BUFFALO EDDY, Snake River, Idaho — Sunlit mist drifted across basalt cliffs and hillsides aglow in a soft pelage of summer grass, turned gold now with autumn. The river churned and swirled, and its voice was loud with the first rains of the season.
A bighorn sheep picked its way over the hills, and petroglyphs on the basalt along the riverbanks came into view — including images of bighorn sheep, pecked into the rocks thousands of years ago, by ancestors of the Nez Perce, native people of these lands and waters.
As the tour boat turned and headed downstream, the bucking current squeezed by Hells Canyon suddenly lost its strength. The sparkling waves dulled in water gone still. The boat had returned to the uppermost reaches of the reservoir at Lewiston, Idaho, impounded by the barrier of Lower Granite Dam in Washington, 39 miles away.
The Nez Perce are at the center of a decades-long battle to remove this dam, and three others on the Lower Snake River. In many tribal members’ lifetimes, dams have transformed the Columbia and Snake from wild rivers to a hydropower behemoth and shipping channel — despite fishing rights reserved by their ancestors guaranteed in the treaty of 1855.
The tribe does not agree with a recently completed assessment by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies that essentially cemented the status quo on the dams. “The four concrete barriers on the lower Snake River have had — and continue to have — a devastating impact on the fish and on tribal people,” Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce tribal executive committee, stated in a recent letter to agency officials.
Missing in the federal process just concluded, Wheeler said, and needed in the regional discussion still underway over these dams, is acknowledgment of the way of life not only that the dams created, but that salmon sustained for people here since time immemorial.
The tribe first adopted a resolution in 1999 advocating removal of the four Lower Snake River dams to help revive salmon runs facing extinction.
The tribe has remained in that fight.
A federal judge ordered in 1993 a “major overhaul” on the river system for salmon recovery. But still today, despite nearly $18 billion spent on the world’s largest fish and wildlife restoration program, Snake River salmon are among the 13 Columbia Basin runs at risk of extinction.
A coalition of fishing and conservation groups has filed a notice of intent to sue over the Trump Administration’s most recent defense of the dams’ operations and effects. So has the Spokane Tribe of Indians.
The Nez Perce tribe is weighing its options, Wheeler said, both in the courts, and in Congress.
The treaties, after all, are the supreme law of the land, said Wheeler, stating the citation in the U.S. Constitution (Article VI, Clause 2) that elevates the treaties above any state law or constitution. “I always like to remind people of that when I talk to federal agencies.”
Changes in the lands and waters
For the Nez Perce, restoring abundant salmon, steelhead, lamprey and all the other beings of their lands and waters is a matter of survival, a human rights issue to defend who they are as a people, their diet and their culture, said Wheeler, whose Indian name is Weoweoktpu (A Place Far Down the River).
The Nez Perce were among the most prosperous peoples of the Columbia Plateau before white settlement. What was here before was not an empty land, or a wilderness, but a place of great wealth and a society flourishing for thousands of years.
The Nez Perce rescued Lewis and Clark when the explorers arrived freezing and starving in the fall of 1805. Yet after gold was discovered in the tribe’s territory, the U.S. took back 90% of the reservation established in the Treaty of Walla Walla in 1855.
Over the next 150 years, the silvery wealth of salmon that sustained the tribe and their homelands also has continued to be impoverished.
More than 400 barriers have been built in rivers all over the Columbia Basin, including some of the tallest dams in the West, built in Nez Perce territory with no fish passage.
Places today named after the explorers and what they valued, in what they called the New World, have much older names based on what was there before, in a world not new at all. Lewiston, Asotin, Orofino. These places all have Nez Perce names that honor animals, plants, origin stories and sustaining forces of nature.
Orofino is téewe, referring to horns or antlers of the game found there. Lewiston is simíinekem, or junction of two rivers — the Clearwater and Snake. Asotin is hesúutiin, or Place of Eels.
“Instead of naming places after people, the land named us,” said Nakia Williamson, whose Indian name is Ípeliikthil’áamka’waat (One Who Gathers the Clouds), director of the cultural resources program for the Nez Perce tribe.
Yet unlike Central Puget Sound where the original wealth of the lands and waters is obliterated under buildings, pavement and industrial waterways, the rivers, mountains, hills and forests that sustained the region’s first people in the Columbia Plateau largely, enticingly, are still there. In a landscape often eerily quiet, along rivers stilled by dams.
