Tribal members working together to lift dugout canoe from the water at the Kettle Falls First Salmon ceremony. Photo: Eileen Delehanty Pearkes

Tribal members working together to lift dugout canoe from the water at the Kettle Falls First Salmon ceremony. Photo: Eileen Delehanty Pearkes

COLUMN: Advocating for the Salmon Spirit

Eileen Delehanty Pearkes writes about what’s being done to return salmon to the upper Columbia basin

By Eileen Delehanty Pearkes

The July opening for the kokanee fishery has come and gone. If you missed it, that’s understandable. Due to lower numbers in a pre-summer survey, the government opened the fishery for a total of four days all season, two in April and two in July. Fishermen are grumbling, while biologists are hopeful for an upswing cycle to come.

Welcome to fishing in the upper Columbia basin, a region beleaguered by the impact of dams.

About 7,500 years ago, nature’s dams — waterfalls — once stranded ocean salmon in the West Arm and Kootenay Lake as glaciers melted. Some of these salmon evolved into the iconic kokanee. Its salt-water twin (the sockeye), and the coho, Chinook and Steelhead trout, continued to seek spawning habitat where they could. Up the Columbia/Arrow Lakes. Up the Slocan and Kootenay River valleys, to Slocan Lake and Slocan Pool. They came back every year until 1942 when Canada gave the U.S. permission to complete Grand Coulee Dam without salmon ladders.

The ladders were possible to build — just expensive. Gradually, many people forgot about the salmon. Passage over the massive dams seemed technically impossible.

But the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT), based in Spokane, Washington, did not forget. They have conducted scientific studies for two decades to prove otherwise. Recently, they released an uplifting report. Salmon passage is, actually, possible. Good cold-water spawning habitat exists in the upper Columbia River system (north and upstream of Grand Coulee), as it has for a long time.

For thousands of years, tribes from all across the upper Columbia Basin once gathered each June at present-day Kettle Falls, Wash., including the Sinixt. They used basket traps to haul in hundreds of thousands of fish. They distributed them equally. In 2016, Indigenous tribes resurrected the annual First Salmon ceremony to call the fish home. For four years now, they have gathered. Some arrive in canoes they have built. Others come by car. They drum. They pray. They feast. They invite the community to join them. They wait for what once seemed impossible.

What are the obstacles to restoring the salmon? Can Columbia River Treaty negotiations make a difference? Since the treaty itself did not block the salmon, the B.C. and federal governments have been careful to officially exclude the issue from diplomatic negotiations. However, the granting of observer status to First Nations suggests that the wily fish may still have influence. The Indigenous people want changes to river-operations to benefit or support many fish, including salmon. Their presence at the table with negotiators is a reminder.

Tribal fisheries technicians working at Chief Joseph Dam (downstream of Grand Coulee) have watched salmon gather in eddies below the dam for years, looking for a way to continue upstream. Tribal leaders speak of how much the salmon want to come home to the upper Basin. They speak of the persistence and strength of fish in a way that moves beyond conventional economics, science and politics. They speak of a Salmon Spirit.

When I attend the First Salmon ceremony at Kettle Falls each year, I witness and admire the tribes’ uncommon faith in fish. It inspires me to keep caring, keep writing, and yes, keep fishing on the West Arm — kokanee or no kokanee. This week, I barbequed some invasive perch caught by my neighbour in Sunshine Bay. The perch competes with the system’s native fish. A few less swimming around out there is good for the West Arm ecosystem, and good for my dinner table.

Nelson author Eileen Delehanty Pearkes writes here once a month.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Five-year-old Bayne Krause poses for a photo with his mom Marianne. Bayne’s shirt reads, ‘I have Cystic Fibrosis. Help keep me healthy, please social distance.’ Photo: Laurie Tritschler
West Kootenay mom promotes awareness of cystic fibrosis

Marianne Krause wants people to know what it’s like for her five-year-old son to live with CF

Police are cautioning drivers to keep a sharp eye on the road after a Fruitvale man hit and killed an elk along Highway 2A near Trail. The driver was reported to be uninjured, though the car was significantly damaged. Photo: Nick Fewings on Unsplash
Heads up for wildlife warn police after crash with elk on West Kootenay highway

The accident happened in the early morning hours of April 30

The Nelson Police Department says it is stepping up enforcement around schools for the remainder of the academic year. Photo: Submitted
Drive safe in school zones: Nelson police

Close calls have police asking for extra awareness from drivers

The higher elevation melt is getting underway as rivers such as Mark Creek in Kimberley are running faster. Paul Rodgers file
Snow packs down just below normal in East and West Kootenay

The West Kootenay in particular had below normal precipitation in April

Interfor’s Castlegar mill is getting $35 million in upgrades. Photo by: John Boivin
Interfor to invest $35 million at Castlegar mill

Project will enhance productivity and competitiveness

A bullet hole is seen in the windshield of an RCMP vehicle approximately 4 km from Vancouver International Airport after a one person was killed during a shooting outside the international departures terminal at the airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Homicide team IDs man in fatal YVR shooting as police grapple with spate of gang violence

Man, 20, charged in separate fatal shooting Burnaby over the weekend

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The real estate boom across the Okanagan has not felt a negative impact from the coronavirus impact on our national economy. (Contributed)
Booming year ahead, says Kootenay Association of Realtors

Strong real estate sales continue throughout Kootenays

The Canadian Forces Snowbirds are in the Comox Valley for their annual spring training. Photo by Erin Haluschak
Suspected bird strike grounds Snowbirds plane during training in B.C.

Pilot followed protocols and landed the aircraft on the ground without any problems

BCIT. (Wikimedia Commons)
BCIT apologizes after employee’s ‘offensive and hurtful’ email leaked to Métis Nation

BCIT says employee’s conduct has been investigated and addressed

An adult male yellow-breasted chat is shown in this undatd photograph on lands protected in collaboration between the En’owkin Centre and Penticton Indian Band with support through ECCC. The rescue from near extinction for a little yellow bird hinges on the wild rose in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, a researcher says. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, A. Michael Bezener/ En’owkin Centre 2020 *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Rare yellow birds need wild roses to survive in British Columbia: researcher

The importance of local wild roses emerged over a nearly 20-year experiment

RCMP officers search around rows of luggage carts as screens block off an area of the sidewalk after a shooting outside the international departures terminal at Vancouver International Airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Police say gang conflict in Metro Vancouver may be behind shooting death at airport

Police said this generation of gangsters is taking things to new level and have no regard for community safety

RCMP are looking for information on an alleged shooting attempt near an elementary school in Smithers March 10. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News/Stock)
UPDATE: Man killed in brazen daylight shooting at Vancouver airport

Details about the police incident are still unknown

Pieces of nephrite jade are shown at a mine site in northwestern B.C. in July 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Tahltan Central Government MANDATORY CREDIT
Indigenous nation opposes jade mining in northwestern B.C.

B.C.’s Mines Act requires operators to prepare a plan to protect cultural heritage resources

Most Read