For nearly two weeks, hundreds of Native Americans from around the Northwest helped scour the waters of the Columbia River Gorge or participated...

Share story

CARSON, Skamania County — For nearly two weeks, hundreds of Native Americans from around the Northwest helped scour the waters of the Columbia River Gorge or participated in daily prayer vigils back on shore in hopes of finding the bodies of three lost Yakama Nation salmon fishermen.

The three — James Peter Jr., 26, Gailen Espirito, 30, and Rommel Strom, 47, — took a skiff out on the river May 7 and never returned.

This loss of life was a wrenching end to a disappointing spring salmon harvest along a river that over the past the nine years has claimed the lives of 11 tribal fishermen, according to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

The search drew tribal members from Puget Sound, Oregon, Idaho and Canada as well as the Yakama, who set up a camp at a park that offered three hot meals a day and a white riverside tent — the Water Church — for prayers.

“We’re overwhelmed by all this support, but we’re not surprised; that’s the nature of our people, we come together, the different tribes from all over the Northwest,” said Tony Washines, Strom’s uncle, who helped organize the camp.

The spring season started out with plenty of promise as more than 500 tribal fishermen anticipated a strong run of spring chinook. They prize this oil-rich spring salmon for ceremonial and subsistence use, as well as for the commercial harvest, which this year brought record-high prices.

But in early May, the spring run faltered, triggering a closure of the commercial season after four days and then prompting a shutdown of all tribal harvests.

Amid this disappointment came tragedy.

On the night of May 7, Peter, Espirito and Strom set out, probably to check their nets upstream from the mouth of the Wind River. They were all experienced fishermen who kept Yakama Indian traditions in the forefront of their lives.

“He [Strom] was always working on something — a job, or cutting wood or fishing or taking care of families or being involved in ceremonies,” said Washines. “Every now and then, he would get a 9-to-5 job.”

Blustery conditions

No one knows just what happened that night.

The river was rough, with blustery winds whipping up waves that could have swamped the skiff in strong spring currents. There were also plenty of other potential hazards. A submerged log could have knocked the vessel. Nets could have entangled the motor, or there could have been a mechanical failure.

The next day, their empty skiff was found aground — its bow nearly upright and its stern submerged — on the upstream side of a rocky bar. There was no sign of the three men.

“The only thing we can say for sure is that there were wind and waves,” said Sgt. Mitch Hicks, an enforcement officer of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Hicks in recent years has urged fishermen to improve safety equipment on their vessels to try to lower the river’s death toll.

“We can preserve the practice of the fishery, and we can accomplish the cultural aspects — and just take care of the risk factors better,” Hicks said.

Among those who joined in the search, many had lost other loved ones to this river. Washines recalls how, as a young boy, his own father perished in a fall from a fishing platform by Celilo Falls. Since then, he’s lost other relatives, and just last fall, he responded to a rescue call for three fishermen from another boat that had swamped.

But the river — traditional fishing grounds for centuries — also helps sustain tribal cultures.

“It’s part of our blood. It’s part of our livelihoods. It’s part of our life,” Washines said.

To aid in this month’s search, Washines helped design a special net that could catch a person but let fish go by; it was set up across a portion of the river the bodies were expected to pass earlier this week.

He also coordinated with Gene Ralston, an Idaho search specialist, who for several days joined the search in a boat equipped with side-scan sonar to take underwater images and a robot able to make underwater retrievals.

But Washines said some of the most important work was done back on shore, where — day after day — people gathered to offer prayers to the river to return the bodies.

The first — that of James Peter Jr. — was found in the water last Sunday.

In the days that followed, search efforts intensified. So did the prayers as the Water Church was filled with services by the Indian Shakers, Washaat and other groups.

At 3 a.m. last Tuesday, May 20, a delegation of Puget Sound tribes — drawn from the Quileute, the Skokomish, the Swinomish, the Tulalip — arrived at the camp. By midmorning, they had organized a prayer service that began as the rains eased, the river calmed and an eagle appeared overhead.

To help gain the return of the fishermen, these tribes used carved wooden plaques known as spirit boards. Four men held on to the spirit board as it moved about the riverbanks. They would frequently stop to let the messages be interpreted by an elder.

“They move on their own, and we are just the arms and legs,” said Phillip McCoy, a 31-year-old who helped hold the spirit boards.

They also held a burn, offering the camp breakfast of tortilla, eggs, oatmeal and fruit — to feed the spirits of those who have died in the river.

“They’re not satisfied. They’re still hungry,” said Delbert Miller, a Skokomish spiritual leader who advised another burn with traditional native foods.

Out on the river, Tuesday offered closure.

In the morning, Espirito’s body was found in the river net.

Then, in late afternoon, a sport-fishing guide spotted Strom’s body in the river. As it was brought to shore, Yakama men lined up along the boat ramp. They rang bells and offered more prayers.

The next day, there was another offering to the river. This time, traditional food — five salmon, bitter roots and berries.

Peter was buried Tuesday in a traditional Washaat longhouse cemetery.

Espirito’s services were held Wednesday at the riverside camp; hundreds gathered inside a large white tent, and prayer and religious ceremonies lasted nearly until dawn. Then a long caravan of cars journeyed east to a cemetery along a river tributary.

Strom’s burial was Saturday outside of Toppenish.

Hal Bernton: 503-292-1016 or hbernton@seattletimes.com