The WIP The global source for women's perspectives

Restoring First Foods to the Columbia River Basin

by Michelle Tolson

“I want to make money, but I have to take care of the fish,” said Yakama Nation fisherwoman Caroline Looney Hunt when asked how much salmon she sells each year. “I sell it locally to our own people. They use it for weddings, funerals and traditional cultural foods.”

Russell Jim of the Yakama Nation with a map of the ceded territory that the local tribes are expeced to fish, hunt and gather from. Photograph courtesy of Jason E. Kaplan.
Russell Jim of the Yakama Nation with a map of the ceded territory where the local tribes are expeced to fish, hunt and gather. Photograph courtesy of Jason E. Kaplan.
Looney Hunt’s answer explains what salmon means to her culturally. It is considered a “First Food” and part of the food sovereignty to Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest. First Foods are indigenous traditional and sacred foods, which for the Yakama, includes lamprey fish (an eel-like fish), berries, and roots such as the “Wapato.”

Salmon fishing season for the tribes goes from May to October and the fish is then processed to preserve it. “I smoke it, can it, and dry it. There is also powder fish. There are the old ways and new ways,” explains Looney Hunt. “Using an air fan has helped to dry it faster. Used to be really natural, just salt and air and heat. The fire gives it a smoky flavor. ”

The Yakama Reservation in Washington State has 10,000 registered tribal members. The tribe works with the Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce tribes in Oregon and Idaho under the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) to make sure the United States government honors the 1855 treaties that provide access to their “usual and accustomed places” to hunt, gather, and fish. CRITFC, part of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, advocates for the tribes’ fishing rights by addressing habitat issues, such as dam passages for migrating salmon, toxins in the river, and the use of hatcheries to restore or maintain salmon populations. Treaty rights to forage and fish beyond the reservation boundaries are meant to assure the tribes a culturally appropriate diet.

The Pacific Northwest was one of the last regions in the USA settled by European colonists and to this day has one of the largest Native American populations in the country. Federally recognized tribes are considered sovereign nations by the government. The tribes’ ancestral homeland covers about one-third of the entire Columbia River Basin, approximately 668,000 square kilometers. Supported by the 1938 Mitchell Act, tribal hatcheries receive funding to put young salmon back into the river every spring to mitigate the losses of habitat by dams.

In the region, dams have caused a major decline in salmon populations. Bonneville and the Grand Coulee Dam were the first major hydropower projects built on the main stem of the Columbia in the 1930s. The Grand Coulee Dam remains the largest in the United States and fifth largest in the world. Previously as high as 16 million fish per year, returning salmon migrations had dropped to just 600,000 fish per year; but, by the fall of 2013, improved hatchery technology and habitat restoration saw 1.2 million Chinook salmon pass the fish ladders at Bonneville Dam. CRITFC reports spring migration numbers are up too, with a record 17,409 fish passing Bonneville Dam the last day in April, the most in 12 years.

Stuart Ellis, biologist with CRITFC explains, “Salmon populations are always cyclic. We are hoping that this is not just the top of a cycle. We are hoping that it is a result of proper management so maybe we have bumped it up to a higher level.”

Dams have been removed when their upkeep outweighs their benefits. Condit Dam on the White River, a tributary of the Columbia, was removed in 2012 after 100 years of use. The Yakama were consulted as part of its removal.

A fish ladder at the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. Photograph courtesy of the author.
A fish ladder at the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. Photograph courtesy of the author.
“The response from the fish has been very good. It was owned by a private power company but when they took it out, the fish went back up there almost immediately. The steel-head went right back up in there and in the fall Chinook have gone up above the dam site. It has turned itself right back into a natural system pretty quickly – but of course it will take time to go back to its former state,” says Ellis.

Ironically the largest population of wild spawning salmon in the Columbia Basin occurs near a former nuclear production facility for the Manhattan Project at Hanford, Washington. “Though the area is undammed, it is not uncontrolled,” Ellis points out.

