In a conference room on the Squaxin Island Reservation in Mason County near the southern edge of the Puget Sound, a dozen tribes came together this month in a show of resolve focused on saving a species—salmon—that unites indigenous peoples throughout the Columbia River Basin.

Tribal leaders met at a “salmon and orca summit” organized by the Nez Perce Tribe and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians on July 7. The summit rallied support for Idaho congressman Mike Simpson’s proposal to breach four dams on the lower Snake River by 2030 and replace the benefits they provide with billions in federal money from President Joe Biden’s nascent infrastructure bill.

That proposal, which has made headlines since it was unveiled in February, provides a “glimmer of hope” in the long-simmering salmon wars, said Shannon Wheeler, vice chairman for the Nez Perce tribe.

“We as human beings have the ability to change,” Wheeler said during the two-day summit. “Salmon don’t have that luxury. They don’t have that luxury to change.”

Another totemic statement

Meanwhile, in a cross-country trek that began on July 14, the Lummi Nation House of Tears Carvers have traveled 20,000 miles with a newly carved totem pole, conducting over 100 blessing ceremonies on their #RedRoadtoDC Totem Pole Journey.

The trip began on Lummi Nation lands on Puget Sound in Washington state and has included stops to display the pole at sites considered sacred to local tribes and Indigenous peoples, and which are current or potential targets for dams, mining, drilling or oil pipelines.

The trip’s first stop was at the Snake River within Nez Perce traditional lands on July 15. Subsequent stops have included Bears Ears National Monument in Utah; Chaco Canyon, Navajo Reservation in New Mexico; Black Hills in South Dakota; and others along the Missouri River, including Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota.

Along with tens of thousands of signatures and stories, the totem pole is being presented to the Biden-Harris administration on July 29 at a ceremony on the National Mall headed by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.

The totem pole will be displayed in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

‘More than a treaty right’

Simpson’s proposal to breach the lower Snake River dams has received bipartisan resistance from farmers, Democrats, Republicans and some environmental groups and faces an uncertain future. Meanwhile it’s been embraced by Northwest tribes for whom salmon are culturally and spiritually irreplaceable.

“Salmon is the major unifying factor between the tribes of the Northwest,” said Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe and president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.

That tribal support broadened in June when the National Congress of American Indians, the nation’s largest association of tribal governments, passed a resolution supporting breaching of the four lower Snake River Dams.

“It should be clear to the Administration and Northwest delegation that Tribal Nations across America stand united on the need to remove these obstacles that are choking our rivers and causing the extinction of salmon and orca,” said NCAI President Fawn Sharp in a statement.

For many tribes farther up the Columbia River Basin system naturally returning salmon are a memory held in trust by a few elders, said Hemene James, a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council.

“You look at historical pictures of Indians standing in line to get their rations. That is what our people are relegated to,” he said. “We have to look at this issue not as civil rights, not as human rights, not as treaty rights. We have to look at this as natural rights. The right to exist.”

He warned those tribes that still do have salmon that action needs to be taken now.

“Without the salmon, let me tell you it’s a pretty lonely world,” he said.

Simpson speaks

Throughout the summit leaders implored federal lawmakers to act. Simpson, the only federal lawmaker present, listened intently before taking the stage.

Once there he thanked the tribes for their support and acknowledged that his proposal faces an uncertain future. Still, he urged continued action saying, “we will get this done. One way or another.”

And he asked the tribes to keep the pressure on lawmakers, noting that tribal motivations for saving salmon run deep.

“The key to this whole thing is you all,” he said. “You’re trying to preserve a history. A culture and a religion. Those are powerful motivating factors.”

Little time left

The dire future for salmon—and the need for action—was driven home at the July summit when David Johnson, director of the Nez Perce Tribal Department of Fisheries Management, presented a tribal study published in May painting a bleak picture.

“These fish don’t have much time left,” he said. “Good ocean. Bad ocean. Now is the time we have to do something big.”

Wild spring and summer chinook populations are declining by 19% per year, according to the study. By 2025, 77% of the Snake River basin spring and summer chinook populations will be perilously close to extinction if trends continue. The picture is slightly less grim for steelhead populations.

A heat wave that’s stifled the Pacific Northwest has made the situation even worse. In June, water temperatures reached the low 70s in some areas between Portland and Lewiston, Idaho. Temperatures higher than 68 degrees are bad for salmon.

In an odd way, Johnson said, the heat wave might “put pressure on to get this done.”

Unchanged equation: fish or dams

The fight over the four Snake River dams is a multi-decade battle, one that started before the first dam, Ice Harbor on the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers, was built in 1962.

At that time fish advocates “fought Ice Harbor so hard because once it was built, they knew it would be impossible to stop the other three dams,” wrote Idaho historian Keith Petersen in his 1995 book, River of Life, Channel of Death.

They were right. Three other dams were built—Monumental Dam in 1969, Little Goose Dam in 1970 and Lower Granite in 1975. Once constructed they flooded 14,400 acres, washed away Native American gathering sites, burial grounds, fishing areas and towns.

Salmon populations plummeted with the dams, which cut off 55% of the Columbia River Basin’s fish habitat. In 1991, Snake River sockeye salmon were protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. Now there are more than 400 barriers up and down the Columbia River Basin.

But, for the Nez Perce—or the Nimiipúu—fish, particularly chinook salmon, have played a keystone spiritual, cultural and economic role for more than 16,000 years.

Prior to European colonization the Nez Perce lived throughout central Idaho, parts of southeast Washington and northeast Oregon. They hunted bison in Montana and fished for salmon on the main stem of the Columbia River.

“There is an ancient covenant there that is between the salmon, the animals and us, as humans,” Wheeler said during an interview in June.

In 2019, archaeologists carbon-dated charcoal and bone left at Cooper’s Ferry on the Salmon River. Those artifacts are more than 16,000 years old, according to the research published in Science.

All of which provides essential context, Wheeler said, when considering the tribe’s commitment to salmon.

“What if Congressman Simpson’s proposal doesn’t go through? Well then what?” asked Wheeler during the conference. “Well, we are going to continue to fight. This fight has been going on for a long time and we are not going to go away.”

Eli Francovich is a journalist covering conservation and recreation. Based in eastern Washington, he’s writing a book about the return of wolves to the western United States.

Columbia Insight, based in Hood River, Oregon, is nonprofit news site focused on environmental issues of the Columbia River Basin.

This story published with permission as part of the AP Storyshare system. Salem Reporter is a contributor to this network of Oregon news outlets.

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