Thanks to Edible Portland for posting this video of the tribal lamprey harvest I missed this year. Apparently PGE is working on a documentary about forgotten food source the time-honored tribal tradition of harvesting it.
The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde newspaper Smoke Signals has a fascinating story about this year’s harvest that underscores why many tribes want to restore dwindling lamprey populations, despite their unusual appearance and “burnt tire and fish” flavor. It notes an ancient petroglyph “eel man” who can be seen on a rock near Willamette Falls as water levels drop so tribes know when to begin the annual harvest. One tribal member recalls how the deserted mills and industrial buildings nearby detract from the harvest experience, but “once you’re under the falls, everything else disappears and you feel the culture and history return.”
From Smoke Signals:
“Holding on to traditions is really, really difficult,” said Grand Ronde Cultural Protection Coordinator Eirik Thorsgard … “but through the annual lamprey collection, the Tribe keeps this tradition alive.”
Especially these days, when the numbers of lamprey and the number of Indians who still eat lamprey, have dwindled. The Tribe collects lamprey each year to make it available to the Tribal community. Elders may find it difficult to collect lamprey the way they used to and Tribal youth may know little about this part of their culture.
Thorsgard called the collecting and preparation of lamprey an important part of Tribal culture.
The catch was better this year than last. The first look at a spot at the foot of the Falls yielded only a few, but Thorsgard found a cache in a small pool he had sat down by while waiting for the camera crew.
“I saw something move, and I reached in and pulled out five of them,” he said. Then he reached back in for more.
“No matter how many we catch,” said Tribal Fish and Wildlife Coordinator Kelly Dirksen during his interview with NarrativeLab, “they’re always all gone in the first half-hour (of the giveaway to the community). There’s a huge demand, but if you’ve ever eaten it, you might wonder why.”
He described the taste of lamprey as a cross between “burnt tire and fish.”
“My grandfather called them ‘slave food,’ ” said Thorsgard, “which is ironic because he ate them himself.”