Native tribes welcome season of new foods


News staff writer

April 12

The passage of Spring Chinook Salmon up the Columbia River heralds the annual rebirth of the natural world for Native Americans.

Each year the four treaty tribes of the Mid-Columbia formally thank the Creator for helping them survive the harshness of another winter. Their salmon feasts in March and April mark the return of fertility to the earth.

The Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation were granted the rights to anadromous fish in the Columbia Basin through 1855 treaties with the United States. On the Washington shore, those same rights were extended to the Nez Perce Tribe and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation.

“The season of the new foods is a time of great celebration. It’s a very happy feast and also a very reverent feast, as it is the start of a new season,” said Olney Patt, Jr., executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Prior to the start of the commercial fishing season, select fishers from each tribe are allowed a ceremonial catch. These men are honored at the salmon feast for harvesting skills that have brought bounty to their friends and families. This year, 8,000 salmon were allotted to the four tribes for ceremonial purposes.

The designated day of feasting is also a time for the elders in the tribe to share wisdom. The people of the tribes carry an understanding that their very existence depends upon the respectful enjoyment of the river basin’s vast resources. Among the most important inhabitants of that natural world are the millions of fish that teem in the Columbia and its tributaries.

For thousands of years, the tribes of the Columbia Basin have depended upon the salmon runs for their existence. In addition to providing economic and nutritional benefits, the fish plays an important role in tribal religion and culture. So, the older generations use the fishing season to teach younger tribal members some of their most important lessons about traditional values. Those lessons center on a “sense of place” for all creatures placed in the world to fulfill a specific role designed by the Creator.

Prior to the first salmon feast, each tribe holds a Washat service in which prayers of gratitude are offered to the Creator. This religious service also includes a series of prayer-songs that thank the salmon for giving its life to feed the people. Water is also an essential part of all longhouse rituals and has a deep symbolic significance for tribal members. Cups of the liquid are served in the feast, along with salmon, deer or elk, roots and berries.

“I look forward to the celebration each year, it’s just a very good way to spend the day,” said Charles Hudson, public information manager for the fish commission.

Tribal fishers have erected platforms along the Columbia that may look shaky to the casual observer, but are solidly built from engineering techniques that have been handed down for generations. These sites belong to individual families, who pass them along to their children. The nets used in this style of fishing are either dipnet or set nets that are lowered into the water beneath the platform and then hauled ashore with a catch that provides sustenance.

The Inter-Tribal Fish Commission is dedicated to ensuring that a supply of healthy and harvestable salmon is maintained in the Columbia. Patt said the tribes actively work to ensure that ancient traditions can continue and salmon runs remain plentiful. The commission believes that salmon restoration depends on sound research and science. Their scientists are constantly working on new research to further understanding of salmon and their habitat.

“Ultimately our goal is to restore healthy, harvestable salmon runs for the benefit of the entire Pacific Northwest,” said Jay Minthorn, commission chair.

With 2005 shaping up as a historically poor water year, the commission has urged a federal judge to establish specific protection for salmon runs. They believe that action is necessary since weather services predict this will be the third lowest runoff year on record. “We put some biologically sound and responsible actions on the table,” said Patt. “The salmon can’t wait for the theoretical, untested or unfunded — they need practical actions.”

Tribal officials want federal agencies to protect salmon this year by adjusting river flows through limited drawdowns of two reservoirs.

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