Columbia River's salmon are at the core of ancient religion

  • Water rushes through Lyle Falls in the Klickitat River, a tributary that runs into the Columbia River, on Sunday, June 19, 2022, in Lyle, Wash. For generations, Indigenous people have fished for salmon and trout from scaffolds perched just above the sacred water.

    Water rushes through Lyle Falls in the Klickitat River, a tributary that runs into the Columbia River, on Sunday, June 19, 2022, in Lyle, Wash. For generations, Indigenous people have fished for salmon and trout from scaffolds perched just above the sacred water. Associated Press

  • Water spills over the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, which runs along the Washington and Oregon state line, on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. Hydroelectric dams, like the Bonneville Dam, on the Columbia and its tributaries have curtailed the river's flow, further imperiling salmon migration from the Pacific Ocean to their freshwater spawning grounds upstream.

    Water spills over the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, which runs along the Washington and Oregon state line, on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. Hydroelectric dams, like the Bonneville Dam, on the Columbia and its tributaries have curtailed the river's flow, further imperiling salmon migration from the Pacific Ocean to their freshwater spawning grounds upstream. Associated Press

  • Water from the Columbia River churns below The Dalles bridge near The Dalles Dam, crossing the Washington and Oregon state line, on Sunday, June 19, 2022. The river is threatened by industrialization, climate change and pollution.

    Water from the Columbia River churns below The Dalles bridge near The Dalles Dam, crossing the Washington and Oregon state line, on Sunday, June 19, 2022. The river is threatened by industrialization, climate change and pollution. Associated Press

  • Water flows over The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River as seen from The Dalles, Ore., on Sunday, June 19, 2022. Hydroelectric dams, like The Dalles Dam, on the Columbia and its tributaries have curtailed the river's flow, further imperiling salmon migration from the Pacific Ocean to their freshwater spawning grounds upstream.

    Water flows over The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River as seen from The Dalles, Ore., on Sunday, June 19, 2022. Hydroelectric dams, like The Dalles Dam, on the Columbia and its tributaries have curtailed the river's flow, further imperiling salmon migration from the Pacific Ocean to their freshwater spawning grounds upstream. Associated Press

  • Travelers and locals cast fishing lines from the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, in Bonneville, Ore. From its headwaters in British Columbia where the Rocky Mountains crest, the Columbia River flows south into Washington state and then westward and into the Pacific Ocean at its mouth near Astoria, Ore.

    Travelers and locals cast fishing lines from the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, in Bonneville, Ore. From its headwaters in British Columbia where the Rocky Mountains crest, the Columbia River flows south into Washington state and then westward and into the Pacific Ocean at its mouth near Astoria, Ore. Associated Press

  • Scaffolds used by Indigenous people while fishing line the banks of the Columbia River in Fort Rains, Wash., on Saturday, June 18, 2022. The waterway, which Natives call Nch'i-Wána, or 'the great river,' has sustained Indigenous people in the region for millennia.

    Scaffolds used by Indigenous people while fishing line the banks of the Columbia River in Fort Rains, Wash., on Saturday, June 18, 2022. The waterway, which Natives call Nch'i-Wána, or 'the great river,' has sustained Indigenous people in the region for millennia. Associated Press

  • A man throws a fish back into the Columbia River from the Whitefoot family scaffold in Bonneville, Ore., on Monday, June 20, 2022. For thousands of years, Native tribes in this area have relied on the Columbia River for its salmon and trout, and its surrounding areas for edible roots, medicinal herbs and berry bushes, which are used for food and rituals.

    A man throws a fish back into the Columbia River from the Whitefoot family scaffold in Bonneville, Ore., on Monday, June 20, 2022. For thousands of years, Native tribes in this area have relied on the Columbia River for its salmon and trout, and its surrounding areas for edible roots, medicinal herbs and berry bushes, which are used for food and rituals. Associated Press

  • Terrie Brigham of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla stands on the banks of the Columbia River, where her family has used dip nets to fish from scaffolds for generations, on Friday, June 17, 2022, in Cascade Locks, Ore. Brigham's grandfather erected the family's scaffolds in the 1950s.

