By Terri C. Hansen
Pacific Northwest Bureau Chief
News from Indian Country
More than five decades after massive dams quieted the once wild Columbia River and submerged traditional native fishing sites, the federal government has started to replace those sites, as they promised more than 50 years ago.
Ground was broken last month on the first of 31 sites intended as replacements for those flooded by the Bonneville Dam, in accordance with a 1988 Congressional law. The initial 7.8 acre site on the river's north side will have a campground, drying sheds, water and sanitation facilities.
Treaties guaranteed the Columbia River Nations — Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama — the right to fish at their usual places along the river for all time. But their fishing places, handed down from generation to generation since time immemorial, were flooded along a 40-mile stretch when the dams were built.
The federal government promised in 1939 to replace their homes, fishing platforms and drying sheds on 400 substitute acres, but few sites were completed before the project stalled amid friction between governments and the chaos of World War II.
Ironically, groundbreaking on the replacement sites comes after the extinction of some salmon species. Others are at risk of extinction due to the perils of hydroelectric dams. Excessive logging and overgrazing on federal lands have also contributed to their demise.
For decades the river Nations have been persistent in addressing state and federal governments and their agencies in an effort to stop the destruction of the salmon and its habitat.
The Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission, representing the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama, has turned not only to governments and agencies but to the people of the Northwest with their 1995 salmon restoration plan, Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit (Spirit of the Salmon). They have appealed to everyone, asking them to work together to responsibly and reasonably to return the salmon to the waters in which they were created and which are rightfully theirs.
"Today the tribes mourn the loss of our companions in nature who helped nurture our bodies, our minds and our spirit," explains CRITFC executive director Ted Strong.
"We decry the rising cost of restoring life forms sadistically and systematically destroyed by human encroachment. These magnificent creatures of land, air and water gave purpose to existence. Today, the political, financial, ethical and social behavior of a newly formed society disregards the need for peaceful co-existence between humans and their environment."