“I go there now and it feels lonely,” said Nez Perce elder Ron Oatman, 86, of Celilo Falls, remembering one of the greatest Indigenous fisheries in the world. It was lost with the building of the Dalles Dam in 1957.
Theirs was and is a culture based in abundance of lands and waters renewed in a sacramental covenant of caregiving by the first people of this place. This is the old money of this region, a wealth of carefully stewarded plants, animals, root-digging grounds and salmon. Life sources, not just resources, enjoyed in an ancient alliance with beings revered in a Native cosmology based on reciprocal responsibility.
As the newcomers continued a relentless transformation of the region to make their new wealth, the balance the tribe sought to protect in the treaty has been destroyed.
Near where Graves Creek comes into the Salmon River, at what today is called Cooper’s Ferry, is an archaeological site of an ancient Nez Perce village that dates back as much as 16,500 years. It is the oldest documented human settlement in North America.
“We’ve always been here,” Wheeler said. “And to continue to be who we are as a people we have to have certain things that make us who we are.”
The Nez Perce way of life has always been tied to these lands and waters, plants and animals — especially the salmon.
“By taking that away, you are taking away who we are.”
In the Time Before the Human Beings
While they are known to many today as the Nez Perce, that is not the name the bands of the first people of this place have for themselves: Nimíipuu is their real name, and it means The People. Not from this place, but, as their language shows in the last syllable of their name, of it.
The Nimíipuu stories of the Time Before the Human Beings, when only animals were on the Earth, relay that it was Chinook Salmon who first offered himself to The People to feed them, Williamson recounts. Thus began the accountability of the Nimíipuu to the salmon that saved them, an ancient covenant and present responsibility to all the animals and plants that have fed, clothed, sheltered and guided The People through generations uncounted.
The Nimíipuu roamed widely through abundant lands and waters, adapting the horse by the 17th century, and building large herds of spry and strong Appaloosas fattened on prairie grass. They hunted buffalo in what is present day Montana and Wyoming, and fished the waters of the Columbia and Snake basins, rivers gnashing through rock canyons fed by the snowmelt from mountain ranges in seven U.S. states and the headwaters beyond, upstream in present day Canada.
Nimíipuu life reflected the discipline of a seasonal round, gathering berries and medicinal plants, digging roots, hunting game including deer and elk and mountain sheep, and fishing for salmon, steelhead and more than a dozen other species of fish that surged into the rivers, past falls where even the rocks were alive with lamprey eels. A single lamprey (actually not an eel but a jawless fish) has as much fat as five adult salmon. Lamprey feed not only The People, but other fish, birds and wildlife. Salmon feed more than 130 species of animals, and their spawned-out bodies bring tons of nutrients from the sea back to the land, in a great gyre of life, begetting more life.
The People knew the chutes and drops of the Columbia and Snake and their tributaries that made for productive fishing. Ron Oatman, the Nez Perce elder, remembers fishing for steelhead on the mainstem of the Clearwater, a tributary of the Snake, by torchlight fueled with pine pitch, burning in a metal basket on the end of a pole on a small boat.
And he remembers the roar of the water and the wetting spray of Celilo Falls, on the mainstem of the Columbia, where he worked at age 14 packing salmon for the fishermen to waiting buyers. He traveled to fishing platforms on different rock outcroppings of the river, hauling himself across the maelstrom in a wooden box hung from a pulley on a cable overhead.
“Oh boy, the falls was really noisy … oh man, it was a roaring place, really roaring water, before you even come up to it, you could hear the falls running there,” Oatman said.
His father and brother were master fishermen, good at yanking the fish from the current with a hooped net on the end of a 30-foot-long pole, without losing either the net or the chinook, a thrashing slab of muscle.
“You couldn’t hardly pack more than one or two because they weighed 80 pounds apiece,” Oatman said. “After that, you smelled like a fish.”
It was hard, physical labor The People trained for from the earliest ages, bathing in the cold rivers, in winter breaking ice and not just jumping in, but going in slowly, washing their face, and pouring the water over their backs. “My dad would tell me, ‘You can’t stand the heat or the cold — what kind of Indian are you?’ ” Oatman said with a laugh. “It builds up concentration, you never fear anything after that.”
For him and so many other tribal members, the changes in the rivers they knew are so recent and so profound, as the mainstem Columbia and Snake were transformed between 1938 and 1975 to stair-stepped reservoirs.
