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Nez Perce Activists Fight
to Save the Snake River

by Stephen Quirke
Street Roors News, November 5, 2017

Members of the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) take part in the Free the Snake Flotilla in protest of four dams on the lower Snake River. The dams have been blamed for warming the water on the river and killing off millions of salmon. (Photo by Mike Lee) On the morning of Saturday, Sept. 9, about 100 people descended on the Snake River near Lewiston, Idaho, paddling toward the Lower Granite Dam in canoes and kayaks alongside a giant inflatable orca.

Elliott Moffett, a 65-year old Nez Perce tribal member sporting a Rage Against the Machine T-shirt, addressed the crowd with a booming voice and a familiar chant:

"What do we want?"

"Free the Snake!"

"When do we want it?"


For decades, river advocates have been tied up in court, demanding the federal government restore threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead populations that migrate through the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Since 1975, when Lower Granite Dam was completed, salmon in the Snake River basin have faced the obstacle of eight massive concrete dams before making it out to the ocean, then they do it all over again when they come back home to spawn.

Running that gauntlet of concrete and warm water puts a major strain on the fish and is considered perhaps the single greatest reason for their precipitous decline.

Two summers ago, scores of dead salmon began washing up on the shores of the Willamette and Clackamas rivers in Portland, alarming visitors with the stench of rotting fish. Water temperatures had risen above the dangerous boundary of 68 degrees, and in some Columbia River reservoirs had actually reached 79. More than 250,000 sockeye salmon were killed, and over 1 million young fish died in Washington state hatcheries. Multiple studies on the impact put the death toll at between 96 and 99 percent of the sockeye salmon run.

Since 1991, the dams have been the subject of legal battles as environmental advocates seek their removal. In May 2016, a federal district judge ordered dam operators to put all options on the table to save threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead -- including dam removal on the Snake River. His order led to federal hearings throughout the region that ended earlier this year.

But these studies could be compromised by new federal legislation, HR 3144, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, (D-5th District), which would specifically prevent federal agencies from studying dam removal on the lower Snake River.

Just last month, Columbia Riverkeeper released an analysis demonstrating that the massive fish kill that surfaced in Portland in 2015 would not have happened if the four dams on the lower Snake River were gone.

Such conflicting pressures have helped to galvanize a coalition taking their energy directly to the waters of the lower Snake where they've been gathering since 2015 for an event called the Free the Snake Flotilla.

Street Roots reached out to two organizers in Idaho's Nez Perce country, who live at the far end of the unified system of rivers and hydro-power dams. Julian Matthews and Elliott Moffett are co-founders of Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, a grassroots organization that co-hosts the flotilla. (Nimiipuu is the traditional word Nez Perce tribal members use to refer to themselves, using their own language. The name "Nez Perce" is a French colonial monikor meaning "pierced nose," and referred originally to a tribe that lived north of the Nimiipuu).

Stephen Quirke: Why Free the Snake?

Elliott Moffett: Every year it's getting hotter and hotter. We're breaking records every year. What that does to the salmon here is terrible. We have additional mortalities in these reservoirs, because they're not moving water. And I like to say we're like the salmon: We need clean, cold, swift, running water. And that's what the salmon needs, too. They need that clear, cold, swift running water. And they don't have that because the dams have impounded their rivers. And that's why it's so crazy to me that they can call this clean energy. This is not clean energy. This is polluting the river.

Julian Matthews: We feel it's really critical at this time to remove those lower four Snake River dams to allow the fish to migrate. Salmon have always been a critical part of the history and the culture of the Nimiipuu, or the Nez Perce people. And a lot of tribes, not just Nez Perce -- tribes up and down the Columbia River system -- take and use fish. And one of the reasons it's really critical is because we have certain ceremonies that the salmon are part of, like the first salmon ceremony every year, when the first salmon comes back up the river we have a ceremony when we start taking the fish. Any type of ceremony -- funerals -- we have salmon there, and we have the traditional roots and berries that we've eaten.

E.M.: And we'd like to say, too, that when the river's not doing well, we're not doing well, we're that connected with our environment in the natural world. And so the salmon is not doing that well, and so our people are not doing that well, and that's one of the reasons why we take this on, because we've gotta heal our community, as well as the community of salmon, and the ecosystems that they swim in.

S.Q.: There's clearly a coalition of groups here on the river supporting that very thing. How did that come about?

E.M.: Well, when we got started on the megaloads issue, and several companies, GE being one of those, was trying to transport megaloads, huge industrial equipment, heading for the tar sands in Canada, and so we participated in civil disobedience, in the rolling blockade of those megaloads, and stopped them. In doing that, other folks were getting involved locally and regionally. And so we came to be working with organizations like Friends of the Clearwater and Save Our Wild Salmon.

