An Indian gave me a piece of fresh salmon, roasted, which I ate with relish. This was the first salmon I had seen and convinced me we were in the waters of the Pacific. ~From the Journal of Meriwether Lewis, August 1805
The water of the Klickitat River rushes through an opening in the rocks 15 yards wide during the spring melt. Hung from the cliffs above the river are scaffolds of weathered wood suspended by corroded cables.
Leonard Dave, Sr. stands on one of the platforms and drags a pole attached with a net through turbulent rapids.
Soon other fishermen climb onto the rest of the platforms. Dusk and night are the best times to fish, Leonard explains, because salmon can't see the net. It is also a dangerous time to fish. On moonless nights the fishermen sometimes step off the platform's edge. If they are lucky, the rope that they tie around their waist doesn't break and dangles them over the river until other fishermen pull them back to the rocks. If they are not lucky, their bodies turn up in gillnets downstream. Each season two or three fishermen are lost to the river.
Leonard Dave, Jr. joins his father, ties the rope around his waist, and carefully moves to the edge of the plywood and two-by-four structure.
Suspended 20 feet above the torrent, he caresses the stream bottom with his 34-foot-dipnet, pulling hand under hand, pushing hand over hand, pacing five steps from one end of the platform to the other. He seeks the hidey-holes where the salmon rest before assaulting the falls.
Years of fishing this same spot have taught him the location of rocks under the surface. He takes care not to hit them, as the sound will send the salmon into hiding. Leonard Jr. finishes his pass-through and swings the net from the water. Gently he replaces it a few yards downstream and again moves it toward the falls. The net must be behind the salmon or the fish will bolt.
Dipnet fishing is better suited to a young man's body. The weight of the net and the awkward position cause back muscles to shriek and arms to shake. During the peak of the season, a man is lucky to get a salmon once every twenty or thirty tries. During the rest of the season he's lucky to get one every couple hours. Very few women fish this way.
As the last light fades from the sky, the ghost shadow fishermen rhythmically move their poles. Now and again the sound of a salmon fighting a net's steel meshing harmonizes with the river's song. Now and again the sound of a wood mallet hitting a salmon's head punctuates the still silence of darkness. Near midnight the rocks give up the last of the day's warmth; until dawn, the river's coolness claims the valley's air as its own.
"Salmon was a way of life, my ancestor's way," Leonard Sr. says quietly. "My parents, my grandparents, and their grandparents have always fished here. If some of these trees and rocks could talk, what a story they would tell." They would speak of respect for the Creator's gifts; of the abundance of salmon and the absence of hunger if the Creator's rules were followed; of the Indians using every fishing technique in use today.
But just as steel wire replaced animal sinew as the material of which nets were made, Indian life changed.
William Clark, in the journals of his expedition with Meriwether Lewis, wrote of seeing five-ton stacks of dried salmon in a village near Celilo Falls on the Columbia River. From Idaho's Snake River to the Pacific Ocean 1200 miles away, the Indians honored the expedition members with gifts of salmon. The descendants of those Indians, the Klickitats, laugh when telling of some explorers, weary of the fish diet, who asked instead for permission to eat the villager's dogs.
Celilo Falls was the center of trade for Northwest Indians. Each spring the tribes traveled from the shores of the Pacific Ocean, from the mountains of the Cascades and Olympics, from the plains of what is now Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Idaho. They came by canoe, by horseback, and by foot to fish; to trade oysters, clams, roots, and skins; and to talk. Overseeing the commerce were the flat-headed Chinook Indians who developed a 300-word jargon for negotiations.
Back then, fishermen perched on rocks and scaffolds above the rapids with their dipnets of animal sinew and nettle fiber; children, holding lines with carved bone hooks, laid on their bellies over still pools of water; women, babies strapped to their backs, knelt over the bounty of fish, stripping the roe and splitting the flesh with their bone or slate knives. Racks of split crimson salmon lined the river; the stacks of dried fish grew higher and the baskets of powdered salmon grew heavier. After each fish was pulled from the foam, Indians would offer a prayer of thanks to the powerful salmon spirit and the Creator who gave them the gift of sustenance.
Today, the monolithic concrete, steel, and cabled Dalles Dam, completed in the fifties, has turned Celilo Falls into a distant dream; the canyon lies under a hundred feet of water.
Newspaper reports described the tribes' last longhouse ceremony, a memorial service attended by scores of Indians: the Yakimas, the Klickitats, the Nez Perce, the Warm Springs, and Colvilles. When the dam's last gate closed, the Columbia roared in rebellion. Finally, spray subsided, and the river became a wall of water.
The newspapers described the cheers of the non-native onlookers and the silence of the Indians. As the water erased Celilo Falls, tribal leaders turned their backs.
When it became apparent to the ancestors of those tribal leaders that the flood of white settlers would not end, they signed 11 treaties with Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens. The treaties did not give rights to the Indians; rather, the elders gave some rights to the European races.
The Indians reserved the right of food gathering in order to ensure Indian life for all time. This included exclusive fishing on their reservations' rivers. And, as stated in the treaties, they reserved "the right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations...in common with all citizens of the Territory."
