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Dam-Breaching Battle Generates Racial Tensions

by Dan Hansen
Spokesman Review, April 14, 2000

Tribes criticized for selling salmon that could be from endangered runs

Wilfred Yallup and his daughters, Amy and Salena, work their nets on the Columbia River last fall.  The family has been catching salmon on the river since the women wer girls. Torsten Kjellstrand - The Spokesman-Review The debate over how to save Northwest salmon isn't just about fish.

Too often, some Native Americans say, it's about race.

Tribes with treaty fishing rights lacked the political clout to block construction of dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers. But they've joined with environmentalists and some non-tribal fishing groups to push aggressively for removal of four federal dams on Eastern Washington's portion of the Snake.

Unless the river runs free, the tribes contend, salmon are doomed and their treaties will be violated.

At the same time, the tribes continue harvesting salmon and steelhead from the lower Columbia in a highly regulated but controversial commercial fishery. Perhaps one out of every several hundred of those fish comes from an endangered run from the Snake or Columbia river.

The tribes' dual roles as advocates for preservation and harvesters of the fish strikes many dam supporters as hypocritical. Often, that sentiment is expressed in terms that strike tribal members as racist.

Such was the case at a February hearing.

"Save Our Salmon. Eat Indian Gillnetters," read the sign carried by one protester outside the Pasco hearing. Inside, audience members whispered disparaging remarks as tribal elders spoke of their regard for salmon.

The talk has not turned threatening, said Chuck Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission. And while some opponents are disrespectful, most are not, he said.

"Those (breaching opponents) that are predisposed to animosity and hate will show it," Hudson said. "Those that see the challenge to find solutions will rise to it.

"We're encountering both."

The United Church of Christ is concerned enough about racial tension to make it a topic of the denomination's annual conference, scheduled for May in Pendleton, Ore. The church is not taking a stand on breaching.

"Some Indians are being blamed that (dam breaching) has even become an issue," said the Rev. Hector Lopez, Portland-based director for the denomination. "We're trying to make sure that the people in our congregations understand that this is not about race."

Debra Croswell, public affairs manager for the Umatilla Tribe, said she doubts Native Americans could have mustered much of a campaign if breaching had been an issue 10 years ago. The success of Indian gambling ventures in the 1990s means there is more money to hire staff to help keep track of such issues and to rally support.

Her tribe alone sent 30 members and 10 staff to the Pasco hearing, said Croswell. Native Americans both there and at a similar hearing in Clarkston, Wash., pounded drums outside.

"We're not just passive victims anymore. Our image is changing, and it's threatening to some people," said Croswell, who called the Pasco hearing "an ugly, ugly day. There was a lot of hatred."

The tribes have made some public relations blunders, Croswell said. One that continues, she said, is the Intertribal Fish Commission's marketing of fish, under the brand "Columbia River Indian Caught Salmon." The fish are sold from the backs of pickups in places like Pasco, where newspaper advertisements last year resulted in long lines of eager customers.

The selling should be low key and done in places where breaching is not such a flashpoint, Croswell said.

"We shouldn't be out there aggressively marketing salmon for $2 a pound when we're trying to advocate for salmon and tell people the good things we're doing," Croswell said.

Those sales have proven a popular target for politicians, as well as the Columbia River Alliance, an industry group that is a leading defender of the dams. Hudson contends that the alliance rarely pays as much attention to nontribal fishermen, who also sell salmon, though typically not directly to the public.

"It has to be called what it is, and that's racial stereotyping," Hudson said of the alliance's attention to the sales. "It's completely counterproductive to salmon production or building greater good will in the region."

Alliance director Bruce Lovelin said his group doesn't oppose tribal fishing to stock home freezers or for ceremonial purposes. But it does oppose commercial fishing of Northwest salmon, whether by tribal or nontribal fishermen.

Lovelin noted that his group has supported initiatives to ban most nontribal commercial fishing in Washington. Those initiatives would not have affected tribal members.

"Quite honestly, we're colorblind on all this stuff," he said. "This is commercial harvest and sale of endangered species."

Lovelin, who didn't attend the Pasco and Clarkston hearings, said any racial comments uttered there are "unfortunate and uncalled for."

"This isn't about demonizing people," he said.

Dan Hansen
Dam-Breaching Battle Generates Racial Tensions
Spokesman Review, April 14, 2000

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