Down the curved walkway just past the Chief Joseph Hatchery, the sounds of soft laughter and friendly hellos mixed with the roar of the Columbia River as it cascaded in streams through the Chief Joseph Dam. Near the hatchery raceways, spiritual leaders of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation led a ceremony to give thanks for the sacrifice of the first salmon of the season.

“This work that we do lifts our spirits,” said Jim Andrews, Colville, told the crowd gathered to participate in the First Salmon Ceremony. “We thank Creator for this day today. We thank mother earth for the water we drink and the air we breathe. Most of all, we come here today to honor the spirit of the salmon that comes back every year and was the first one to give itself up to the people.”

After a song honoring the first salmon, Darnell Sam, Colville, fileted it in preparation for eating during the ceremony. Attendees entered the Chief Joseph Hatchery, where Randy Lewis, also a Colville citizen, shared part of the Colville creation story. 

A view of Chief Joseph Dam, outside of Bridgeport , Wash., on May 23, 2024, as The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation celebrate their First Salmon Ceremony. This is the last place anadromous salmon can reach as they swim upstream from the Pacific Ocean as there is no fish ladder allowing them to navigate though the dam. (Photo by: Alex Milan Tracy/Underscore News)

Lewis explained that when man was first placed here he was starving. So coyote, who was Creator’s messenger, asked the animal people if they would come forward and offer themselves to man so that they could survive.

“One by one, the animals all declined,” Lewis said. “So they went all the way down the Columbia River. There at the mouth of the Columbia, coyote took his club – his club was his stick of power – and he smashed the water to bring forth all the sea life.”

Coyote asked again if anyone would help man. They all turned away, except one.

“Coyote turned around and was surprised at a small fish – the different salmon were all there,” Lewis said. ‘We will help you but we'll do it under one condition, that you will allow us to return. Make a promise that we will return year after year.’”

Coyote agreed and brought salmon all the way up the Deschutes River to the Columbia River. From the salmon’s sacrifice, man learned to honor and respect them through song and ceremony.

“Salmon is who brought us ceremony,” Lewis said. “We learned to give thanks for this wonderful gift.”

Member and elder of The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Randy Lewis, welcomes the gathered community at the Chief Joseph Hatchery during the First Salmon Ceremony outside of Bridgeport, Wash, on May 23, 2024. (Photo by: Alex Milan Tracy/Underscore News)

Salmon people

The Colville, along with many other nations along the Columbia River, have always considered themselves salmon people. The connection to the salmon is as ancient as the people. According to Lewis, until the coming of the colonizers, Rock Island, a little over 75 miles downstream from the Chief Joseph Hatchery, was a continuously occupied community for 9,000 years – predating the first dynasties of Egypt by 4,000 years. During construction of the Rock Island Dam starting in 1929, many of the petroglyphs on the basalt were blasted away. Others were submerged by water due to the dam.

“There's many around up and down this river,” Lewis said. “We're not a new people. We are an ancient people.”

That is why in 1942, two years before the Grand Coulee Dam was finished, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation held a Ceremony of Tears for the loss of traditional fishing sites due to the rising water from the dams. Both Kettle Falls and Celilo Falls, fishing sites central to life since time immemorial for Native nations along the Columbia River, have been completely submerged.

Stephen Noyes, or Sin’Saleetsa, recalled what fishing was like before the dams. In N̓x̌ʷʔiłpcən or Okangan, the name Sin’Saleetsa means “spotted robe,” referring to the patchy fur of deer during the spring and fall when they shed their coats.  

Stephen Noyes, an elder citizen of The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, attends the First Salmon Ceremony at Chief Joseph Hatchery outside of Bridgeport, Wash., May 23, 2024. (Photo by: Alex Milan Tracy/Underscore News)

“I came down to the mouth of the Okanagan river with my dad and my uncle,” Noyes said. “They all parked on the hill and built a big bonfire. I fell asleep in the car. At one o'clock or so in the morning, you hear somebody yelling, ‘Here they come!’”

