Salmon Segments Pt. 1

·5 min read

In schools of anadromous fish, salmon are the most popular. They have always had a rich history with the Columbia River and First Nations like the Secwépemc (Shuswap) and Ktunaxa (Akisqnuk) Nation whose territories fall on it. While salmon have recently seen and are presently seeing darker times, the hopes for a brighter future remain as we get closer to the 2022 Bringing Home the Salmon Festival on May 3 and 4. The Columbia River Salmon Restoration Initiative will be discussed further in a future edition of the Pioneer.It has been expressed that the decrease of salmon in the Columbia River has been earth-shattering to all First Nations on either side of the border. To put it in perspective, the salmon and First Nations cultures, such as the local Shuswap Indian Band and Akisqnuk Nation have long been intertwined. Salmon have been the heart of their survival, economy and ceremonies for generations. As the Columbia lost salmon over the years, the Indigenous Peoples lost a part of themselves. In Indigenous cultures, salmon have not only been a prime food source, but also a symbol of abundance, fertility, prosperity, and renewal. They are still used in different ceremonial and religious services to this day.

Roughly five million years before present (BP) it was believed what we know now as salmon were said to have evolved in the Columbia River Basin. The salmonid species have been said to be present in the Columbia River Basin for the last fifty million years, when it was still loosely translated as “big river” in a myriad of First Nation mother-tongues. What is now known as Columbia River belonged to them, long before it belonged to industry. The waters once were calm and flowed crimson. Salmon were bountiful and the Indigenous Peoples only took what they needed. “Big river” was open and the salmon swam free.

Upon it officially being named the Columbia the fur-trading industry created a hub of activity with foreigners taking advantage of the river’s resources First Nations once used with discretion. This came into full swing in 1810. There have been many contributing factors to the decrease of salmon in the Columbia over the course of time including logging, overfishing and pollution. It was in 1827 that the Hudson Bay Company began the commercial logging industry in the Pacific Northwest. By 1880, there was an intense rise in the commercial fishing industry and salmon numbers began to drop significantly.

In the twentieth century between 1900 and 1910, commercial logging was happening on the Columbia River on a large scale. Simply put, excess logging places disruptions on Mother Nature’s natural ways for mitigating floods and landslides. This results in future consequences for the natural habitat of salmon.

The construction of the Grand Coulee dam began in 1931. Grand Coulee is the largest dam to this day on the Columbia River and still one of the largest in the world. Following the Columbia River Treaty (the water-management agreement between the U.S. and Canada which was implemented in 1964) Columbia soon had more than 60 in its watershed, more than any other river.

Akisqnuk Chief Donald Sam still remembers tales of salmon his family told him when he was young. “One of my aunties used to tell me about salmon. She’d say that salmon came all the way up to Athalmer. That whole area under the bridge used to be bright red. This would have been sometime around 1947 before all the dams went in,” said Chief Donald Sam. “Salmon is a food source that has always been so vitally important to us. It was cut off and this is not the first time this has happened to us as it also happened with the buffalo. There is also the biodiversity aspect as salmon weren’t just food for us but also for bears, eagles, insects, and so much more wildlife as well.”

There are studies that have shown that habitats once available to salmon for rearing and spawning are no longer. It is the dams in the Columbia River that are responsible for more than 55 per cent of its blockage. Dams also contribute to the fluctuation of water temperature and quality, which only adds to the salmon death toll. Those that can find passage through fish ladders and other nooks and crannies make themselves more susceptible to becoming prey awaiting hungry birds and mammals.

The Columbia Treaty will be up for review in 2024 for the first time in sixty years. Indigenous voices will be heard on the matter to discuss some of the greatest obstacles the revered salmon and their natural habitats have faced for far too long. In the meantime events like the Bringing Home the Salmon Festival and projects such as the Columbia River Salmon Restoration Initiative are underway.

Akisqnuk Chief Donald Sam is very supportive of the work that is going on with the Columbia River Salmon Restoration Initiative and the upcoming Bringing Home the Salmon Festival. “That idea of bringing that Salmon home, there is an emotional connection there. It is a connection to my elders that have passed on, as well as that cultural connection,”says Chief Donald Sam. “I’ve heard the dream of bringing the salmon back for a while now. If we could bring them back in my lifetime, that would be something. It’s really something to celebrate.”

Chadd Cawson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Columbia Valley Pioneer

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