Beginning in 1940s, Hanford Nuclear Reservation manufactured weapons including the bombs dropped on Japan during World War II. It now holds two-thirds of the nation’s high level nuclear waste and has been undergoing a costly clean up since 1989. Russell Jim, Project Director for the Yakama Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Program, has been fighting the Department of Energy since the 1970s to protect tribal lands forcibly ceded under the Yakama Treaty of 1855. He questions the transparency of the clean up.

Jim’s concerns are shared by Tom Carpenter, Executive Director of Hanford Challenge watchdog group and Steven G. Gilbert, a toxicologist with Physicians for Social Responsibility, who express concerns about the radioactive wastes spilled into the soil and groundwater, creating toxic plumes. While the plumes are at varying distances from the river, groundwater “upwellings” flow from the site into the Columbia River based on the level of river water.

Wild salmon hatch in the river beds and they then spend the majority of their lifecycle in the ocean. Only returning to spawn reduces the chance of contamination from industrial and nuclear waste. According to Paul Hoffarth of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at Hanford Reach, the longest undammed stretch of the Columbia River, “They are only here a few months as juveniles and then they go back to the ocean so they [the plumes] have less impact.”

According to a 2002 EPA report, contaminants from old industrial machinery were detected in resident (non migratory) fish near Hanford. An advisory for consuming resident fish was released last year for PCB and mercury toxins lingering in the 150 mile heavily dammed stretch downstream from the site. Mike Matylewich, CRITFC Fisheries Management Manager, says that though PCBs were banned in the 1970s, their ability to withstand high temperatures and previous use in hydropower equipment has contributed to their continued presence in the environment. He explains the Umatilla tribe in Oregon has successfully set higher water standards under the Clean Water Act that recognize the greater amount of fish consumed by the tribes. While the previous consumption advisory was set at 17.5 grams a day, far below the tribes’ usual consumption, the new amount will be 175 grams a day. However, it will take time to implement the new standards and reduce toxins. The tribes in Washington State are working to follow Oregon’s lead but this is being fought by corporate interests.

Many believe the sudden and forced replacement of traditional foods contributes to the high rates of diabetes and other health problems afflicting the tribes. The First Nations Development Institute stated in a food sovereignty assessment: “There is a growing realization among the medical profession that traditional Native American foods are an important component in preventing and controlling nutritionally related diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure.”

“The high carb and high sugar diets have played a significant role in our health problems,” says Matt Morton, Executive Director for the Native American Family Center (NAYA) in Portland Oregon. NAYA has collaborated with organizations and neighborhood groups to restore the site of a former waste dump along the Columbia slough into a safe and viable park with a tribal garden. The project is an important part of rebuilding and healing the urban indigenous community.

Salmon at Bonneville fish hatchery. Photograph courtesy of the author.
Salmon at Bonneville fish hatchery. Photograph courtesy of the author.
NAYA is located on the lands of the ancient fishing village of “Neerchokikoo” in north Portland, originally populated by the Chinook Nation. Their catering services plan to bring back elements of the traditional diet to share with the Portland Community. “I like the idea around food sovereignty and First Foods. This movement is particularly gaining momentum in the Pacific Northwest. And Portland is a very foodie town. We will have an opportunity to bring our foods to people in the area,” adds Morton.

For the Yakama and other Native American tribes, food sovereignty takes food security to a deeper level, encompassing cultural identity. Having control of native food systems is an intrinsic part of preserving Native American heritage according to the First Nations Development Institute. “If you lose your foods, you lose part of your culture – and it has a devastating effect on the psyche,” says a Yakama nurse in a recent report.

Tribal fisherwoman Looney Hunt has no intention of losing her culture. With over 40 years of experience behind her, she was taught to fish by her uncle when she was just 12 and plans to teach her grandchildren the skill as well.

“Fishing is in our blood,” she says.

michelle tolsonAbout the author: Michelle Tolson has an MSc in community development from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked on research projects in New York City and Cambodia. As an international correspondent, she has written from the Asia Pacific and the United States for publications such as Inter Press Service, The Diplomat, and RH Reality Check.

Back to top