Members of the Nez Perce Tribe and the Lummi Nation came together Thursday to give voice to the voiceless, to speak for salmon, orcas and the rivers of the Pacific Northwest.
They also put their voices behind an Idaho congressman and his controversial plan to save Snake River salmon by breaching the four federal dams between Lewiston and the Tri-Cities.
Joined by dozens of nontribal supporters of dam removal, they gathered under a canopy of shade trees at Chief Timothy Park to talk, trade stories and make speeches. The occasion was a visit by a totem pole during its brief rest on a cross-country journey from Bellingham, Wash., to Washington, D.C.
“I have liked all the words I have heard this morning, especially the words that we are speaking for the ones that can not speak — our salmon and orca,” said Arthur Broncheau, a member of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee. “I would also like to mention our future generations. Those not born yet are not able to speak but their time will come and we set an example today of what we are trying to do as people.
The House of Tears Carvers, Lummi people, crafted the 25-foot totem pole and are driving it from their home on the Puget Sound to Washington, D.C., where it will be displayed in the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. Along the way, they are making stops to draw attention and lend support to environmental battles being waged by Native Americans.
One of the biggest is the fight over the Snake River dams. The Nez Perce Tribe first backed breaching in 1999 and has been among the loudest voices pushing the case for the past two decades.
Wild Snake River salmon and steelhead are listed threatened and endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Many scientists believe the only way to save the fish is to breach the dams. Doing so would eliminate a key source of mortality for the fish on their journeys to and from the Pacific Ocean and boost abundance as much as four fold, according to some studies. But the move that would end barging on the river and reduce the production of hydropower has powerful opponents, and federal plans aimed at reducing the harm caused by the dams have repeatedly rejected breaching. The Army Corps of Engineers and Bonneville Power Administration contend breaching is too costly and, while they have said it would be the best move for the fish, the agencies contend other nonbreaching measures such as habitat improvement are sufficient.
Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, a Nez Perce environmental group, organized the event.
“I really appreciate the tribe pushing this issue,” said Julian Matthews, a board member of the group.
Shannon Wheeler, vice chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, said according to one of the tribe’s creation stories, salmon agreed to give himself to the people during a meeting of all the animals. But in doing so, salmon knew he would lose his voice.
“It will be up to them to speak for me,” Wheeler said, telling the story. “And so that is what the tribe has been doing for many years.”
Last February, Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican representing Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District, unveiled his Columbia Basin Initiative. The $33 billion plan would breach the dams and make huge investments to replace the lost hydropower, help farmers get grain to market and aid port communities like Lewiston, Clarkston and the Tri-Cities. The tribe backed the concept and has organized support from the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and the National Congress of American Indians. Other members of Congress from the Pacific Northwest have largely kept their distance from the plan or attacked it as unneeded and harmful to agriculture.
But Wheeler said those members of Congress and federal agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers have an obligation to ensure the 1855 Treaty between the Nez Perce and the United States that reserves the rights of Nez Perce People to fish for salmon at “usual and accustomed places” is upheld.
“We just ask the congressional leaders, the actions agencies, the Biden-Harris Administration to uphold that obligation to the tribe and the people the tribe represents, and to the salmon and the orca, to the steelhead, to the lamprey, to the landscape and to all the Northwest tribes who are in the same situation and to all the people of the Pacific Northwest.”
Other speakers talked about climate change and the threats it poses to salmon and whales, and to future generations and the planet. Freddi Lane, one of the carvers, referenced Tahlequah, the orca who refused for 17 days in 2018 to give up on her dead calf.
“Her message: Your world is dying. You are killing your world,” he said.
Samuel Penney, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, said the totem will continue to speak for salmon, the environment and Native Americans even after it completes its journey.
“It will be a constant reminder to Congress and the general public that indigenous people are still here, we have survived all of the things that have happened to us and we will continue to fight for the natural resources that we are all so dependent on.”
After the talking, people gathered around the totem and brushed it with cedar bows and touched it with their hands “to bless this journey” said Lucinda Simpson, a board member of Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment.
“We need to breach those dams and we need to do it now,” she said.
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