Dworshak Dam is on the north fork of the Clearwater River that threads through Nez Perce territory. Dworshak is the third highest dam in the West at 717 feet, and built without fish passage. It was completed in 1973. Primarily a storage dam, its main purpose is flood control.
The dam backs up a reservoir covering 54 miles in an artificial lake so nutrient poor that the Corps of Engineers every week from May through November tows a barge with a fertilizer truck back and forth across the lake, spraying liquid ammonium nitrate into the water. The goal is to make bigger fish, including bass for the sport fishermen.
Wheeler knows dams: His father helped build the powerhouse at Dworshak, and an uncle worked at Lower Granite Dam as an engineer. Another uncle retired as an iron worker at Lower Granite, and by the end of his career had worked at many dams.
“They are engineering marvels; I’m fascinated by dams,” Wheeler said. He appreciates the purposes they are built for, “But they also have other effects.”
When he looks across the landscape from the top of Dworshak, everything he sees was once his peoples’ and is still a place where the Nimíipuu reserve hunting, fishing and gathering rights. But the dam-building bonanza has taken its toll.
To characterize theirs as an environmentalist’s point of view misses the deeper connection, said Williamson, the cultural director. The Nez Perce realize their identity through ongoing utilization of the beings with whom they share the place that has always been their mutual home.
“We are connected to the land and that land is connected to us. We are really struggling to hold onto that connection, even though a lot has changed for our people,” Williamson said.
“We are losing inherited rights, losing part of a relationship, even part of ourselves. These for us are human rights issues. Without these things we lose everything, identity, language, spirituality, our way of thinking. That is what is at stake.”
The Nez Perce historically occupied about 19 million acres and used an even larger area.
Their chiefs were repeatedly promised that The People’s access to all of their usual fishing and hunting and gathering places would be preserved in perpetuity, minutes of the 1855 treaty council show.
“That was the bargain,” Wheeler said. “We are not realizing the benefits we are expecting that our treaty would provide to us. It can’t just continue to be one-sided.
“This is about the larger story of who we are, and where we have been, and what we are trying to get back.”
What about those promises?
The subsequent treaty of 1863 forced the Nez Perce off 90% of their reserved lands and has been known by the Nez Perce ever since as the Thief Treaty. It diminished the tribe’s reservation to 750,000 acres — and there would be even more take-aways by the newcomers.
Chiefs who would not sign or leave their lands were hunted by the U.S. Army. While it was called the Nez Perce War, the ensuing violent conflict was not really a war at all but an extermination campaign.
Beginning in 1877 Army troops and militia chased Nez Perce families who, with livestock and whatever belongings they could gather, fled on foot in a 126-day more than 1,100 mile exodus through four states over the Bitterroot Mountains to Montana. Soldiers killed Nez Perce women, children and elders in battles wherever the Army could catch up with people trying to escape with their lives to Canada.
While the shooting has long stopped, a different kind of Nez Perce War still goes on. The lands and waters that sustain the way of life of The People continue to be depleted.
Before the treaty of 1855, the Nimíipuu ate about 81 fish per person each year, according to the tribe, which estimates about 50% of their people’s daily calories came from salmon.
That was when an estimated 10 to 16 million salmon returned to the Columbia River every year, including as many as 2 million that swam all the way to the Snake, once the producer of more than 40% of the chinook in the Columbia Basin.
Recent years have seen a collapse of spring and summer chinook and steelhead runs. This past season was worse, with only about 1,700 spring and summer chinook harvested — less than one per tribal member.
Losing salmon has slashed the amount of nutrients that salmon historically brought back from the sea to the rivers and streams of the Columbia Basin by more than 90%. That is a starvation diet that drives down the ability of the rivers and streams to support life.
Losing salmon also has led to decline in the health of The People, with soaring rates of diabetes, heart disease and other ailments rooted in a less healthy diet The People never ate and to which their bodies are not adapted.
The geographic area from which salmon can be caught also has vastly shrunk, and with it, the seasonal movements and cultural practices of The People.
Instead of the seasonal year progressing from the lower Columbia watershed all the way into the mountains of Idaho, today much of the salmon habitat in the Snake Basin is cut off by dams without fish passage. Where the fish can still return the numbers in many places are so reduced, the expense of long travel to get the few fish available is a hard bargain for tribal members, said Joe Oatman, deputy program manager of fisheries for the Nez Perce tribe — and Ron Oatman’s grandson.