Noyes recalled waking up and looking out to see salmon all across the river. Families would catch loads of fish and when they had passed, people would sit and wait until the next wave of salmon would pass through and start all over again.

“It looked like you could walk across the Columbia on fish, there were so many salmon,” Noyes said.

“That’s what it was like in the old days.”

By 1940, the reservoir behind the Grand Coulee Dam filled and the rising water covered traditional fishing sites like Kettle Falls more than 100 miles up the Columbia.

The Grand Coulee Dam was especially important to U.S. Senator Clarence Dill, D-Washington, to support World War II efforts. Its electricity would make aluminum for about one-third of the airplanes built in the United States during the war.

The Chief Joseph Dam was built in 1955. Neither was built with fish passage – cutting off a section of the river that once produced 40% of the salmon in the Columbia River Basin, according to Jarred Erickson, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. 

An aerial image shows the Chief Joesph Dam outside of Bridgeport, Wash., on May 23, 2024. (Photo by: Alex Milan Tracy/Underscore News)

Combined, the two dams block access to 1,100 miles of spawning grounds and thousands of miles of habitat in the Upper Columbia Basin, bringing the salmon population above these dams to extinction.

“Our people thought they did something wrong because the salmon stopped coming up the river,” Erickson said.

According to Erickson, dams, along with commercial fishing in the Lower Columbia, had a huge impact on the Colville, changing their lives forever. The loss of salmon altered the cultural and spiritual identities and practices of Native peoples along the Upper Columbia River.

As part of an interim compromise agreement in the case National Wildlife Federation v. National Marine Fisheries Service, Native nations negotiated a requirement that the federal government complete a report “documenting the historic, ongoing and cumulative impacts of federal Columbia River dams on Columbia River Basin Tribes.” Released June 18, the report details the impact of dams on the river and aquatics species as well as culture, Native economies and ways of life, through the displacement and loss of cultural sites and resources. 

Bringing the salmon and ceremony back has been healing for the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT) — Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Indians, Kalispel Tribe of Indians, Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, Spokane Tribe of Indians, and Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. Together, UCUT is working to protect the wildlife, diverse habitat, and bring the salmon back in the Northwest.

Chairman of the Colville Business Council, Jarred-Michael Erickson, welcomes community members during a series of presentations on salmon reintroduction above Chief Joseph Dam as the tribe holds a First Salmon Ceremony outside of Bridgeport, Wash., May 23, 2024. (Photo by: Alex Milan Tracy/Underscore News)

Bringing the salmon back

The phased approach to reintroduction was introduced in 2015 by Columbia Basin nations and First Nations in Canada, addressing fish passage and reintroduction in the Upper Columbia River. In 2019, UCUT completed the first phase.. That included planning and investigation of salmon passage options, assessing existing habitat, small scale reintroductions, understanding salmon’s impact on cultures, health and economies, and more.

This process requires the release of juvenile salmon and transportation of adults above the dams, and then monitoring and documenting that the salmon can still spawn, produce juveniles and get through the dams. Casey Baldwin, research biologist for the Colville Confederated Tribes, believes the survival documented is meaningful, even if it’s a fairly low rate and in small numbers. Showing that this was possible – even under current conditions with the dams blocking the waterways – showed the potential for larger reintroduction projects. It was the scientific groundwork for phase two of reintroduction efforts.

Before the new federal agreement, Bonneville Power Administration barred the Colville from using fish from the Chief Joseph Hatchery for any reintroduction efforts in the Upper Columbia River. According to Erickson, Bonneville claimed wording in the previous congressional authorization of funding for the hatchery prevented the fish from being used in the blocked area above the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams. The agency claimed congressional approval was needed to use the fish.

Chief Joseph Hatchery Manager, Matt McDaniel, looks over automated equipment inside a specialized trailer that can sort, tag, and clip over 60,000 fish in eight hours outside of Bridgeport, Wash., on May 23, 2024. (Photo by: Alex Milan Tracy/Underscore News)

“I think they're moving in the right direction but there's definitely been some barriers that were put up in the past,” Erickson said.

