Nez Perce Tribal Leader Speaks Out
by Kevin Wiser
Jaime Pinkham is a man whose motives and responsibilities balance on the cusp of two different worlds.
On one side he is a Native American and a Nez Perce tribal leader swayed by a sacred cultural allegiance. On the other, he is a biologist and political activist involved in fashioning natural resource management policy, influenced by New Age science and economics.
His hair is cut trim across his brow in the style of his political counterparts, yet a black shock runs down his back reminiscent of his ancient ancestry, a way of life deeply rooted in nature.
Following a dam breaching debate with Karl Dreher, director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources, at the CSG-Western Legislative Conference held in Sun Valley last Friday. Pinkham stepped outside the political arena to talk about the role of the Nez Perce Tribe in environmental resource management and the restoration of rapidly declining salmon runs.
"For over 10,000 years the Nez Perce people have practiced a very sacred and fundamental relationship with the land," he said in an interview. "Our activities reflected an understanding of the natural cycles that were determined upon the land and the waters. We relied on nature for physical and spiritual sustenance."
According to Pinkham, "every run of salmon that the Nez Perce depended on is either extinct, such as the coho, threatened like the chinook, or endangered such as the sockeye."
Pinkham said that in the language of resource management the Nez Perce practiced multiple use on the landscape.
"The tribe has always been sensitive to the environment," he said. "We never overused an area or nature's resources." Pinkham said that although it is often said that the American Indian was the first resource manager on this continent, "my feeling is that we didn't manage nature. Our way of life reflected our understanding of the environment and the ways of nature."
"But we didn't make the salmon run, we didn't make the foods and medicines grow. We put our livelihood in the hands of nature, in the hands of our creator. And since nature was our caretaker, nature managed us and we learned to live by nature's policies."
Pinkham talked about the conflicting role of the tribe in political affairs and the internal and external struggle to find balance in the tribe's contributing to resource management policy.
"When I'm meeting with the Nez Perce community as a tribal leader and we discuss our issues and visions for the future, often culture is built into our position. When a political leader makes a decision, economics is driving him. When the tribe makes a decision in the political world, culture is driving us, economics is driving us, science is driving us."
However, Pinkham said, "we bring a spirit to the table, we bring a culture to the table. But in the political arena we can't run absent and in isolation of these other things."
Pinkham said the cultural and spiritual side of the issues that the tribe brings to the table is often difficult for other governments to deal with.
"The cultural and spiritual is unknown, you can't quantify it, you can't measure it," Pinkham said. "I think they feel uncomfortable because you can't get analytical on culture. "But for us the salmon is rooted in our culture, rooted in our way of life. Irrigation you can quantify in the measurement of acre feet. Transportation you can calculate by the bushels of grain hauled down the river. You can measure those kinds of things, but you can't measure another culture."
Pinkham said the Nez Perce Tribe is concerned about how the debate surrounding the breaching of the four lower Snake River dams is characterized.
"We try to look at the entire picture," Pinkham said. "Those who are opposed to breaching the dams say save the dams and save the salmon, but never speak on behalf of the fish. "This falls far short of the struggle."
Regarding the economic impacts of breaching the dams versus saving the salmon from extinction, Pinkham said the dams in question were built primarily for navigation and the shipping of grain in the Lewiston port. Pinkham said the dams do provide some irrigation benefits and produce less than five percent of the region's power supply and that there would be some impact in these areas.
"The question is are we willing to mitigate those impacts?" Pinkham said. "Can we look at alternative forms of transportation such as rail or highway to transport grain and what are the costs of doing that? How can we mitigate the irrigation and power supply impacts? Are we willing to accept the financial burden of doing the necessary mitigation as weighed against saving the salmon from extinction?"
"People say that breaching the dams is the simple answer." However, Pinkham said, "I would argue on the other hand that doing nothing and just letting the salmon go extinct is the easy answer."
Pinkham said it's time for political leaders to make the tough decisions involving environmental resource conservation, before it's too late and we are unable to reverse the noxious consequences of past management policies.
"What's really difficult to comprehend in the political debate is, Who's going to be responsible for the change, responsible to make the serious and difficult decisions on the restoration of the environment?" Pinkham said.
"It's got to be political leadership, not science and economics. Should we say that economically it's too costly to breach the dams and so we cast it aside because of economic concerns? Or is it really a moral dilemma, a moral issue? I believe it's a moral issue. We have to ask ourselves, 'Was there any moral issue when we decided to build four dams on the lower Snake River?'
"Did models and assumptions go into the planning of those hydro projects to protect salmon runs? Well if they did they obviously failed."
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