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Salmon Recharge a Tribal Tradition

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, May 24, 2001

The plentiful salmon run at Rapid River is giving Nez Perce fishermen the opportunity to pass on the age-old tradition to younger tribal members

RAPID RIVER -- Rapid River is well named. Though it is small, its lower section runs fast and is peppered with rapids that cause it to run white in many spots. It is the destination of tens of thousands of spring chinook and a favored fishing site of the Nez Perce Tribe.

On a hot spring day, Nez Perce fishers wade into the swift and cold water to work their dip nets and spears as they have for countless generations.

Joseph Oatman, a young tribal member and descendant of Chief Looking Glass, links the past and present. He is the fisheries biologist who oversees the tribe's harvest program. It's his goal to manage this fishery and others so the cultural identity of fishing, which is so intertwined with Nez Perce people and their history, lives on.

"It's our belief that if we take care of the salmon they will take care of us."

The tribe reserved the right to fish and hunt at usual and accustomed places when it signed a treaty with the United States government in 1855. It has since tenaciously guarded that right.

But in the past 40 years, the tribe has watched as salmon runs dropped off. In response, it has become a vocal proponent of salmon recovery and has been a player in the politics and elbow grease of the recovery effort.

As the harvest biologist for the tribe's fishery program, Oatman prepares biological assessments for fisheries at Rapid River and other "usual and accustomed places." The assessments are submitted to a committee of state, federal, and tribal representatives and eventually are passed on to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

At Rapid River, Oatman visits with the fishermen to see how they are doing. The water level is down some and clearing after a spike in the runoff. The fishermen are using dip nets, gaffs and spears.

"The majority of people down here that fish, use dip nets but it has been open to all traditional gear," he says.

The fishery may soon be restricted to dip net techniques only, to lessen the impact on wild chinook listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

It is a fine line that the tribe is reluctant to draw, explains Oatman. He says the tribe is committed to protecting and recovering wild populations of chinook that also are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

But the listing of salmon as a threatened species has complicated the exercise of the tribe's reserved fishing rights.

"We don't acknowledge the fact that ESA applies to the tribe based on the treaty of 1855, but we do take actions to preserve and perpetuate our wild chinook," he says.

Traditionally the tribe has never practiced catch-and-release fishing techniques and finds it difficult to do so now. Some of the fisherman believe catch and release is disrespectful to the salmon.

Fishermen like Adrian Moody says netting fish just to release them is akin to hazing and harassing a sacred provider of food.

"I dislike people disrespecting the fish. It really upsets me," he said. "Some of these people here that fish, catch and release. That is playing with your food. It's showing dishonor and disrespect for the fish."

But in some years, when the returns are particularly poor, it's required by the National Marine Fisheries Service and voluntarily adhered to by the tribe

"It's something we have to comply with, otherwise they may blame (problems with the wild run) on our fishery," says Oatman.

This year he says the federal agency agreed the tribe's fishery can be conducted without irreparably harming the wild component of the run.

Ira Ellenwood, one of the harvest monitors who works with Oatman, points across the narrow river to a calm spot under a shaded bank. There, several salmon can be seen when their dorsal fins and backs pop out of the swirling water. Ellenwood says they are resting before they make a final run for the hatchery.

"I can't believe how strong a swimmer they are," he says.

Next, the young man points to a spot right at his feet where the tail of a large chinook can be seen in the frothing water.

Tribal fishermen use dip nets to ferret the fish out of the holes like the one Ellenwood points to. They wade into the cold, rushing water and reach upstream with the long-handled nets and work them downstream, hoping to find salmon resting in calm spots or swimming upstream.

If they do, the fish should swim right into the belly of the net and a thin piece of leather will trip the mesh so it slips off the hoop and closes at the top. When that happens the fisherman can feel the weight and power of the fish and quickly pull the net and thrashing salmon from the water. Next he flips it on the bank, quickly kills it and returns to fishing.

Tribal members also gaff fish. They use fishing rods rigged with large treble hooks. The weighted hook is dropped into a hole where they think salmon will be resting. They pull up hard, hoping the hook will snag a salmon. If they do, they reel it close to the bank and reach out and grab it behind the gills with a gaff.

Like spearing, gaffing salmon is a more lethal method of fishing. Both methods have been controversial because wild fish can not be discerned from those raised in hatcheries until after they are dead or wounded. Oatman says the timing of the tribe's fishery is planed to minimize impacts to wild chinook.

Spearing is making a comeback at Rapid River. With this method, fishermen throw a spear with a weighted head. Imbedded in the head are large barbed hooks. The hooks are designed to dislodge from the head when the spear strikes a fish. The hooks are tethered to the spear so the fish does not escape.