Despite those barriers, the impact of seeing the salmon return has had a powerful and positive impact, according to Erickson and others.

“It was incredibly meaningful to the tribes to once again have salmon in their ancestral waters,” Baldwin said. “Ceremonies were held where tribal members sang songs, said prayers and shared traditional foods to celebrate the return of salmon to the blocked area.”

During the salmon ceremony, Lewis said the loss of salmon due to the dams fragmented cultures and caused illness and mental health problems. He grew up on salmon and lived at Celilo Falls as a kid until it was flooded under the reservoir behind The Dalles Dam in 1957. Lewis went on to quote Billy Frank Jr., a citizen of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, and one of the leaders of what is now known as the Fish Wars: “Save the salmon and you'll save the people.”

YouTube video

Baldwin went on to share that even small numbers of fish began to address this paramount goal of cultural healing.

“Those of us working on the ‘Western, science-based, phased approach’ were largely unprepared for just how meaningful and important those first salmon returns were to the human and cultural aspect of the project,” Baldwin said.

UCUT released the first adult salmon above the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams in August of 2019. The recent financial investment and support of UCUT’s efforts to restore salmon to the Upper Columbia River Basin is for Phase two alone, which will test the research from the first phase.

Federal government responsibility

One of the five member nations of UCUT, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Indians, signed a treaty with the federal government that outlined agreed upon reservation lands and their sovereign rights to hunt and fish at their traditional fishing sites. The other UCUT nations – Colville, Kalispel, Kootenai, and Spokane – were later federally recognized without a treaty. As a result, their sovereign hunting and fishing rights are often not upheld by the federal government. 

Because of this, the Colville’s fishing falls within the State of Washington’s commercial and recreational fishing allotment and is managed in part by the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Salmon fillets are grilled in a non-traditional way so they will cook quicker as The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation hold a First Salmon Ceremony at Chief Joseph Hatchery outside of Bridgeport, Wash., May 23, 2024. (Photo by: Alex Milan Tracy/Underscore News)

“So allocation wise, we're trying to help everyone out,” said Erickson. “We always would no matter what, but we also fall in the same allocation side as the commercial and recreational fishermen. They want more fish, we want more fish – the whole system does. And 40% of the production before the dams were put in was above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee [dams].”

He doesn’t believe that these obligations are being upheld by the federal government for any of the UCUT member nations.

“Treaty rights and our rights are no different,” Erickson said. “That has been acknowledged… I don't think they have been fulfilling their duty. Some of this has been helping, some of it’s been forced by going to court. This is why we got this funding.”

Whether each nation has a treaty with the federal government or not, Erickson asserts that they never gave up their sovereign rights to hunting and fishing on their traditional homelands. Just as the federal government has an obligation to honor the treaties that assured the right to take fish “at all usual and accustomed places,” they have an obligation to nations like the Colville, Erickson explained.

Shelly Davis with the Colville Tribes Fish and Wildlife Department watches as salmon is cooked during the annual first salmon ceremony at Chief Joseph Hatchery near Bridgeport, Wash., on May 23, 2024. (Photo by: Alex Milan Tracy/Underscore News)

In 2016, U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal government and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” when reviewing the federal hydrosystem and failed to “fully assess the impacts of climate change on salmon, and failure to consider climate change threats to the Southern Resident killer whale.”

The lawsuit has been ongoing for over two decades. In 2005, the Colville joined the case as amici, or friends of the court, which allowed them to offer guidance and input.

Erickson went on to share how thankful he is to the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene nations, who were plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Without them, he said, none of the recent investment in salmon reintroduction would be possible.

In January 2021, plaintiffs including the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene nations intervened in the case, pressuring the federal government to take action. As a result, the federal government came to an agreement with the Colville, Coeur d’Alene and Spokane nations that the government says shows its efforts to uphold federal obligations to Native nations. 

Tom Miller with The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation enjoys the food with the gathered community during the First Salmon Ceremony at Chief Joseph Hatchery outside of Bridgeport, Wash., May 23, 2024. (Photo by: Alex Milan Tracy/Underscore News)

Announced in September 2023, the “interim compromise” promises more than $200 million over 20 years for salmon reintroduction efforts led by UCUT in partnership with the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Commerce’s National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bonneville.