Those words assumed critical importance nearly 120 years later during which time everything changed. A lucrative canning industry had developed. Commercial nets stretched from bank to bank on some rivers. Traps and wheels worked with deadly efficiency until outlawed in the late 1930's. Watersheds were logged and mined. Rivers were dammed. Towns grew into cities. Fewer fish returned to the rivers. Indian fishermen caught only five percent of the harvestable fish and owned less than one percent of the state's 6000 commercial licenses in 1970.
The United States, acting as trustee for several tribes, sued Washington state in 1970, seeking reactivation of Indian treaty fishing rights. For more than three months, U.S. District Judge George Boldt heard testimony from anthropologists, biologists, fisheries managers, and tribal leaders about the importance of salmon to the Indians, the biology of the fish, and the commercial and sport fisheries.
On February 12, 1974, Boldt decided that the 20 tribes that had signed the original treaties were entitled to half the harvestable return of salmon at all their historic fishing areas. The environment of streams running through their reservations could not be impinged. This edict was to receive priority second only to the conservation of the salmon.
Boldt based his decision on the fact that 19th century treaties clearly established "in common" - or shared equally - as the basis for salmon fishing. He used dictionaries from the 19th century and noted that the treaties were translated into a 300-word trading jargon; certainly the white negotiators would have understood the meaning of the words.
Few fishermen were interested in how Boldt reached his decision. Boats were rammed and set on fire. People were threatened, beaten up, and -- in one case -- shot during confrontations between treaty and non-native fishermen.
Eight times treaty fishing rights were appealed, including twice before the U.S. Supreme Court. Eight times those rights were upheld.
In order to divide the fish between non-native and native fishermen, biologists had to count the number of returning salmon, thereby learning that almost all runs had declined precipitously, and many had become extinct. In the Columbia, the most productive river in the state, the returning salmon had dropped from as many as 15 million in 1884 to 2.5 million in 1984.
However, while tribal and state leaders have achieved a sometimes apparent and other times not so apparent spirit of cooperation, anger on both sides still runs deep.
"Why do we have to pay for the sins of our forebears?" asks a non-native fisherman while leaning against the bow of his troller moored at Seattle's Fishermen's Terminal. He had come West in the sixties and discovered the beautiful solitude of the ocean. The last fishing season he had fished only five days. "I didn't even make enough to pay for my diesel fuel," he says.
Others are also hit hard: every third boat, tied gracefully and proudly to the dock, has either a bright orange for sale sign or a marshal's auction notice posted in the window. In some towns, he says, the joke was that people can have their choice of a toaster or a fishing boat when opening a new account at the bank.
"Our livelihood has been destroyed," he said with a voice edged in sorrow. "We must take second jobs to make ends meet. Our once-thriving communities are dying. Our traditional way of life is but a memory."
Yet fishing regulations also anger those on the other side who believe that native rights to food gathering should not be restricted.
In spite of it all, traditions continue.
The rain sputters through the ventilation holes cut in the roof of the Tulalip longhouse near Marysville, Washington. The flames of the three cedar fires hiss and turn the drops into eye-watering smoke. The Northwest wind relentlessly pounds against the cedar siding. Soon more than 200 people, both Indian and non-Indian, will gather for a ceremony welcoming the first salmon.
In the old days, throughout Asia and North America, every band around the Pacific Rim believed the salmon was a sacred gift from the Creator. Their legends of the salmon are remarkably similar.
In one legend, the spirits of the salmon lived in a beautiful underwater mansion at the edge of the horizon. Each year the salmon people tribe would don their fish costumes and return to the rivers to sacrifice themselves so mankind could survive. But first their chief or scout would visit the village to make sure the native peoples still honored the Creator's gift of salmon.
When that first fish was caught, the people gathered on the banks of the water and watched as the fishermen said his prayer of thanks. They followed him as he proudly carried the fish to the leader of the encampment. The salmon, wrapped in cedar boughs and laid on a litter, would be the center of the ceremony. Before the great fish, the celebrants danced and sang and drummed their praises far into the night. No visiting chief ever received a more grandiose welcome than this fish because without the salmon, the Indians could not survive.
And then the salmon would be cooked in pots or wooden boxes or beneath hot coals and rocks. With deft movements the spiritual leader or eldest woman carved the flesh carefully in order not to disturb the skeleton. It didn't matter if there was one family or a hundred families, each person would taste a little of the Creator's gift.
With hushed voices the people of the salmon would walk to the water. With reverence they placed the intact bones of the fish in the stream so that the head pointed toward its underwater mansion at the edge of the horizon. With great joy, the villagers wished it well and prayed that this chief and scout returned, leading the rest of the salmon spirits to their rivers. Then the people would wait anxiously until the salmon people returned to sacrifice themselves, so mankind could survive.
For this contemporary ceremony, Raymond Moses enters the Tulalip longhouse, sits on the planks lining the floor and begins playing his drum.
On the edge of the song, new voices, new drums join in, entwining, growing stronger, growing bolder. The shells on the women's skirts chatter beneath the heavier resonance of drums; the Indians' moccasins pad the dry earth in rhythm.
The longhouse resonates with the power of song. We are all insignificant. We are all omnipotent. We are nothing, and we are everything. And then, with no warning, the music stops.
There is a peace, an absence of sound, a void. We journeyed into a place where there was no time, down a path that had no beginning, middle, or end.
The cycle of salmon...the cycle of life: each spring when the days lengthen and the swallows return and the chinook salmon make their way up the rivers, hearts remember the stories of the People of the Salmon.