This salmon is carved from cedar. But it still travels.
The totem pole, the work of Native carvers, is part of the Spirit of the Waters journey to the Snake River in Idaho, making stops in communities in Washington and Oregon. It’s due in Seattle on May 19.
The journey, funded by nonprofits, foundations and other partners, is being undertaken to build momentum for a Native-led movement for the removal of the four Lower Snake River dams to rebuild salmon runs and to help the southern resident killer whales that depend on them.
In stops with the totem pole all along the way, Native youth, spiritual and political leaders will speak in public forums about the centrality of water and salmon to the health of all life in the region, for generations uncounted.
At the center of the journey is a spirit of renewal and recommitment to a respectful relationship with nature as a centerpiece of health for all beings, including human societies nurtured by abundance in the Columbia and Snake rivers, said Jay Julius, a lifelong Lummi fisherman and president of the nonprofit Se’Si’Le, which is organizing the journey.
Today salmon in the Columbia and Snake and the J, K, and L pods of southern resident killer whales are at risk of extinction.
Dam removal on the Lower Snake is at the center of a regional conversation underway about the costs and benefits of dam removal for salmon and orca recovery, with a consultant-led effort requested by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
The dams, completed in 1975, provide hydropower, irrigation and transportation from the sea all the way to Idaho. However, those benefits have come at a cost to salmon.
Native advocates for dam removal on the Lower Snake and their allies hope to raise visibility for the plight of salmon and orca, said Jewell James, of the Lummi Nation, lead carver of the pole.
The pole is an effigy, to be used in synchronization with prayers and ceremonies to heal the river, James said. “I specifically made a large salmon to represent the Columbia River, and those June Hogs, those giant salmon that used to be.
“The Columbia and Snake River Chinook is important to the resident killer whale people that travel up and down the Pacific Coast.”
The pole is intended to help unite people across the region on behalf of the salmon and orca, James said. “We live in a time in which society is so desensitized to what we are doing to the Earth. We are setting it up for its demise, our children and grandchildren will suffer if we do not take action. So we are hoping the tribes will unite and people will stand behind our concerns about saving the Columbia and Snake river.”
This is the 12th totem pole he and the Lummi House of Tears carvers have produced for journeys raising awareness of everything from the dangers of fossil fuels to sacred lands.
This pole includes the carving of a baby orca atop the head of a killer whale, evoking the journey of mother orca Tahlequah in the summer of 2018 through the Salish Sea. J35 lost her calf that had lived only one half-hour. She refused to let the baby go, carrying it on her head or with her teeth for 17 days and more than 1,000 miles in what scientists widely interpreted as a journey of grief.
Tahlequah has since had another calf, a ray of hope for the endangered population of southern residents. There are only 75 left. The southern residents face at least three challenges to survival: pollution; noise and disturbance that make it hard for them to find Chinook salmon, their favorite food; and dwindling Chinook runs throughout their foraging range.
Preparation for the totem pole journey has been underway for months, from making the carving to spiritual work.
JoDe Goudy, enrolled member of the Yakama Nation and his family traveled from the headwaters of the Snake to the sea with one of the salmon carvings that form a base of the pole. Along the way, he and his family fed the rivers the traditional foods of their people, to honor the living being of the Columbia and Snake, Goudy said.
They also revived an old tradition, lightly touching each of the Lower Snake River dams as they proceeded downriver, in a practice called counting coup — a gesture of courageous warriors.
The totem pole journey is an exercise in Indigenous identity, from the Columbia Plateau to the ocean, Goudy said. “All these salmon nations and people hinge on a right and respectful relationship with water and the salmon.” Survival of Indigenous identity and culture depends on the salmon and the water, Goudy said. “They are not commodities but that is what they are being treated like.”
Scientific reports have found Snake River spring-summer Chinook are among the most at risk from climate change, and warming sea surface temperatures have put them on a path to extinction. Better conditions at every life stage are essential to Snake Basin salmon survival, scientists have found.
The cumulative effects of climate change and dams on the Columbia and Snake are the main cause of summer water temperatures lethal to salmon, the Environmental Protection Agency has found.
Lee Whiteplume, enrolled member of the Nez Perce Tribe said the totem pole journey has “a big purpose, to raise awareness to the mainstream society that our salmon need help. They need a lot of help.
“How do we change the mainstream mindset, to see we are all part of the circle of life?”
Biologists at Nez Perce have documented that 42% of the Snake Basin’s spring-summer Chinook populations are already nearly extinct, with just 50 or fewer fish coming back each year from 2015 through 2020.
The U.S. government is not keeping its treaty promise under which the Nez Perce and other tribes ceded their lands, in return for their reserved right to harvest salmon and other foods in their usual places, forever.
“You can’t catch salmon if there aren’t any salmon to catch,” Whiteplume said.
Julius, a former chair of the Lummi Nation, said the journey is meant to spark hope for salmon and orca recovery, and to bring people together.
“We want to bring attention and awareness to something that is more than a political issue, it is a moral issue,” said Julius, of the Se’Si’Le Foundation. “We call this journey the Spirit of the Water because water connects all of us.”