It’s not only the fish that are diminished, but the cultural practices of the people, Wheeler notes: the songs and guardian spirits that would be acquired, the prayers said, and the strength built as families advanced higher in the watershed, renewing relationships with one another, and with the water and the land.
This way of life has not been seriously reckoned with by the dams’ defenders. “They can certainly convey what is important to them in the river as it exists with the dams, and how important it is for that to be in place, and how that relates to what they do, and the benefit they derive from that,” Joe Oatman said. “But I don’t think at the same time they are able to see what this means to the tribe.
“That is the injustice.”
In a nondescript building across the Clearwater River from Idaho’s Route 12, Nez Perce hatchery workers knee-deep in water struggled for a grip on writhing fall chinook. They grabbed fish, one after another, by the tail and slid them down a chute into the hatchery building, to be stripped of their eggs and milt.
It’s gruesome work that starts with a crack on the head with a metal bat and ends for the females with a slit to the belly to release thousands of eggs to artificially spawn a new generation. The dead fish are put back in the river, to feed the web of life.
This program is just one for the Nez Perce tribe that has worked relentlessly to bring fish back in the waters above eight dams on the mainstem Columbia and Lower Snake.
The tribe has rebuilt a run of Snake fall chinook to one of the only reliable chinook fisheries on the river. These fish in good years return tens of thousands strong and are caught by fishermen of all kinds, from the marine waters of British Columbia to the Columbia and Snake.
The tribe has resurrected coho in the Clearwater Basin, rebuilding a species long gone in local waters, but now returning rosy and fat. Tribal fisheries workers even rescue lamprey trapped in fish ladders at lower Columbia dams and offer them sanctuary at their hatchery. The eels circle and squiggle in tanks on which the lid is firmly clamped, so the lamprey don’t wriggle out before they are moved to rivers where they will have a chance at survival.
Lamprey — a fish native to the Columbia-Snake system and thriving for some 450 million years — have in a little more than a century been lost from many local waters.
Also greatly depleted are Snake spring and summer chinook, prized for their size and rich fat. The construction of dams on the Snake beginning with Swan Falls in 1901 and continuing with the Hells Canyon Complex in the 1950s and the Lower Snake dams in the 1960s and 1970s eliminated or severely degraded 530 miles or 80% of the historic habitat for chinook in the Snake.
Today spring and summer chinook populations in the Snake Basin are a roll call of the lost. Many already are gone and others are barely hanging on.
The causes are legion, and drearily old news, from water withdrawals for irrigation, habitat lost to farming and development, historic overfishing, poor hatchery practices and fish killed by the dams. Passage for adults and juvenile salmon alike has improved and the Columbia has seen some relatively good years. But salmon returns recently have approached record lows.
Climate change is raising the stakes, with warming water slaying salmon in the ocean and rivers alike. In a grim twist, dam advocates now argue the effects of ocean warming caused by climate change are so dire, the zero-carbon energy hydroelectric dams are the salmon’s best friend. Others insist a hostile ocean means that rivers where fish are nurtured, not killed, matter more than ever.
This year, spring and summer chinook returns were so low, Oatman called his relatives to let them know there might be no fishery where his family likes to go, on the south fork of the Salmon River. The tribal subsistence fishery dwindled to the opportunity to catch just 11 chinook.
“I want people to know what that feels like,” Oatman said. “Our family has used these areas for countless generations.”
As the tribe considers its next steps in its fight to remove the Lower Snake River dams, giving up isn’t a consideration. It never has been, not since the treaty of 1855. The bargain struck then is the bargain the Nez Perce insist must stick now, Wheeler said, among the peoples who committed to sharing this region.
He is descended on his mother’s side from Chief Joseph, whose grave is at a lonely rise in a cemetery in Nespelem on the Colville Reservation, where he was forced after the Nez Perce War to live out his days in exile from his beloved home lands in the Wallowa region of northeast Oregon — taken in the Thief Treaty.
Early snow whitened the ground and only the wind and a few barking dogs broke the silence of the cemetery on a recent gray afternoon of a nearing winter. There were offerings on the grave: coins, a few artificial flowers.
Chief Joseph’s Indian name was Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt or Thunder Rolling in the Mountains, and it is carved in his tombstone.
It was a sound he knew not only from the mountains but the rivers that sustained his people. Silenced now, by the dams. But his people are still speaking. They must, Wheeler said, to protect their way of life.
“We are a salmon people. The way the salmon go, we go,” Wheeler said. “That is the fight we have.”