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Fishing Needed to Preserve Tribal Culture

by Sean Breslin
Montana Kaimin, March 14, 2006

The reduction of salmon fisheries in tribal lands has devastating effects on tribal people and customs, a Nez Perce biologist said last night. Emmit Taylor of the Nez Perce Department of Fisheries Resource Management spoke last night as part of the Wilderness Issues Lecture Series. During a lecture entitled "Salmon Restoration in the Nez Perce Territory," Taylor showed how the reduced fishing opportunities sever cultural ties with Nez Perce traditions.

"If we lose those cultural connections, we lose the game," Taylor said.

Taylor said catching salmon builds pride and self-esteem in Nez Perce peoples in a way that non-traditional living cannot. Traditional salmon fishing is uniquely tied in with Nez Perce culture, he said, citing traditional religious ceremonies "centered around water and fish."

"Salmon are part of our spiritual and culture identity," Taylor said.

Taylor outlined the negative effects that several dams have had on salmon habitat in Nez Perce traditional land, which originally extended from the Pacific Northwest to western Montana. Under the 1855 treaty with the Nez Perce, the U.S. government gave the tribe "the right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed places," meaning all the waters the Nez Perce had access to before contact with whites, he said.

Since dams have gone up, fisheries have dramatically decreased on the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers, Taylor said. Governments have tried to restrict native fishing access as a result, he said.

"How can the state tell us not to fish? It's our treaty right to do so!" Taylor said.

Taylor sees the destruction of these fisheries as a direct violation of the 1855 treaty, he said. The violation could lead to "a major lawsuit," which Taylor said could be more expensive than removing the harmful dams.

Taylor also tied salmon to social ills that plague many native people, such as poverty and unemployment. Traditional salmon fishing helps Nez Perce people gain confidence to combat modern problems, he said. Salmon also provides nutrients that many Nez Perce aren't getting because the fisheries are so small now, he said.

"Diabetes is going through the roof for our people ... we're getting away from our traditional food," Taylor said.

Taylor said land managers are not sympathetic to Nez Perce fishing rights because they don't take into account spiritual connections the people have with the land. However, spiritual connections with the land are necessary to survival, he said.

"It's that spiritual connection that's going to save you," Taylor said. "If I don't do my best to keep that connection, I hate to think what'd happen."

Sean Breslin
Fishing Needed to Preserve Tribal Culture
Montana Kaimin, March 14, 2006

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