakia Williamson, cultural resources director for the Nez Perce Tribe. “The changes we’ve experienced as a community within my lifetime have been real. Not only changes to our diet, but changes to our physical, spiritual well-being, tremendous impacts to our health.”
The summit was convened as negotiations over dam removal enter a sensitive phase. Tribes, river operators and energy, transportation and irrigation interests are meeting with federal mediators.
By Dec. 15, a decision will be made by the Nez Perce Tribe and other litigants in a long-running case to protect salmon in the Columbia Basin. The Biden administration has promised to present a package of commitments in those negotiations intended to be the basis for a settlement.
Murray and Inslee addressed the gathering remotely by video to recommit to solving the crisis of dwindling salmon runs. Both have committed to replacing services of the Lower Snake River dams as the first step toward any removal plan.
“When it comes to our salmon — I know that the status quo is not an option,” Murray said.
Murray, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she’s going to use her leadership role to help.
“I’m going to keep working hard to ensure the strongest possible investments in our environment and the species and habitats that make the Northwest so uniquely wonderful,” she said.
Results in the region show dam removal and salmon recovery is possible, said Amy Cordalis, a Yurok fisher and attorney for her tribe, which helped lead the way to the largest dam removal effort ever, now underway on the Klamath River in Northern California.
“If we can do it on the Klamath, just like they did on the Elwha, we can do it on the Snake,” Cordalis said, referencing thetakedown of two dams a decade ago on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula.
Evans, the former Spokane tribal chair, takes heart in the journey of a summer Chinook salmon marked and released by the tribe as a juvenile in a tributary of the Spokane River in 2017.
The fish, blessed with prayer and song, followed the path of her ancestors, a path not taken in more than a century, bearing the hopes and dreams of generations present and future, the Spokane tribal fisheries department reported in its account of her journey.
The fish survived turbines and terns, pike and pikeminnow, sea lions and gill nets and purse seines before she was found in 2019, ascending the Chief Joseph Hatchery ladder. The Colville Tribes gave her to the Spokane, who put her body back in their river — but kept her skin, today mounted in their administrative office.
The Spokane gave her a name: She who Retraces Her Steps. She is a reminder, Evans said, of a fish, and a people, who will not give up.