Tribe Fights to Take Down
by Lynda Mapes
"The four concrete barriers on the lower Snake River have had -- and continue to have -- a devastating impact
on the fish and on tribal people." -- Shannon Wheeler, Nez Perce tribal executive committee
BUFFALO EDDY, Snake River, Idaho -- Sunlit mist drifted across basalt cliffs and hillsides aglow in a soft pelage of summer grass, turned gold now with autumn. The river churned and swirled, and its voice was loud with the first rains of the season.
A bighorn sheep picked its way over the hills, and petroglyphs on the basalt along the riverbanks came into view -- including images of bighorn sheep, pecked into the rocks thousands of years ago, by ancestors of the Nez Perce, native people of these lands and waters.
As the tour boat turned and headed downstream, the bucking current squeezed by Hells Canyon suddenly lost its strength. The sparkling waves dulled in water gone still. The boat had returned to the uppermost reaches of the reservoir at Lewiston, Idaho, impounded by the barrier of Lower Granite Dam in Washington state, 39 miles away.
The Nez Perce are at the center of a decades-long battle to remove this dam, and three others on the lower Snake River. In many tribal members' lifetimes, dams have transformed the Columbia and Snake from wild rivers to a hydropower behemoth and shipping channel -- despite fishing rights reserved by their ancestors guaranteed in the treaty of 1855.
The tribe does not agree with a recently completed assessment by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies that essentially cemented the status quo on the dams.
"The four concrete barriers on the lower Snake River have had -- and continue to have -- a devastating impact on the fish and on tribal people," Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce tribal executive committee, stated in a recent letter to agency officials.
Missing in the federal process just concluded, Wheeler said, and needed in the regional discussion still underway over these dams, is acknowledgment of the way of life not only that the dams created, but that salmon sustained for people here since time immemorial.
The tribe first adopted a resolution in 1999 advocating removal of the four lower Snake River dams to help revive salmon runs facing extinction.
The tribe has remained in that fight.
A federal judge ordered in 1993 a major overhaul on the river system for salmon recovery. But still today, despite nearly $18 billion spent on the world's largest fish and wildlife restoration program, Snake River salmon are among the 13 Columbia River Basin runs at risk of extinction.
A coalition of fishing and conservation groups has filed a notice of intent to sue over the Trump Administration's most recent defense of the dams' operations and effects. So has the Spokane Tribe of Indians.
The Nez Perce tribe is weighing its options, Wheeler said, both in the courts, and in Congress.
The treaties, after all, are the supreme law of the land, said Wheeler, stating the citation in the U.S. Constitution (Article VI, Clause 2) that elevates the treaties above any state law or constitution. "I always like to remind people of that when I talk to federal agencies."
For the Nez Perce, restoring abundant salmon, steelhead, lamprey and all the other beings of their lands and waters is a matter of survival, a human rights issue to defend who they are as a people, their diet and their culture, said Wheeler, whose Indian name is Weoweoktpu (A Place Far Down the River).
The Nez Perce were among the most prosperous peoples of the Columbia Plateau before white settlement. What was here before was not an empty land, or a wilderness, but a place of great wealth and a society flourishing for thousands of years.
The Nez Perce rescued Lewis and Clark when the explorers arrived freezing and starving in the fall of 1805. Yet after gold was discovered in the tribe's territory, the U.S. took back 90% of the reservation established in the Treaty of Walla Walla in 1855.
Over the next 150 years, the silvery wealth of salmon that sustained the tribe and their homelands also has continued to be impoverished.
More than 400 barriers have been built in rivers all over the Columbia River Basin, including some of the tallest dams in the West, built in Nez Perce territory with no fish passage.
Places today named after the explorers and what they valued, in what they called the New World, have much older names based on what was there before, in a world not new at all. Lewiston, Asotin, Orofino. These places all have Nez Perce names that honor animals, plants, origin stories and sustaining forces of nature.
Orofino is teewe, referring to horns or antlers of the game found there. Lewiston is simlinekem, or junction of two rivers -- the Clearwater and Snake. Asotin is hesuutiin, or Place of Eels.
"Instead of naming places after people, the land named us," said Nakia Williamson, whose Indian name is lpeliikthil'aamka'waat (One Who Gathers the Clouds), director of the cultural resources program for the Nez Perce tribe.
Yet unlike central Puget Sound where the original wealth of the lands and waters is obliterated under buildings, pavement and industrial waterways, the rivers, mountains, hills and forests that sustained the region's first people in the Columbia Plateau largely, enticingly, are still there. In a landscape often eerily quiet, along rivers stilled by dams.
"I go there now and it feels lonely," said Nez Perce elder Ron Oatman, 86, of Celilo Falls, remembering one of the greatest Indigenous fisheries in the world. It was lost with the building of the Dalles Dam in 1957.
Theirs was and is a culture based in abundance of lands and waters renewed in a sacramental covenant of caregiving by the first people of this place. This is the old money of this region, a wealth of carefully stewarded plants, animals, root-digging grounds and salmon. Life sources, not just resources, enjoyed in an ancient alliance with beings revered in a Native cosmology based on reciprocal responsibility.
As the newcomers continued a relentless transformation of the region to make their new wealth, the balance the tribe sought to protect in the treaty has been destroyed.
Near where Graves Creek comes into the Salmon River, at what today is called Cooper's Ferry, is an archaeological site of an ancient Nez Perce village that dates back as much as 16,500 years. It is the oldest documented human settlement in North America.
"We've always been here," Wheeler said. "And to continue to be who we are as a people we have to have certain things that make us who we are."
The Nez Perce way of life has always been tied to these lands and waters, plants and animals -- especially the salmon.
"By taking that away, you are taking away who we are."
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