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The Snake River: Through an Indigenous Lens - The YEARS Project

The Snake River: Through an Indigenous Lens

It is said you never cross the same river twice, and that is especially true in the sacred region of the Snake River as it has been changing drastically. The Snake River originates in Western Wyoming and flows through the magnificent Teton Range before it leads into three neighboring states. The river’s diverse landscape supports nearly 500 animal species, ranging from bighorn sheep to the orca whale as well as avid skiers, hikers, campers, and rafters. And it is home for many Indigenous people in the region. The flourishing salmon and steelhead of the Snake River provide nourishment for the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon as well as the Nez Perce Tribe, dating back more than hundreds of years. 

The Snake is the largest tributary to enter the Columbia River and longest North American river to empty into the Pacific Ocean. But these rivers are more than just diverse landscapes, they are also a place of sacred land, of culture and tradition. Dating back to a tribal legend, it has been told that the Creator gifted the people of this region salmon and water to survive. To respect their sacrifice, the salmon and water both receive a place of honor at traditional feasts throughout the Columbia Basin. The spawning of the salmon is an especially sacred tradition, which is celebrated through salmon bakes, storytelling, and pow-wow dancing to ensure the salmon return each year. Traditional ceremonies like this are essential to culture in honoring the cycle of the salmon and ensure safety of the population. Not only is salmon eaten for strength and medicine, but it is also used for cultural art — using vertebrates to make earrings and dried out skins for baskets and robes. Anything that’s still left over is returned to the river. Salmon represents abundance and nourishment for tribes and connects these Native communities to the Earth. 

Yet, these rivers are at risk. The threats range from ecological to political. In the 1960s and 70s, the federal government built four large dams on the Snake River, primarily to allow barges to pass through as well as generate a small amount of electricity. But the dams blocked the flow of salmon. Nearby nations and tribes correctly predicted the devastating results, but were silenced when attempting to voice their concerns. Compared to pre-dam salmon flow in the 1950s, only 3% of the wild spring Chinook and 15% of wild steelhead returned to the upper Snake last year.

But it’s not just Indigenous populations that depend on a free flowing river, it is also vital for a healthy ecosystem. At least 137 different species depend on the ecosystem services wild salmon provide. Salmon bring vast amounts of marine nutrients from the ocean to rivers, boosting the productivity of these rivers. Protecting salmon is essential in protecting the forests, water, food, and wildlife. Even though Indigenous peoples comprise only around 6% of the global population, they protect 80% of biodiversity left in the world. Indigenous culture and lifestyle has shown to be greatly beneficial to the environment as a whole. These cultures demonstrate a symbiotic relationship of living in the natural world, and yet their opinions and voices continue to go unheard. 

While the Indigenous communities rely on a flourishing salmon population, just restoring the salmon alone would not solve the root of the issue. In 1964, around the same time as dam construction, the U.S. and Canada entered into an agreement known as the Columbia River Treaty. The intention was to control the flow of the river and coordinate cross-border economic development, and the construction of three dams in Canada was decided on. Canada’s large basin has the most climate resilient source of cold water, essential for the migrating salmon and other species. The construction of the treaty dams disregarded public consultation and neglected the voices of the affected Tribes in the U.S. and Indigenous Nations in Canada, ignoring the rights of those who live and depend on the river. This resulted in the displacement of many rural communities, degraded river flow and water quality, disturbed ecologically diverse habitats, and greatly reduced the ability for salmon to complete their passage. 

Jeremy FiveCrows, member of the Nez Perce Tribe and Communications director of Columbia River, along with Jim Heffernan, Policy Analyst for the CRT, had a lot to say regarding the issue. Hearing the tribal stories of the Coyote looking after the river and ensuring the salmon will provide the community nourishment, tradition, and way of life might inspire that spiritual connection. As Jim pointed out, “everyone needs to see the earth as sacred, it cannot only be the tribal members. People need to be able to listen and change — we need everyone on board.” It encourages a look at the river in a different, more appreciative light. It’s not just about resources, monetary value, or being a beautiful place to go; it’s the health and bloodline of the entire community and ecosystem. It requires a switch of the current mindset that is controlling the river, a monetary way, to a more ancient way of thinking, a cultural way. Jeremy stated it simply, “How do you put a monetary amount on a fish that your culture and religion is based on? That’s not even the right thing to be talking about there.” 

The history of salmon in the Snake and Columbia River is disheartening, but there is hope in the various movements, groups, and individuals that are dedicated to recovering the salmon population. Save Our Wild Salmon, Wild Salmon Center, North American Youth Parliament for Water, and many more organizations are advocating for comprehensive dam removal and achieving healthy free-flowing rivers. After speaking with members of NAYP, there was an aura of inspiration in the room from their expertise and dedication to this issue. Now more than ever, youth are setting an example for how Indigenous nations can make sure their voices are heard. These groups are teaming together with Indigenous sovereigns to educate, spread awareness and gain support, and secure a federal plan to remove the four dams on the lower Snake River. The goal is to create a modernized Columbia River Treaty, in which the health of the rivers are prioritized. 

As of August 2023, the potential plans to remove the dams on the Snake River have been on hold due to the current majority in the House of Representatives. However in May of this year the Biden Administration launched a public comment period for feedback on salmon restoration for these rivers for future planning. The earliest potential termination date for the Columbia River Treaty is in 2024 and the Department of State is now leading the effort to negotiate with Canada to modernize it. These two countries recently conducted the 17th round of Columbia River Treaty regime negotiations, discussing flood risk management, hydropower coordination, ecosystem cooperation and salmon reintroduction, flexibility for Canada’s dam operations, and mechanisms for incorporating Tribal and Indigenous input into the Treaty. Yet although many of these actions seem to be in the direction of progress, there is always a question about how public or open these meetings really are to Indigenous voices. 

As special as the Snake and Columbia River are, this is just one story among many where we must heal our relationship to the land. It’s a mindset that is ingrained in our systems — to extract and degrade the land to gain as much profit out of it as possible. If we could all look at the river in the way Indigenous and tribal communities do, full of life, we could not only have a healthy, free-flowing river with flourishing salmon and ecosystems, but also an appreciation for the rivers and land and all they are capable of.