The Spirit of the Salmon
The Northwest is home to the Salmon Nations. For the tribes of the Columbia River, salmon is their brother. The Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indians, along with the Warm Springs, Nez Perce and Yakama tribes, share rights to water, land and fish in the columbia river basin. Today, in sacred landscape, Judy Bluehorse Skelton talks about the quintessential symbol of the northwest, the salmon.
Judy Bluehorse Skelton:
Wy-kan-ush-mi wa-kish-wit. The salmon’s spirit is sacred life. Salmon is our brother. My family and I sat on the rocks and watched one long, shimmering salmon burst high into the air. He twisted back into the white and green froth of surging water, his body a shadow, still visible through the falls. After several more minutes, another salmon shot up and out, into the crest of the waterfall, over the top, heading home. For thousands and thousands of years, salmon lived and flourished in the Columbia River watershed, reaffirming and repeating this dramatic cycle of life. Historical estimates show that from 10 to 16 million salmon returned annually. For as long as Native people can remember, salmon have unselfishly given of themselves for the physical and spiritual sustenance of the people. The Umatilla, and most other Northwest Tribes, depend on the salmon for their religious and cultural existence.
The return of salmon is celebrated with feasts and ceremonies, thanking salmon for their gift of renewal and life. The people of the Columbia Basin gather at Celilo, on the Columbia River, where people have fished for over 10,000 years, with large dipnets from wooden platforms reaching far out over the falls. Lewis and Clark were shocked to see an estimated 20,000 people along the Columbia, fishing, cleaning and drying salmon. Their St. Louis home boasted a population of only 4,000, in 1803. In one village alone, Lewis and Clark figured there were over 10,000 pounds of stacked, dried salmon. Salmon holds an honored place in northwest tribal diets. It is a healthy source of protein and very high in the beneficial omega-3 fats that reduce inflammation and heart disease. A basket of dried salmon “meal” would be worth its weight in gold.
In 1855, Northwest Tribes negotiated treaties for the rights to maintain their culture, including rights to fish at “all the usual and accustomed places.” In exchange for these rights, the tribes ceded over 40 million acres to the United States.
Today, the value and very existence of Columbia River salmon is being debated throughout the Northwest. Salmon runs, once the world’s largest, have declined by over 90 percent. Some salmon stocks have already been lost; others have been listed as endangered and threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The tribes of the Columbia must now use their hearts and minds to save the salmon. They created the Columbia River Salmon Restoration Plan, with a goal to stop the declining number of salmon within 7 years. The long term vision is to restore salmon to its historical abundance, for the future generations. The Umatilla, in partnership with other governments, farmers and businesses, spearheaded fish passage and habitat improvements near the dam in the Umatilla River watershed. The tribe built a hatchery and began returning juvenile chinook, steelhead and coho to the river, and for the first time in 70 years, salmon are returning to the Umatilla.
Umatilla executive director, Donald Sampson, says, “we have to carry on our traditions, our religion in protecting and praying for the salmon so that they will come back. That is our responsibility to the salmon.” Celilo Falls may have been destroyed by the building of The Dalles dam in 1957, but fishing continues along the river and her tributaries. People still gather at the river to sing, dance and celebrate. The people gather to welcome home our brother, Salmon.
With each breath, with each step, with each heart beat. Osadadu.