INCHELIUM — The Colville Indian Reservation borders Lake Roosevelt to the south and east, and outside the reservation, tribal allotments dot its shoreline.
The tribal government operates businesses and maintains parks along its banks.
Many tribal members live and play on this 150-mile stretch of the Columbia River. They use sweat lodges on its beaches, and gather plants for medicines and baskets. They and hunt and fish there.
But as the years pile up with no answers about what, exactly, is safe, people are starting to stay away from the river, said Patti Bailey, a tribal member who works for the Colville Tribal Environmental Trust Department.
“We need to figure out what the nature and extent of the contamination is. We’re just really wary,” she said.
Tribal chairman Michael Finley said many sacred places are now covered in water, flooded in this great lake created by Grand Coulee Dam. Kettle Falls once drew tribes from many miles around to fish for salmon each year.
“It made our tribe a true powerhouse in the region,” he said. But although the falls disappeared long ago, “Everybody still holds this place special, even though it’s been 40 years since there were salmon runs here,” he said.
An in-depth survey asking tribal members what resources they use from the Lake Roosevelt area showed that some people are avoiding the river entirely, while others still recreate there, but won’t eat the fish.
“And some people are still heavily using the resource even though it’s polluted,” said Whitney Fraser, a consultant for the tribes.
Bailey said many are avoiding mussels and crayfish — species that were traditionally used by tribal members.
But people are still using plants along the river — some for medicinal purposes, or for other reasons, like making baskets.
These traditional ways are experiencing a resurgence, Bailey said. She, herself, is an adult student in the art of making baskets. “It connects me to who I am,” she said.
She said she gathers boughs from the river’s edge, and while the branches are still pliable, she peels back the bark by holding the end of the branch in her mouth. These methods need to be passed down, and shown to others, she said. But to do that, “We need to feel confident that when we bring our kids down here to do these things, that this is OK.”
Fishing, too, is a tribal tradition. And while the advisory for fish may work for recreational fishermen, she said, “We know tribal folks have a totally different exposure.” That’s because they tend to use so many more of the river’s resources for both traditional and cultural reasons, and have done so over a longer period of time.
Bailey said just as she worries that some people are being exposed to contaminants, she also worries that others are no longer connecting with this river that has for so long been the center of tribal ways.
“This is really, really key to our culture,” she said. “Our whole existence for many of our people is from this river. It’s part of who we are.”