    Terrie Brigham of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla stands on the banks of the Columbia River, where her family has used dip nets to fish from scaffolds for generations, on Friday, June 17, 2022, in Cascade Locks, Ore. Brigham's grandfather erected the family's scaffolds in the 1950s. Associated Press

  • Native tribesmen and women sell fresh, smoked and canned salmon in a parking lot near the Columbia River on Friday, June 17, 2022, in Cascade Locks, Ore.

    Native tribesmen and women sell fresh, smoked and canned salmon in a parking lot near the Columbia River on Friday, June 17, 2022, in Cascade Locks, Ore. Associated Press

  • Jared Squires, left, buys fresh salmon from Christy Sampson in a parking lot near the Columbia River on Friday, June 17, 2022, in Cascade Locks, Ore.

    Jared Squires, left, buys fresh salmon from Christy Sampson in a parking lot near the Columbia River on Friday, June 17, 2022, in Cascade Locks, Ore. Associated Press

  • Dennis Moore steers a Columbia River tour boat on Saturday, June 18, 2022, in Cascade Locks, Ore.

    Dennis Moore steers a Columbia River tour boat on Saturday, June 18, 2022, in Cascade Locks, Ore. Associated Press

  • Medicinal plants used by members of the Yakama Nation grow near the Klickitat River, a tributary of the Columbia River, on Sunday, June 19, 2022, in Lyle, Wash.

    Medicinal plants used by members of the Yakama Nation grow near the Klickitat River, a tributary of the Columbia River, on Sunday, June 19, 2022, in Lyle, Wash. Associated Press

  • The Celilo Village longhouse is supported by tall wooden beams in Celilo Village, Ore., on Sunday, June 19, 2022. In Native families that inhabit the Columbia Basin, education about first foods begins at home and continues in the longhouse, accompanied by teaching and ceremony.

    The Celilo Village longhouse is supported by tall wooden beams in Celilo Village, Ore., on Sunday, June 19, 2022. In Native families that inhabit the Columbia Basin, education about first foods begins at home and continues in the longhouse, accompanied by teaching and ceremony. Associated Press

  • Bronsco Jim Jr., mid-Columbia River chief, cleans the longhouse altar, a rectangle of Earth, with water before a ceremonial meal at the Celilo Village longhouse on Sunday, June 19, 2022, in Celilo Village, Ore. The tribe's first foods are placed on the table in seasonal order before the meal begins.

    Bronsco Jim Jr., mid-Columbia River chief, cleans the longhouse altar, a rectangle of Earth, with water before a ceremonial meal at the Celilo Village longhouse on Sunday, June 19, 2022, in Celilo Village, Ore. The tribe's first foods are placed on the table in seasonal order before the meal begins. Associated Press

  • Bill Yallup Jr. stands at the banks of the Columbia River, where he and his son fish for salmon and trout, on Friday, June 17, 2022, in Bingen, Wash. Yallup's family came to Celilo Falls when he was an infant, and he lives along the river during the fish harvesting season.

    Bill Yallup Jr. stands at the banks of the Columbia River, where he and his son fish for salmon and trout, on Friday, June 17, 2022, in Bingen, Wash. Yallup's family came to Celilo Falls when he was an infant, and he lives along the river during the fish harvesting season. Associated Press

  • Yakama Nation elder James Kiona stands on the rocky edge of Lyle Falls on the Klickitat River, a tributary of the Columbia River, on Sunday, June 19, 2022, in Lyle, Wash. Kiona has fished for Chinook salmon for decades here on his family's scaffold, using a dip net suspended from a 33-foot pole.