J.M.: We're trying to get the tribes involved too, to where the tribal governments will say: we need to get rid of those dams, we want those salmon, the salmon are more important than these fish hatcheries, or all these other type of ways they're trying to mitigate the loss, because it's not working, hasn't worked, and it's not gonna work.

S.Q.: What do those dams represent to you?

E.M.: They represent an unnaturalness. They're very unnatural. They're not beaver dams. And we know beavers, and they make dams. But that's all part of the eco-system, and they create habitat. These do not create habitat, these impoundments. In fact, we believe the rivers have life, and they impede that life that we see. And hydrologically it makes sense too, because you have these mountain streams, and they were created because of the environmental conditions, and these are part of the representation of those natural waterways, the mountains, the erosion -- all of that is tied in together. When they dammed them, when they impounded them, they took it out of that life cycle. And now they're just these big backwater, sediment-filled ponds, so our fish can't survive in them. That's what they represent to me. And I know for others they represent what they call progress, but that to us is not progress. It's not sustainable.

J.M.: The main thing that I think about is how or why did (the tribes) allow those to be put in place? Maybe the government said: you Indians have no power, we don't have to listen to you. But did they exert enough authority to say no, we're not gonna allow you to block this river? I wonder about that.

S.Q.: How do these dams relate to Nez Perce fishing rights?

J.M.: Treaty rights to me are the most important part of being Nez Perce. Our treaty rights are the guarantee that I can take fish, I can hunt, and I can gather traditionally, historically, and do things that my forefathers did. To me, the issue of treaty hunting, fishing and gathering are critical, and are more important and run far deeper than any other right that we have as tribal members.

E.M.: We have treaty rights and we have treaty responsibilities. This gathering here is treaty responsibilities, and people are partaking in that, and we're taking on that responsibility of trying to restore the river, trying to recover the salmon, and those are responsibilities that we see, that we all have to take part in.

S.Q.: Are there social consequences when dams affect fishing rights?

E.M.: It does have definite impacts on our families and our social fabric because we don't have fish on the table for our people. We're all congregating in these fishery areas, like Rapid River, where the hatchery is. Whereas, all of these streams used to have a viable population before, and you used to be able to go wherever you wanted to go fishing. Now that's not the case. So those are social impacts that I lose. I lose the ability of telling my son how to go fishing, of what gear to use. That's one of the things we want to try to emphasize -- the salmon helps us with our families too, because then we get to teach.

J.M.: We have a lot of social ills, and I think a lot of it has to do with identity. When you take away something that's traditional it really impacts people. It may not cause alcoholism, but people don't have that kind of connection with their culture, and we have identity crises or other problems where they may turn to drugs and alcohol because they don't really have other ways to deal with that.

All of this stems back to the way historically Indians have been treated by religious leaders that came here, whether it's Jesuits or Catholics or Presbyterians -- they came here and made them change their whole culture, like cut your hair, don't speak your language, be farmers. With the Dawes Act (1887) they tried to make all the indigenous be farmers. I don't know one Nez Perce farmer. (Laughter)

S.Q.: Columbia Riverkeeper recently published a study showing that temperatures in the Columbia River would not have become lethal two summers ago if not for the four lower Snake dams. What are your thoughts on that?

J.M.: I agree with that. I have friends who work at Columbia Riverkeeper, and they're really sharp. You know, the Corps (of Engineers) tries to say it's just a fluctuation, but it's not a fluctuation. It's because the dams are there. They use all these scientific terms about why these fish aren't coming back. But it's obvious that they're not coming back because of the dams. If you try going down and coming back, those are the major obstacles.

E.M.: That's what we try to use; we use science and our traditions. And we find that they're not mutually exclusive. We don't want to get into the paralysis of analysis either, because we don't want to be studying this when we know that if you start removing dams, that the habitat is gonna return. Those fish are gonna come back, and we have evidence of that by lower Elwha and other places. (The Elwha River in the Olympic Peninsula was undammed in 2014 after the salmon run was depleted to 4,000 from a pre-dam level of 400,000. Now that the dam has been removed, fish populations are at a 30-year high, according to the Seattle Times.)

S.Q.: Do you think these dams will be removed? What gives you hope?

J.M.: I think on any type of issue I've seen in my life, if you keep pushing it, it will happen. And if you believe, and get people behind you, and get support behind you, then it will happen.

E.M.: This group gives me hope for that. These kind of events, this kind of planning, gives me great hope that we can do this, because we're getting some very smart people involved in this, and we have groups like Earth Justice, and like their motto says: Mother Earth needs good lawyers, and so that's what we're looking for, those good attorneys that can advocate on behalf of Mother E arth, and so I have a lot of hope right now. The only thing I'm worried about is it doesn't come fast enough. I know it will be done, but I want it to be done yesterday. So we're trying to figure that out.

Stephen Quirke
Nez Perce Activists Fight to Save the Snake River
Street Roors News, November 5, 2017

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