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Fishing in Two Worlds

by Courtenay Thompson, Oregonian staff
The Oregonian, January 12, 2001

Salmon Corps helps Native American teens
retain their heritage and prepare for college

Chris Williams is a fish person.

A member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the 20-year-old grew up salmon fishing, learning from his grandfather the craft that is central to his tribe's culture and religion.

But today, he's learning to wield a chain saw and shovel in the effort to improve salmon habitat and restore the Columbia River basin salmon runs.

Williams is one of roughly 100 young Native Americans from tribes around the Northwest who will spend the next year working for the Salmon Corps, a nonprofit organization that puts native youth to work on salmon restoration projects while giving them a chance to earn a $4,725-per-year college scholarship.

The Salmon Corps is holding its kick-off training camp this week in Happy Valley, where Williams and other young tribal members are getting a crash course in everything from conflict resolution and wilderness first aid to how to safely drive government vehicles.

They are also learning the basics of salmon habitat restoration, spending part of each day clearing invasive blackberry and thistles and planting willows for Clackamas County along the banks of Mount Scott Creek.

The Salmon Corps, an Earth Conservation Corps program, teaches the youth basic job skills, as well as preparing them for college and offering them a chance to work improving salmon habitat on their reservations.

"For me, it's not just for the scholarship money," said Williams, a 1999 graduate of Weston-McEwen High School near the Umatilla reservation. "We need to help take care of the land. My family are fish people. I'm doing my part to clean up the land."

Tribal, federal partnership
The Salmon Corps started six years ago as a partnership between the U.S. Department of Energy, the four Columbia River Treaty tribes -- the Nez Perce, Warm Springs, Umatilla, and Yakama -- and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe in Idaho.

The corps has added a crew in Portland. And for the first time this year, the corps will have a 10-member crew working in the Puget Sound area for the Sauk Suiattle, Stillaguamish, Swinomish, Tulalip and Upper Skagit tribes.

Don Sampson, chairman of the Northwest board of directors for Salmon Corps and director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said the program may also expand to tribes in Northern California; others have broached the idea of starting a Bison Corps based on the Salmon Corps model.

Bobby Brunoe, director of natural resources at Warm Springs, says he sees the deepest value of the program in helping build lives.

"Beyond doing the restoration work for the tribe, it's developing these young people into good citizens and community members," Brunoe said.

The $2.2 million program is funded in part by President Clinton's AmeriCorps program. Half the funding is federal, while the rest comes from the tribes, foundations and corporate donations.

Corps members, who are between the ages of 18 and 25, receive a $9,000 stipend and can earn as much as 15 hours of college credit through Grays Harbor College for their field work. They work full-time on projects from fencing cattle out of streams on the Warm Springs reservation to working in the hatchery program at Yakima.

Last year, the Salmon Corps was awarded the nation's highest honor for volunteer service, the President's Service Award.

Corps members also spend time on community service projects, such as cutting firewood for elders, and learning tribal culture.

Demystifying college
Christopher W. Shelley, director of education and training for Salmon Corps, said the corps also gives the youth a glimpse of college life at a weeklong career conference at Portland State University.

"It's difficult for a kid from a reservation to leave the reservation and go to this alien place, a university setting," Shelley said. "We try to demystify it."

The corps also helps the 20 percent to 40 percent of corps members without a high school diploma earn their General Educational Development certificate.

Williams, the corps member from Umatilla, says the best part of salmon corps is adding to the knowledge his grandfather passed to him.

"I'm learning new things every day," he said. "My grandpa crammed so much stuff into me, but I'm still learning the outside world."

Courtenay Thompson
Fishing in Two Worlds
The Oregonian, January 12, 2001

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