Five Upper Columbia United Tribes journeyed on the Columbia River to Kettle Falls and arrived on June 22. File photo

Canoe journey honouring salmon and tribal traditions takes on new significance

Columbia River Treaty negotiations start without indigenous input

Spokane, WA—The five Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT) journeyed over several days in dugout canoes to arrive at Kettle Falls on June 22. The tribes’ traditional fishing spot on the Columbia River, Kettle Falls has been flooded for over 75 years.

The tribes made this trip for the first time in over 80 years in 2016. The last time all five tribes had gathered at the falls was for the “Ceremony of Tears” when Grand Coulee Dam was built, blocking salmon from the Upper Columbia River.

Over the last three years, the gathering and journey has continued as more tribal members have joined the journey, celebration and salmon ceremony.

Since time immemorial, the five tribes of UCUT have lived in and cared for the Upper Columbia River Basin. Every year, they met at Kettle Falls. It was a time for all the tribes to come together as one family, to trade, to fish and gather food. Fish were a mainstay of their diet—physically and spiritually.

That all changed in 1942 when Grand Coulee Dam was built on the Columbia River without fish passage. Then, in 1964, the Columbia River Treaty resulted in further development of dams on the Columbia River, resulting in the loss of over 1,100 miles of salmon and steelhead habitat. The Columbia River once produced the largest salmon runs on earth, often exceeding 10 million salmon per year. Today, only a fraction return to spawn.

“Salmon are sacred to our tribes,” says D.R. Michel, Executive Director of UCUT. “We are salmon nations. For thousands of years, we have acted as stewards of the river and of salmon—one of our First Foods.”

Part of the event’s celebration was the salmon ceremony, in keeping with the tradition of their ancestors. Salmon was prepared and shared with all the people at the event. The bones were cleaned and returned to the river. The sacred ritual acknowledges the gift of salmon and asks for its return.

For thousands of years, the Columbia River Basin relied on salmon as a keystone species that affected the health of humans, wildlife, other fish, habitat and water quality. The loss of salmon irreparably harmed indigenous peoples, impacting their diets and health, lifestyles and culture.

“This isn’t just a tribal issue,” says Michel. “The whole Basin has suffered from the loss of salmon.”

Salmon fuel a huge industry in the Pacific Northwest. According to The Value of Natural Capital in the Columbia River Basin report, the economic value of Columbia River salmon and steelhead angling is estimated to be $140.9 million. If salmon populations could increase by even 51 percent, it is estimated that the annual existence value benefit of increased salmon runs would be $1.1 billion.

This year, the journey took on new significance, as the U.S. and Canada started negotiations on the Columbia River Treaty in May 2018 without tribal presence. For the past 50 years, the Columbia River Treaty excluded tribal participation in its governance and implementation.

“These negotiations are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to correct historic wrongs and set a new precedent for how the Columbia River is managed,” says Michel.

UCUT remains firm that any negotiations must include tribes at the table. Tribes and First Nations are advocating a third major purpose be included in a modernized Columbia River Treaty: ecosystem-based function—that the health of the river and its ecosystem should be included in its planning and management. They propose that restoring fish passage and reintroducing anadromous fish be investigated and implemented.

Changing how the Columbia River is managed is important to ensuring future descendants have a healthy home that includes clean water and salmon.

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