    Yakama Nation elder James Kiona stands on the rocky edge of Lyle Falls on the Klickitat River, a tributary of the Columbia River, on Sunday, June 19, 2022, in Lyle, Wash. Kiona has fished for Chinook salmon for decades here on his family's scaffold, using a dip net suspended from a 33-foot pole. Associated Press

  • Bronsco Jim Jr., who was appointed mid-Columbia River chief, stands with his cousin Elaine Harvey, a fish biologist for Yakama Nation fisheries, at the banks of the Columbia River near the John Day Dam in Rufus, Ore., on Sunday, June 19, 2022. Harvey says the tribes are focused on preserving areas in tributaries such as the Klickitat and White Salmon, two glacial rivers that provide cold water for migrating salmon.

    Bronsco Jim Jr., who was appointed mid-Columbia River chief, stands with his cousin Elaine Harvey, a fish biologist for Yakama Nation fisheries, at the banks of the Columbia River near the John Day Dam in Rufus, Ore., on Sunday, June 19, 2022. Harvey says the tribes are focused on preserving areas in tributaries such as the Klickitat and White Salmon, two glacial rivers that provide cold water for migrating salmon. Associated Press

  • Alanna Harvey, 7, center, and other family members, set the table before a ceremonial meal at the Celilo Village Longhouse on Sunday, June 19, 2022, in Celilo Village, Ore. The tribe's first foods are placed on the table in seasonal order.

    Alanna Harvey, 7, center, and other family members, set the table before a ceremonial meal at the Celilo Village Longhouse on Sunday, June 19, 2022, in Celilo Village, Ore. The tribe's first foods are placed on the table in seasonal order. Associated Press

  • Sandy Whitefoot smokes salmon near the Bonneville Dam at an "in-lieu fishing site," lands set aside by Congress to compensate tribes whose villages were inundated by dams, on Monday, June 20, 2022. Many families at these sites live in trailers without restrooms, lights or drains.

    Sandy Whitefoot smokes salmon near the Bonneville Dam at an "in-lieu fishing site," lands set aside by Congress to compensate tribes whose villages were inundated by dams, on Monday, June 20, 2022. Many families at these sites live in trailers without restrooms, lights or drains. Associated Press

  • Sandy Whitefoot stands with a dog at her home on an "in-lieu fishing site," lands set aside by Congress to compensate tribes whose villages were inundated by dams, on Monday, June 20, 2022. Many families at these sites live in trailers without restrooms, lights or drains.

    Sandy Whitefoot stands with a dog at her home on an "in-lieu fishing site," lands set aside by Congress to compensate tribes whose villages were inundated by dams, on Monday, June 20, 2022. Many families at these sites live in trailers without restrooms, lights or drains. Associated Press

  • Betty Jean Sutterlict holds a pair of freshly caught salmon in Bonneville, Ore., on Monday, June 20, 2022. Young salmon, or smolts, swim down the Columbia River to the ocean, where they grow for between one and five years. Then they migrate back upstream to spawn.

    Betty Jean Sutterlict holds a pair of freshly caught salmon in Bonneville, Ore., on Monday, June 20, 2022. Young salmon, or smolts, swim down the Columbia River to the ocean, where they grow for between one and five years. Then they migrate back upstream to spawn. Associated Press

  • A dog named Kaloua sits next to freshly caught salmon along the Columbia River on Monday, June 20, 2022.

    A dog named Kaloua sits next to freshly caught salmon along the Columbia River on Monday, June 20, 2022. Associated Press

  • Fresh salmon hangs from a wooden pole at the campsite of Bettie Sutterlicht and Aaron Paul along the Columbia River in Bonneville, Ore., on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. For thousands of years, Native tribes in this area have relied on the Columbia River, or Nch'i-Wána, for its salmon and trout, and its surrounding areas for edible roots, medicinal herbs and berry bushes, which are used for food and rituals.