The $200 million will come from the Bonneville, a federal power marketing administration under the Department of Energy. Four other federal agencies have committed an additional $21 million and have committed to support the project and seek additional funding in the future.

As part of the compromise, each Native nation agreed to pause existing litigation related to salmon reintroduction for 20 years — the duration of the second phase of the salmon reintroduction studies. The deal also specified that a long-term solution would not include removing the dams or making major changes to dam operations.

Barriers

As UCUT started working on phase two with more science and policy input and a better understanding of the studies and facility needs, the estimated cost of phase 2 grew to $300 to $400 million for the 20-year study, according to Baldwin and the UCUT website. That estimate does not account for inflation.

“The exact funding gap is uncertain because the exact cost is uncertain,” Baldwin said. “In other words we need to monitor, implement, learn and then implement more, with new information guiding the way, not opinions or policies from 2023.”

According to Baldwin, enough fish are being produced for the study to monitor the behavior of adult salmon when they return from the ocean, but current production will not achieve plentiful, natural numbers of fish for the thousands of miles of river blocked by the two dams. Meaningful reintroduction will require more hatchery production, improving spawning habitat and finding solutions to get fish safely around the dams.

All the information gathered in phase two will be used for phase three, which will include developing fish passage facilities, supporting hatchery production facilities and habitat improvements. Phase three is the implementation of a long-term solution.

Looking to the future

According to Baldwin, phase three will include reintroducing meaningful numbers that will make a difference to ocean fisheries and ocean ecosystems.

“Even in small numbers, the nutrients that the salmon bring back from the ocean – carbon and nitrogen, phosphorus –is extremely important to the watersheds that have been deprived of that for decades,” Baldwin said.

Community members with The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation take pieces of salmon during the First Salmon Ceremony at Chief Joseph Hatchery outside of Bridgeport, Wash., May 23, 2024. (Photo by: Alex Milan Tracy/Underscore News)

The lifecycle of a salmon – for them to spawn, go out to the ocean and come back – takes three to five years. Phase two plans to study multiple life cycles, which is why the study is 20 years long. 

“It's unfortunate [the study] is as long as it is,” Erickson said. “The way the climate is moving in our world, do they have that long?”

Erickson hopes things can move a little quicker as more salmon start returning and they are able to gather more data. He also sees the Upper Columbia Basin as an important stronghold for the salmon.

“I worry about even the lower river and some of those places just getting too hot to have salmon anymore,” Erickson said. “It’s scary to think about but that's the direction we're going.”

It’s this understanding, combined with ancestral knowledge, that has driven the commitment of UCUT nation citizens to bringing the salmon back.

Traditional Territories Advisor with The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, John Sirois, speaks to community members at the Chief Joseph Hatchery outside of Bridgeport, Wash., on May 23, 2024. (Photo by: Alex Milan Tracy/Underscore News)

“We say this all the time, we're just like the salmon, we keep coming back,” said John Sirois, traditional territories advisor with The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. “We're always here, because that's what our ancestors taught us we have to do. That's our responsibility to be that steward, that caretaker. [The salmon] have done so much. They've lived out into the ocean and come over nine dams and made it back here. I see that as a gift and we have eternal responsibility to do everything that we can to make sure that they're healthy, that they're strong and that's how tradition keeps moving on. It lives within us.”

Lewis shared similar sentiments.

“We all come together here, sharing one common purpose,” Lewis said during the salmon ceremony. “That's to save the salmon. It's kind of like the debate about the grizzly bear and the wolves. If you look at a spider web, they're all strands in that web along with the salmon. We are not directly responsible for putting any of those strands in that web. Nor do we have the right to be removing them and denying some, saying, ‘They don't belong here anymore.’ They all belong.”

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Luna Reyna is a writer and broadcaster whose work has centered the voices of the systematically excluded in service of liberation and advancing justice. Before coming to Cronogomet and ICT...