DALLESPORT, Wash. – Columbia River Indian tribes are keeping their ancient traditions alive in the coming weeks with ceremonies to open their spring fisheries. Predictions of strong salmon runs are giving the tribes extra reason to celebrate.
To get to the Dallesport Treaty Access Fishing Site, you have to drive through town and wind down a bumpy gravel road. Eventually you’ll end up on the banks of the Columbia River. This time of year the fishery is quiet – some sturgeon swim through the waters.
Tribal fishermen will soon begin to prepare for the First Salmon Feast a few weeks down the road. It’s one of the most culturally significant ceremonies for Pacific Northwest Tribes.
“To give thanks for the gifts that our creator gave to us, placed us here for our use and benefit. We give thanks to him for all of those things.”
Wilbur Slockish, Jr., is the hereditary chief of the Klickitat Tribe, a part of the Yakama Nation.
The First Salmon Feast must take place before any fishing can begin. During the religious service, drummers play prayer songs. Before eating the meal, tribal members must drink water because of its importance to life. The meal can then follow. Each dish is eaten in a specific order.
These ceremonies have taken place “since the beginning of time,” surviving the arrival of the white settlers, dams and decline of salmon runs. Prior to dam construction, as many as 16 million salmon swam in their native runs. Now, that number is 4 million.
But the fish runs have steadily increased. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officials expect strong returns of Columbia River chinook salmon. The run size should be on par with numbers for recent years.
It’s a cold, gray morning on the Columbia. Wilbur Slockish looks out, pointing in several directions.
“This is our original homeland right through here. One of the things that I’d like people to understand ’cause they’ve forgotten history, and they always say, ‘Go back to the reservation where you belong,’ but this is our homeland. Each one of these towns that are in this gorge area is a village site,” Slockish says.
Those Indian villages are gone. But tribes’ fishing platforms remain in spots along the Columbia Gorge.
The tribes of the Columbia River are working to restore healthy salmon runs in the entire Columbia system — and not just certain tributaries. Stuart Ellis is a fisheries scientist with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Because of customary “property rights,” certain families only have access to certain fishing spots. Ellis imagines what would happen to a family that fishes on a river where salmon are allowed to vanish:
“If the Klickitat River went away, they would be outta luck. They wouldn’t be able to fish,” he says.
While tribal scientists like Ellis pursue specific restoration strategies, elders like Wilbur Slokish rely on more traditional language to express those same aims.
“Our water, our animal life, our salmon, our deer. All of them,” Slockish says. “We wanna make sure that their survival is there because if they’re there, then we’ll be there. And if they’re not, then we’ll disappear as people, native people, Indian people.”
He recounts a legend:
“In our stories before man was created, all of these animals, they could talk,” Slockish says. “And he asked them what they would do when he’d presented man here on this continent. Salmon was the first one that said he would provide food”
Then came the deer:
“They would provide clothing and tools and shelter and anything else that we needed, with his hides and all of his sinew,” he says.
Next roots and berries spoke up:
“They would provide the nutrition and medicinal plants, and then the berries said that they would be the sweet,” Slockish says. “Each one of the animal life, they said that they would have their role. Even the rock spoke up and said what he would do: for the sweat lodge he would provide the heat.”
Sara Thompson is with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. She says tribes continue to depend on the natural world, and that’s why they’re working so hard to restore fish populations.
“The work the tribes are doing is instrumental in recovering these populations throughout the entire Columbia River Basin, but foundation, the cultural foundation that is provided by the tribes, is unmatched.”
And Slockish says nature may be the best tool in managing resources.
The ceremonial fisheries will open up for the First Salmon feast in a few weeks and – if enough spring chinook return this year – they’ll be sold commercially this season.
In His Own Words
Hear Wilbur Slockish, Jr., describe why natural resources are important to his people and recount memories fishing as a child.