Posted on September 28, 2022

The Racism, and Resilience, Behind Today’s Pacific Northwest Salmon Crisis

Tony Schick, OPB, September 24, 2022

Leavenworth is a charming tourist town, tucked in Washington’s North Cascades mountains and styled as a Bavarian village. {snip}

Perched on a plywood scaffold over roaring waters, a Wenatchi father and son fished using long nets made by hand and under the cover of darkness so it was harder for salmon to spot them.

Only a handful of their tribe still fish this way. Dams through the region’s system of rivers have electrified cities, irrigated crops and powered industry. But those dams also decimated salmon numbers and wiped out fishing grounds that were central to tribes’ ways of life.

“My people have had to sacrifice a lot of these things so everybody else can have that,” Jason Whalawitsa, the father, told me as he fished. “We pay for that with our culture.”

When Whalawitsa said “we pay for that,” he meant tribes like his throughout the Columbia Basin who consider themselves the “salmon people.” And when he said “so everybody else can have that,” he might as well have pointed right at me.


There’s no one in this region whose life isn’t touched by the fish, whether they think about it or not. We populated towns to fish for salmon and can them. We sacrificed them for cheap electricity. Even the region’s iconic farming and timber industries wouldn’t be possible without salmon, whose dying bodies have enriched the Northwest soil with ocean nutrients.

But for decades the injustice at the heart of that story has been systematically hidden. There was nothing in my history or social studies classes about Northwest tribes. It wasn’t until 2017 that the Oregon Department of Education required schools to teach Native American history. And the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates most Columbia River dams, has its own curriculum for use in schools around the region; it glosses over the damage done to tribes, talking instead about how they’ve worked alongside federal agencies to help salmon recover.

David G. Lewis, a professor at Oregon State University and a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde in Oregon, has spent much of his career compiling previously untold histories of tribal experiences in the region, rewriting the “white person’s history” he sees in most published works.

“Average folks just do not know how bad that history is,” Lewis said, “the trauma, the abuses, the loss tribes experienced for more than 150 years.”

Before the era of dam building, the most important fishing site for upper Columbia River tribes was a huge collection of waterfalls they called Shonitkwu (meaning “roaring waters”). Downriver tribes had Wy-am (“echo of falling water”). In a case from the early 1900s, the Supreme Court described Native peoples’ right to fish locations like these as “not much less necessary to their existence than the atmosphere they breathed.”

Both those iconic sets of waterfalls, known today as Kettle Falls and Celilo Falls, are gone. Also gone are other, smaller fishing grounds, destroyed by the dams. That’s a blatant violation of treaty language, signed by the U.S. government and tribes, that reserved the right to fish at all usual and accustomed places.


In the early 1900s, after the salmon canning industry had begun to exhaust fish populations, Northwest states sought to preserve the supply for commercial catch — specifically by putting restrictions on fishing by tribes.

This wasn’t an anomaly. “From the time of the founding of the Republic, state governments have consistently maintained an adversary, if not openly hostile, posture towards the Indian tribes and their separate rights.” That was the conclusion reached by Alvin Ziontz, an attorney who spent 30 years representing tribes in the Northwest, in a little-known history of treaty fishing rights he assembled in 1977.

Both Washington and Oregon, according to Ziontz, found ways to allocate nearly the entire harvest of the region’s salmon to nontribal fisheries. They justified it by saying restrictions on tribal fishing were necessary for salmon conservation, even though there’s evidence that before European settlers, tribes actually increased abundance by actively managing salmon populations.


In the Northwest, tribes found ways to preserve their culture and adapt to the losses of wild salmon and sacred fishing grounds. They also faced backlash for it.

When we reported on dwindling survival rates for salmon, I received emails blaming Native people for catching too many fish, despite the fact their harvest agreements with states are closely monitored. The same thing happened when Seattle TV station KING 5 reported on salmon and dams in the Skagit River, prompting the head of Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife to denounce such blame as “misinformation.”

Similarly, tribal hatcheries have come under scrutiny from federal regulators and wild fish advocates for diluting the health of wild salmon with fish bred in captivity. It’s an ironic dynamic given that the hatcheries were the government’s own stop-gap invention, and that tribes have pioneered hatchery techniques specifically designed to help wild populations.