On July 7, Keyen Singer, Alyric RedCrane, Lyle Soaring Eagle, Elsie McKay, and Latis Nowland stood before attendees of the Salmon-Orca Summit, a gathering of Tribal Nations from throughout the Pacific Northwest, and spoke the truth of Native youth throughout the Northwest about the ongoing cultural genocide that faces their people with the decimation of the salmon populations that help define them. They called on the region’s political leaders to support removal of four dams on Snake River. It was a powerful moment in the midst of a powerful event, organized by the Nez Perce Tribe and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. Time is running out for Snake River salmon and the Orca and Native people who depend upon them. The time for action is now.
One reason for hope is the vision of Congressman Mike Simpson (R-ID). He is the first Member of Congress from the region to step up and call for a comprehensive solution to the salmon crisis that also invests in renewable energy, transportation, agriculture, and local communities. As he has said time and time again, “There are many ways to solve our needs as people, but salmon need a river.” Governor Kate Brown also deserves thanks and praise for her unwavering support to resolve this conflict once and for all. Picking up the mantle from those two leaders, Senator Patty Murray and Governor Jay Inslee have promised to lead a stakeolder process to address these issues, but the region is still waiting for specific details on that commitment. A recent poll suggests that the public will be behind them. Almost 60% of respondents support a comprehensive solution that includes dam removal.
As we observe Indigenous People’s Day, we celebrate another Gathering of the Salmon People organized by Children of the Setting Sun Productions and hosted by the Lummi Nation. This meeting includes tribes from the coast to the mountains, each with their own unique histories, cultures, and traditions, but all with a common relationship to salmon. These tribes were promised, many through treaty or executive order, that in spite of being forced to cede their lands to the United States, they would be guaranteed access to their most sustaining resource – salmon. With the precipitous crash of salmon populations throughout the region, there is no denying that we face a crisis. But it is not too late to turn things around.
Over the summer, a number of Native-led organizations and Tribal governments participated in the Red Road to DC, which featured a cross country journey to deliver a 25-foot totem pole, carved by the House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation, to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native person to assume that role. These groups delivered the message that we must protect sacred places, including the Snake River, and ensure that Native peoples and tribes have a seat at the table. The appointment of Secretary Haaland was historic, and the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts did not end there. The President has tapped two Native leaders, Mike Connor (Taos) and Jamie Pinkham (Nez Perce) to serve as the civilian leaders of the US Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps), which owns and operates the Snake River dams. Finally, just last week, the chair of President Biden’s Council on Environmental Quality, Brenda Mallory met with the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) to listen to concerns and share commitments to addressing the salmon crisis.
This past summer was the hottest on record, and the stagnant pools created by the Snake River dams baked in the sun, creating lethal water temperatures for cold-water fish. At the same time, prompted by litigation brought by the Columbia Riverkeeper and supported by many allies, the State of Washington and the US Environmental Protection Agency notified the Army Corps that they must comply with legal requirements to maintain Snake River temperatures that protect healthy salmon populations. Most experts believe that the only way to meet these temperature requirements is to return the Snake to its natural, free-flowing condition.
Some critics argue that, with the threat of climate change, we cannot afford to lose any sources of carbon-free energy, including the Snake River dams. We overwhelmingly agree that fighting climate change and transforming our energy system must be a global priority to which everyone must contribute, but suggesting that Native people have to choose between an inhabitable planet and salmon is the kind of false choice that echoes the racist colonial choices that Tribes were forced to make when signing the very treaties that the United States is now breaking. Native people didn’t cause the climate crisis, so they – and their salmon – should not be asked to bear the burden of solving it. Hydropower resources of the Pacific Northwest can certainly continue to play a role in fighting the climate crisis. Bringing down the lower four Snake River dams would result in just a 4% reduction of hydropower production while ensuring the viability of salmon and sustaining the identity of the Salmon People. This fall, CRITFC is expected to release an Energy Vision demonstrating how the region can tackle the climate crisis while meeting the ecological, economic, and spiritual needs of Native people.
The two of us, an indigenous leader and an environmental advocate, have been friends and allies for almost 25 years, working on salmon and river restoration. In 2019, buoyed by new momentum for Snake restoration, we began to sketch the outlines of an effort support Tribes, Native-led advocacy groups, and their allies. Guided by an advisory group of Native leaders, the Northwest Tribal Salmon Alliance provides grants and communications capacity to these efforts, following the lead of Tribal governments. This work is made possible by funders like the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Wend Collective, Meyer Memorial Trust, Harder Foundation, Laird Norton Foundation, Patagonia, and many others. Over the past two years, the Alliance has been able to direct funds to each of the efforts highlighted in blue above, as well as many more.
While so much hard work lies ahead, we remain hopeful. This past year marked the 10th anniversary of the removal of two dams on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula. The transformation of that landscape has been rapid and the recovery of salmon and other fish and wildlife beyond even the most ambitious expectations. That effort was led by the Lower Elwha Klallam people, who began fighting for removal of those dams the day they were constructed, and never gave up. Across the country, most of the successful campaigns to restore rivers by removing large dams were led by Native people. The Yakama Nation led a 15 year effort to remove the Condit Dam and restore the White Salmon River in Washington State. The Penobscot Nation worked for decades to remove several dams and install fish passage on others, to restore the Penobscot River in Maine. And the Yavapai-Apache Nation successfully advocated for the decommissioning of a hydropower facility to restore Fossil Creek and designate it as a National Wild and Scenic River.
The Salmon People of the Pacific Northwest will never give up and never give in, when it comes to protecting and restoring the Snake River and the other places that make them who they are. We will stand in solidarity with them, follow their lead and do what it takes, until the job is done.
Don Sampson is the hereditary chief of the Walla Walla Nation, former Executive Director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and Executive Director of the Columbia Intertribal Fish Commission. He helps to lead climate change programs for the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and is Chair of the advisory committee to the Northwest Tribal Salmon Alliance.
Andrew Fahlund is Senior Program Officer for the Health Watersheds Program of the Water Foundation, former Executive Director of Water in the West at Stanford University, and Senior Vice President for Programs with American Rivers.