By Betsy Emery, Advocacy and Campaign Manager
T he relationship between northwest Tribes and salmon is significant—so significant, in fact, that many groups refer to themselves as “Wy-Kan-Ush-Pum” or “Salmon People.” Historically, the Columbia River basin supported one of the most abundant salmon returns in the world, providing Indigenous communities with a reliable, year-round source of protein. As a staple food, salmon supported a vibrant and lucrative trade economy that spanned much of present-day America, connecting Tribes to goods and communities in other regions.
Fishing continues to be an important cultural practice providing sustenance, status, and wealth in many Native communities. Salmon returns and fishing form the foundation of many cultural and religious practices among northwest Tribes, including the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.
“We have unwritten laws between us and the fish,” said Bobby Mercier, Language and Cultural Specialist at the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. “We were promised that as long as we have ceremony and sing songs and do dances and respect that first fish that’s caught, that they will always come back to feed us. In our stories, the salmon said that they would sacrifice their lives to feed our people if we give them due respect.”
In an effort to develop the west and free up land for settlement, the U.S. government negotiated treaties with many Indigenous groups. In exchange for ceding their traditional homelands to the U.S. government for eventual settlement and development, the government granted these Tribes perpetual access to fish and resources. Ultimately, many Tribes in present day Oregon and California were forcibly removed to various reservations as a result of these treaties, including the Grand Ronde Reservation. Native rights were, and continue to be violated in countless ways, one of the most significant being that these reservations and subsequent federal policies severed access to their traditional fishing grounds.
After removing Native peoples from their homelands along the Columbia and Willamette river, the U.S. forged ahead with building dams to provide power and transportation for the new settlers of the new state of Oregon. They built over 400 dams in the Columbia River Basin, dramatically impacting salmon’s ability to successfully migrate to the ocean and back to their spawning grounds. The past 200 years of U.S. water development has driven thirteen populations of salmon and steelhead to eminent risk of extinction.
“It’s not only the decline of fish, but the removal of us from our rivers. We have to make trips to get the few fish that we can legally catch. Our grandparents and great grandparents used to go dipnet [salmon] right out of the river to feed their entire families,” Mercier said. “Now our entire Tribe is allowed to harvest 15 salmon each year from the river.”
While each Tribe has their own cultural practices surrounding First Salmon Ceremonies, these celebrations were historically timed with the spring arrival of salmon to Tribal groups along the river. Now, many Tribes plan these ceremonies many months in advance given uncertainties about if or when salmon might return from their 400+ mile migration from the ocean, through the Columbia and up the Willamette hydrosystem to the Grand Ronde Reservation.
“Our [First Salmon] Ceremony is being planned now for specific dates. Instead of harvesting a fish from the river for the ceremony, we sometimes have to use fish from the market or the freezer,” Mercier said. “It is absolutely not the same. We are paying homage to the fish, but we are not doing it the natural way. It defeats the purpose of us honoring the specific fish that is returning to us.”
As U.S. residents and anglers, we are responsible for advocating for the rights of our Indigenous neighbors. Our government is responsible for managing salmon in ways that honor sovereign and treaty rights to resources while enabling Indigenous peoples to practice their traditions. Native northwesterners successfully harvested substantial salmon from the Columbia and Willamette rivers for tens of thousands of years without experiencing scarcity. Conversely, since the completion of much of the Columbia Basin hydrosystem in the late 1970s, salmon populations and returns immediately began declining to perilous lows.
We are at a critical moment in salmon recovery. We need to take bold action to ensure that thirteen populations of salmon and steelhead do not go extinct. It is time for our river managers to pay more attention to Indigenous perspectives and restore an ethic of reciprocity and respect for salmon as a being, rather than a resource, to fisheries management. Framing our management decisions in the integral knowledge that comes with long-term presence on the land will surely improve salmon returns, a substantial benefit for us all.
As the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission describes, “Salmon have shaped the culture of the newcomers to this region just as they shaped Tribal cultures before them… Whether they realize it or not... We are all Salmon People. Let us all work together to protect and restore salmon—this fish that unites us.”
Learn more about our partnership with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and the National Wildlife Federation to train the next generation of salmon stewards.