Tribal nations harvested hundreds of slippery eel-like fish called lamprey from the Willamette Falls for a tribal fish bake and celebration Saturday.
While they may look like eels — slender and silvery, but with a gaping sucker mouth filled with teeth — lamprey aren’t related to them. Oregon is home to several species of lamprey, and the Pacific lamprey in particular has long been culturally important to Native American tribes for food, medicine and ceremonies.
“Our people have acknowledged the lamprey since time immemorial because we have legends about the eels and how they gave themselves up to become a food in the time of creation for feeding our people,” said Wilson Wewa, a councilor with the Confederate Tribes of Warm Springs.
Wewa sat in a picnic chair overlooking the bake at the Meldrum Bar Park, near the banks of the Willamette River in Gladstone. Earlier that morning, members of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, as well as Warm Springs members, caught almost 800 lamprey from the Willamette Falls for the bake.
“For millennia, Willamette Falls has provided sustenance to the Yakama Nation and is an important site for us to gather and exercise our treaty rights to fish and harvest lamprey,” said Davis “Yellowash” Washines of the Yakama Nation in a press release.
Wewa said the Willamette Falls are a smaller version of what was once the Celilo Falls along the Columbia River, a former fishing area and tribal settlement that existed for thousands of years before the construction of the Dalles Dam.
Adult Pacific lamprey live in the ocean, but they return to freshwater to spawn and die, according to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Their hatchlings move to calmer waters and burrow into stream sediment, feeding on algae and microorganisms for several years until they’re big enough to migrate to the ocean.
Pacific lamprey numbers in the Columbia River have declined drastically, but they remain abundant in the Willamette River, a tributary to the Columbia River and one of the few remaining locations where tribes can harvest them.
Lamprey is traditionally served alongside salmon at tribal celebrations. Tribes prize them for their rich, fatty meat.
“It tastes kind of halfway between chicken and fish, and pork,” said Bruce Jim of Warm Springs. “It’s a taste that you can get used to. It depends on how they cook it. We used to cook it over fire. Don’t be afraid to try it because it’s good food.”