"There are only so many guys that spear and it's usually the older guys," says Mike Wilson.

Wilson has fished at Rapid River for some 20 years and is one of a few younger fishermen who spears.

"I was taught by an old man how to spear when I was young," he says.

His father made him spear and gaff a fish before he was allowed to try dip netting. He says he made the spear for his son but is using it himself. His son has now moved on to dip netting.

"He's doing the same thing I did," he says.

Wilson plunges his spear into a hole near the hatchery and hits a fish. The river explodes with the thrashing salmon. He hauls it to the bank and kills it with a club.

His cousin, John Seven Wilson III, says spearing is like hunting and that he doesn't like to do it when the run is heavy and the river is thick with fish. He describes one night when the salmon moved in by the hundreds and the river was crowded with them.

"I didn't have the heart to throw the spear," he said.

But on a day like today, when the fish are around but have to be searched out, he is happy to spear.

He moves downriver to a place where the water spreads out and he can wade to an island. He stalks each hole looking for salmon. Several times he readies to throw the spear but doesn't

"Every time I lift my arm they take off," he says.

He determines the fish can see his white shirt so he takes it off, wraps it in a river rock and throws it to the bank.

He continues stalking and then lifts his arm and throws the spear about 12 feet. It's a hit and once again the river explodes with a thrashing salmon. Wilson pulls in the spear hand over hand and at the same time pulls himself across the swift river. He reaches the shore where several other fisherman are watching and flips the salmon up on the bank. He proudly says it's his 100th fish this year.

Fishing is central to the tribe and the techniques are passed from generation to generation. This year the young tribal members are getting a special opportunity to participate in a plentiful run.

"These young ones here, they are catching them," says Ellenwood.

"When I was young we never used to do this. They are becoming expert fisherman already. It's good to see these guys fishing like this."

Tracey Jackson has set up a teepee and several tents in his camp. He has his boys, Isaiah and Josh, out of school so they can be here fishing. He calls it cultural enhancement. Both of the boys caught their first salmon during the trip and, as tradition dictates, they've given them away to tribal elders.

"Yeah, they caught that fish fever and they don't want to quit," says the proud father.

Isaiah even managed to haul in two salmon with one swipe of his dip net. Typical of young boys, they aren't terribly articulate about fishing but instead use words like "cool" and "fun" to describe it.

Jackson plans on staying at Rapid River for a couple of weeks and jokes he has to be here to make sure the Shoshone/Bannock Tribe doesn't try to fish at Rapid River. It's a joke, but a serious one.

The tribe from southern Idaho wants to fish at Rapid River, but the Nez Perce say they have no historical basis to claim the site as a usual and accustomed place and have resisted their efforts.

Jackson and his family have landed about 26 salmon since they arrived and plan to harvest many more. Tribal fishermen catch many fish but give many of them to others in the tribe who aren't able to get away to fish. They are given to family members, elders, and single mothers.

"Just whoever needs them, I'm glad to help out," says Jackson.

Oatman likes to see the young boys learning to fish from their fathers and other elders.

"We manage (the fishery) to get that transfer of traditional wisdom," he says. "It's good to see that down here."

For Moody, the return of salmon to the Snake River and its tributaries began a year ago. That is when he and other entered their traditional sweat lodge and prayed and danced for salmon.

"When we get the guys to do the salmon dance in the sweat we know we are going to have salmon."

The salmon dance is performed by flopping on the floor of the sweat lodge, like a salmon that has just been pulled from the river.

Moody is a Christian who has meshed the tribe's beliefs with the religion brought by white settlers. He stops and prays at the White Bird Battlefield site on his way to Rapid River each year to honor the sacrifice if his ancestors.

"Because that war was for our way (of life) and that is what we come down here to do."

When he arrives at Rapid River he first dips his head or body in the water before fishing. Doing so connects him with the cycle that brings the salmon back to the river year after year.

"You want to be in the sacred circle of life," he said.

He is from the Asotin band of Nez Perces but says he can fish at Rapid River because his mother was from the band that fished here. He is disappointed that more tribal members don't know their history and their original villages, like he does.

"Most of the people don't know, but I know," he says.

Knowing is important and it's not just history. Modern tribal fisherman have to be well versed in several subjects in order to protect their rights, the runs and their way of life according to Moody and Oatman.

"That is what a good fisherman is, he knows all aspects of the fish, from the fishing to the legal side," Moody says.

"And the biological side," adds Oatman.

Eric Barker
Salmon Recharge a Tribal Tradition
Lewiston Tribune, May 24, 2001

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