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©2007 Cascadia Times

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Deceptive government agencies rob tribes of their salmon,
culture and economy

In 1855 the Columbia River Indian tribes began leaving their traditional fishing grounds, moving upland from Chee-wan-a, or Big Water, one of the names given for the Columbia. In treaties they had ceded much of their land to the federal government, but had reserved the right to fish for salmon at all their customary places.

Decades of mismanagement by federal agencies nearly destroyed the salmon. At times tribes fought each other over the diminishing resource. But today these tribes are united in an epic defense of their salmon, culture and economy that are being crushed by the Bonneville Power Administration, the Bush administration, the power industry, and the Columbia’s massive hydroelectric system.

Their prime tribal fishing place was Celilo Falls, 10 miles east of The Dalles. But 50 years ago on March 10, 1957, rising waters behind brand-new The Dalles Dam submerged the falls, an event that is being remembered this year in solemn ceremonies along the river's banks by the residents of Celilo Village and the Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes who had reserved treaty rights to fish there.

Before the arrival of European settlers, Celilo produced more fish than any other aboriginal fishing site in the world, at a time when the Columbia produced more salmon than any other river in the world. Today the world's largest hydropower system entombs the falls and countless other ancient fishing sites along the river.

Some tribal members look forward to the day when their descendants can return to Celilo Falls. Others say the ghosts of the ancient fishing grounds should remain undisturbed.

Tribal and non-tribal Coastal fishing communities from California to Alaska that rely on ocean catches of Columbia River salmon have joined the Celilo commemorations, at least in spirit, to demonstrate their own aspirations for a day when the river’s salmon will return for them as well. The decline of Columbia River salmon has already devastated many of these communities.

“Today, the tribes struggle for a very small fraction of their reserved fishing rights,” says Rob Lothrop, an attorney working at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission for the tribes. “The treaties — the supreme law of the land under the U.S. Constitution — promised more.”

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