Celilo Falls was once a magnificent series of rapids, channels, and chutes stair-stepping through the Columbia River Gorge along the Oregon-Washington border. But that changed when the Dalles Dam was completed in March 1957. Its construction—part of the building boom of hydropower dams that seized the country early in the twentieth century—flooded Celilo Falls, decimating a salmon population that drove a thriving Indian trading economy and upsetting a diverse ecosystem the size of France.

Although the dam is here to stay, today the tribes who have fished these waters for centuries have banded together to create a unique agency dedicated to natural resource management. The Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Warm Springs tribes formed the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which brings together top biologists, hydrologists, and fish scientists with the goal of saving the region’s salmon. And they haven’t been working alone: They’ve teamed up with sport and commercial fishermen, conservation groups, and businesses to support a lengthy court battle to force the federal government to deal with publicly subsidized dams that are eradicating the fish. A federal judge is expected to rule in this case by early 2008; the outcome could require the feds to take meaningful steps to restore 13 stocks of threatened and endangered salmon. 

The tribes are also calling for the removal of four dams on the lower Snake River, the largest tributary of the Columbia, to allow salmon to reach central Idaho’s wilderness, the region’s best remaining spawning habitat. And they’re helping conduct research on toxins in fish that may improve water pollution standards nationwide. “They put more resources into protecting and restoring salmon than any other single entity, and without their scientific expertise, we may have lost these fish a number of years ago,” says Nicole Cordan of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition.

This passion for restoring what was once the most productive salmon watershed in the world is evident during a day on the river with these Indian fishermen. They share stories of centuries-old fishing ceremonies, tell tales of life and death on the river, and express hope that future generations will be able to enjoy the same bounty.

‘‘My dad’s been bringing me out on the river since I was just a baby,” WindCloud Washines says as he frees a Columbia River chinook salmon from the family’s gill net. Prior to the dam-building era, the region produced as many as 16 million salmon a year and supported tens of thousands of Indians. The Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce, and Warm Springs tribes balanced their dietary needs with the need to keep the rivers running thick with chinook, sockeye, and coho salmon. “Even during times of starvation, tribal leaders would not allow more harvesting than salmon could sustain,” says Mary Christina Wood, an expert on salmon and tribes at the University of Oregon.

Wild Pacific salmon have long held religious significance for the tribes of the region. Each spring they hold a First Salmon Ceremony to kick off the fishing season. Today, Scherri Greene and her nephew, James Greene, carry on this tradition by gill netting salmon and selling their catch. Like others, they hope the government will agree to remove problem dams and take other steps toward salmon recovery that will help enable a more bountiful future for everyone in the region. 

West Coast fish buyers have begun to take notice of the quality of the salmon that Indian fishermen catch on the Columbia River. “These are some of the best fish in the world,” says Ed Garvin of Salmon Express Seafoods in Tacoma, Washington. Here his cousin, Bob Danielson, weighs some of the premium spring chinook offered for sale by Eric Queahpama, a Warm Springs tribe fisherman. 

Like many Columbia River Basin Indians, Leonard Dave’s family has been fishing for salmon in the same area for generations. Dave, 79, still makes his living dip netting from a scaffold suspended over the churning boils of the Klickitat River, a tributary that joins the Columbia River about 75 miles east of Portland, Oregon. The work is not without its dangers—he and his 50-year-old son fell into the river four years ago, at the height of spring runoff while setting up a fishing scaffold—but it’s the only way of life he’s known. He hopes the U.S. District Court in Portland will rule to protect the salmon in early 2008. 

Fifty years after Celilo Falls disappeared, the Lower Columbia River Indian tribes have been instrumental in protecting the region’s remaining salmon. They’ve restored spawning sites, secured alternate irrigation sources so farmers don’t deplete rivers during migration season, and monitored their own fishermen to ensure the sustainability of the salmon population. “We go into our day’s work knowing that half of the benefits of what we do will benefit non-Indians,” says Charles Hudson of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. 

Story by Ken Olsen. This article originally appeared in Plenty in November 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007