    Fresh salmon hangs from a wooden pole at the campsite of Bettie Sutterlicht and Aaron Paul along the Columbia River in Bonneville, Ore., on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. For thousands of years, Native tribes in this area have relied on the Columbia River, or Nch'i-Wána, for its salmon and trout, and its surrounding areas for edible roots, medicinal herbs and berry bushes, which are used for food and rituals. Associated Press

  • Betty Jean Sutterlict slices, salts and hangs freshly caught salmon at their family campsite on the Columbia River in Bonneville, Ore., on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. For thousands of years, Native tribes in this area have relied on the Columbia River, or Nch'i-Wána, for its salmon and trout, and its surrounding areas for edible roots, medicinal herbs and berry bushes, which are used for food and rituals.

    Betty Jean Sutterlict slices, salts and hangs freshly caught salmon at their family campsite on the Columbia River in Bonneville, Ore., on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. For thousands of years, Native tribes in this area have relied on the Columbia River, or Nch'i-Wána, for its salmon and trout, and its surrounding areas for edible roots, medicinal herbs and berry bushes, which are used for food and rituals. Associated Press

  • Freshly caught salmon is sliced and hung at an "in-lieu fishing site," lands set aside by Congress to compensate tribes whose villages were inundated by dams, on the Columbia River in Bonneville, Ore., on Tuesday, June 21, 2022.

    Freshly caught salmon is sliced and hung at an "in-lieu fishing site," lands set aside by Congress to compensate tribes whose villages were inundated by dams, on the Columbia River in Bonneville, Ore., on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. Associated Press

  • A dog named Kaloua lies beneath a rack of freshly caught salmon at an "in-lieu fishing site," lands set aside by Congress to compensate tribes whose villages were inundated by dams, on the Columbia River in Bonneville, Ore., on Tuesday, June 21, 2022.

    A dog named Kaloua lies beneath a rack of freshly caught salmon at an "in-lieu fishing site," lands set aside by Congress to compensate tribes whose villages were inundated by dams, on the Columbia River in Bonneville, Ore., on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 8/18/2022 8:40 AM

ALONG THE COLUMBIA RIVER -- James Kiona stands on a rocky ledge overlooking Lyle Falls where the water froths and rushes through steep canyon walls just before merging with the Columbia River. His silvery ponytail flutters in the wind, and a string of eagle claws adorns his neck.

Kiona has fished for Chinook salmon for decades on his family's scaffold at the edge of the falls, using a dip net suspended from a 33-foot pole.

 

'Fishing is an art and a spiritual practice,' says Kiona, a Yakama Nation elder. 'You're fighting the fish. The fish is fighting you, tearing holes in the net, jerking you off the scaffold.'

He finds strength, sanctity, even salvation in that struggle. The river saved Kiona when he returned from Vietnam with post-war trauma, giving him therapy no hospital could.

When he lies on the rocks by the rushing river and closes his eyes, he hears the songs and the voices of his ancestors. The water, he says, holds the history of the land and his people.

'It heals you.'

___

From its headwaters in British Columbia where the Rocky Mountains crest, the Columbia River flows south into Washington state and then westward and into the Pacific Ocean at its mouth near Astoria, Oregon. Just below the confluence with the Snake River, the Columbia's largest tributary, the river turns through the Cascade Mountain Range, carving out the Columbia River Gorge.

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It's a spectacular canyon, 80 miles long and up to 4,000 feet deep, with cliffs, ridges, streams and waterfalls. For thousands of years, Native tribes in this area have relied on Nch'i-Wána, or 'the great river,' for its salmon and steelhead trout, and its surrounding areas for the fields bearing edible roots, medicinal herbs and berry bushes as well as the deer and elk whose meat and hides are used for food and ritual.

Yet the river is under threat because of climate change, hydroelectric dams and industrial pollution. Warming waters linked to climate change endanger the salmon, which need cooler temperatures to survive. Hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and its tributaries have curtailed the river's flow, further imperiling salmon's migration from the Pacific upstream to their freshwater spawning grounds, and threatening millenia-old spiritual traditions that bind these Native communities together.

