With files by Sheri Regnier
A single hand-carved cedar canoe entered Arrow Lake near Syringa Creek Provincial Park last Tuesday, beginning a journey south, down the Columbia River to Kettle Falls, Wash. where it would be joined by nine other canoes that had worked their way north up the river. The purpose of the trek was to unite for a salmon ceremony that was held on Saturday.
The trip was organized by the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT), an organization that represents the interests of tribal people on the Upper Columbia river in the US and, increasingly, in Canada. They are part of a coalition of tribes and First Nations working to raise awareness about the need to create fish passage for salmon around Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams and invite ocean salmon back into the waters of the Columbia River system. Major area tribes of the Upper Columbia include the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, the Spokane Tribe of Indians and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
A major historic aboriginal salmon fishery dating back from before European contact up until about 70 years ago was located at Kettle Falls, not too far south of the United States border. At this time of year, tribes from villages all along the Columbia would travel to take part in the fishery. When the Grand Coulee Dam was constructed in 1941, it blocked ocean salmon from swimming up river to these historic spawning grounds.
The tribe from our region that would have travelled to that fishery, the Sinixt people, was declared extinct by the Canadian government in 1956. The tribe does still officially exist in the United States however. They historically lived on the Columbia River between Kettle Falls and Revelstoke.
The group purchased old growth cedar logs and distributed them to tribes in the region that used to travel to the Kettle Falls fishery, each tribe then carved a canoe and representatives travelled in it back to Kettle Falls on the symbolic journey.
“This has been a real awakening of those cultures and canoe carving,” said D.R. Michel, UCUT’s executive director when speaking to the Trail Times. “Just the power of those canoes and what it means to the tribes and people working on it, it brought UCUT tribes together in a common vision of getting back out on the river and drawing attention to the salmon, and bringing salmon home.”
Michel is the group’s lead advocate for returning salmon to the Columbia River, and he lends a collective voice to ongoing discussion about the Columbia River Treaty.
“We need to take care of the river, it is a resource for all of us,” he said. “Related to the Columbia River Treaty and its potential modernization — it shouldn’t be, ‘us versus them’ or ‘what is Canada getting and what is the US getting,'” he added. “It should be about what we are getting — and what the benefits are when we better utilize and manage other issues, like the ecosystem function.”
Instead of focusing on the treaty’s 1964 mandate, which was flood risk management and hydroelectric generation, Michel is pushing for a new agreement that supports a healthy river, and one day, salmon.
“That’s part of our bigger picture and long term goal,” he said. “To manage the system, realizing that under the current system it will never be a river again, but they can tweak those operations a bit to accommodate other things.
“It shouldn’t be about how much money we can stick in our pocket today, we should be looking after our future generations and that’s always been a focus of the tribes.”