O Si’am ne schaleche sii’am
The story of Salmon Woman is one of our teachings. Long time ago, our people were hungry. Salmon Woman took pity on us and gave us her children. Life was good. We ate so well that our language did not have a word for “famine.” But some of us got bored of eating salmon and complained. Salmon Woman got angry about how we were treating her children, she took her children away. Then our people suffered, we starved. We pleaded and prayed, and promised to never again take salmon for granted. We promised to take care of the sea and all our relations in the sea. We understood our Xa xalh Xechnging (sacred obligation) to the salmon. Salmon Woman forgave us, and brought her children back to us. We have kept that promise, but much of the world has not.
We have all heard stories about how rivers once ran red with returning sockeye, how you could walk across the water on the backs of swimming fish, how you could set a net and be sure you’d pull it up full. Those days are gone.
Habitat destruction, pollution, population growth and climate change have cut the wild salmon runs to almost nothing. Qwe’lhol’mechen (our orca relations) have not been seen here, in their summer feeding territory, for more than a month. They’ve left the Salish Sea to look for food in the open ocean. Our waters are empty.
Along with other tribes, governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations, Lummi Nation has been working to restore habitat and clean up pollution. We have called for a moratorium on new stressors to the Salish Sea, we have called for a cumulative impact assessment of those stressors so that we can best figure out how to stop the damage, we have called for a baseline of Salish Sea health as measured in 1985 levels of productive salmon runs. We are finding ways to feed qwe’lhol’mechen when they can’t find food on their own. Estitem-sen, we are trying our best. But we know the work to make the waters healthy again will take many, many years.
Today, our people are suffering. We are fishing people, and there aren’t enough fish. We need salmon to feed our soul as well as our body. Right now, qwe’lhol’mechen are starving because the chinook runs have almost disappeared. We need to put fish in the water.
The way that we are doing this is through hatcheries. Hatcheries are like nurseries for wild Pacific chinook salmon. They provide a safe place for the eggs and fry, a safe home for the adults to return to spawn. Unlike farmed Atlantic salmon that threaten wild stocks, hatchery fish are a part of the native ecosystem. They swim in the wild, and provide food for both people and for qwe’lhol’mechen.
Treaties are “the supreme law of the land.” The Treaty of Point Elliott protects our right to fish in our usual and accustomed waters, and has been interpreted to guarantee the existence of such fish to catch. Hatchery fish are treaty fish. Hatcheries give us the fish we need now while we do the long-term work to bring the Salish Sea back to health.
Salmon Woman is teaching us, all of us, again. She has taken her children away because we have not honored them. We must heed her warning and do the right thing.
We who have been here since time immemorial have been learning for a long time. The teachings handed down to us by our ancestors have let us live in a good way with Xw’ullemy (the Salish Sea bioregion) for thousands of years. We invite all of you who now call this place your home to embrace the teaching of Salmon Woman. Please join us in our work with hatcheries, qwe’lhol’mechen, and the fight to protect the Salish Sea from further harm. In healing our home, we heal ourselves. Hy’shqe.