___

'We are the salmon people or river people,' says Aja DeCoteau, executive director of the Portland-based Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents the interests of the four Columbia River treaty tribes - Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Nez Perce - in policy, advocacy and management of the basin. 'Without water there are no fish, plants or herbs.'

Each year the tribes honor the salmon, roots, berries, deer and elk - which they believe were originally placed in the land for their sustenance - with what are known as 'first food ceremonies.' In their creation story, the salmon, deer, elk, roots and berries offered to provide sustenance to humans, and humans in turn were given the responsibility by the Creator to care for these resources.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Elders speak of how streams flow from the mountains sanctified by the prayers of ancestors who went there to commune with the spirits. These rivulets then flow down and merge with the Columbia. If Nch'i-Wána is the main artery of the land, those streams are like the veins that feed it. So even the smallest creek is vital and sacred.

At communal meals, tribe members typically begin and end with water - 'You take a drink of water to purify yourself before you eat and you end the meal with water to show respect for what you've eaten,' DeCouteau says.

Tribes also use the river's water and rocks for rituals such as sweat lodge purification ceremonies, held in low, dome-shaped structures where river rocks are heated along with herbal medicine.

'After you sweat and pray, there is also the practice of jumping in the river to cleanse yourself,' DeCouteau says. 'It's hard to continue practicing these rituals when the river is so contaminated.'

___

Bill Yallup Jr. was 6 when Celilo Falls 'drowned,' as he puts it.

Known as Wyam to Native people, the thundering cascade was a sacred place where for 15,000 years Indigenous tribes netted salmon as the fish jumped upstream. It was also their economic nerve center, with the salmon trading for all manner of goods from feathers to copper to wampum, beads crafted from shells.

The falls fell silent in 1957 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers erected The Dalles Dam, flooding the area and creating the Celilo Lake reservoir.

Young salmon, or smolts, swim down the Columbia to the ocean, where they grow for between one and five years. Then they migrate back upstream to spawn. Some are caught and become a source of sustenance for the people, and others die and become one with the environment. The cycle repeats over and over.

'The sacredness of this river,' Yallup says, 'lies in the sacrifice the salmon make each time they fulfill their promise to come back.'

___

It was worries over the spring salmon's disappearance from the river that inspired Elaine Harvey to get her bachelor's degree in aquatic and fishery science. She is also concerned for species like the Pacific lamprey, which has 'been around since the dinosaurs' but today faces possible extinction.

Now a fish biologist for Yakama Fisheries, Harvey says what keeps her up at night is the 'race to harness green energy' that has brought multinational corporations to the Columbia River.

'Wind turbines and solar farms are impacting our archeological sites, cultural resource sites, wildlife and fish,' she says, pointing to a sacred mountain near the John Day Dam that the Native people call Push-pum. 'Our root fields are on that mountain. We could lose access to our food.'

Harvey says she will never leave the river because that's what she was taught by her elders.

'We have a real, deep connection to all these places. Our blood line is here.'

___

Harvey's cousin, Bronsco Jim Jr., was appointed mid-Columbia River chief when he was 21 and in that capacity performs longhouse services, first food ceremonies and funerals.

Sunlight streams into the longhouse during a recent ceremonial meal with elders at historic Celilo Village. Jim is wearing shell earrings and a beaded necklace with the pendant of a horse's silhouette honoring his ancestors who rode them.

In Native families that inhabit the Columbia Basin, education about first foods begins at home and continues in these longhouses, accompanied by teaching and ceremony. Deeply held beliefs also dictate the rules of food gathering.

Community members are required to wait for that first feast to honor each food before they head out to harvest it. In the longhouse and out in the mountains, the food-gathering is accompanied by song.

'These songs and ceremonies are part of everything we do,' Jim says, adding that losing them could cost his people their spiritual identity.

'They feed our body and soul.'

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP's collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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