Before Grand Coulee Dam millions of chinook and sockeye salmon went up the Columbia River to spawn. It was the greatest salmon run on earth. This fishery was the main food source of the indigenous Indians who inhabited the area for thousands of years.
But progress meant building eleven dams to provide cheap electricity. The natural free flow and passage of water and salmon was eventually blocked by Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams. No consideration was given to the impact of destroying the economy of the Colville Confederated Tribes. The loss of salmon caused health, psychological and spiritual problems. The 1940 tribal Ceremony of Tears told the story. The problems have been magnified over the last 70 years by the impact on several generations.
After 50 years of legal activity the Tribes finally won title to the land flooded by the backwaters of Grand Coulee Dam. The Tribes now receive an annual payment by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) which is part of the cost of generating electricity. But this doesn’t make up for the loss of salmon.
Until the early 1970s the Tribes only had game wardens. They began working with the U.S. Bureau of Fish and Wildlife to enhance their fisheries which eventually resulted in the trout hatcheries promised in the 1930s. Finally, after the Tribes proved to be capable managers of a fish program, the government, through BPA, built a salmon hatchery at Chief Joseph Dam to mitigate the industrial and sports fishing harvest, impassable dams and destruction of spawning habitat that have reduced Chinook salmon runs by 90 percent.
At the June 20, 2013, ribbon cutting of the new salmon hatchery the Tribes performed the age-old First Salmon ceremony where tribal members thanked the salmon for providing them food and later, at the ribbon cutting, thanked the government officials for restoring the salmon. They told how the salmon willingly gives up his life so the People can survive. It is part of nature’s plan and Indians are one with nature. The Tribes continue to demonstrate this at the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery during the Salmon Days celebration each fall.
Salmon is only one of the spiritual ties to nature. We are all part of nature. Human beings are not separate and independent of their environment. This is dramatically shown at the entrance to Paschal Sherman Indian School by a metal sculpture of several salmon hanging from a 30-foot ceiling in a spiral. When the sun shines through the large windows facing East the shadow from these Salmon forms the Tribes legendary Coyote. My book “Last Chief Standing” describes how this demonstrates our tie to all nature including animals, trees, earth, stars and the universe.
Wendell George is an author and member of the Colville Confederated Tribes who writes about the cultural heritage of his people. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.