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Columbia River salmon are at the core of ancient religion

Pollution and climate change threatening river’s health, Indigenous spiritual traditions
Medicinal plants used by members of the Yakama Nation grow near the Klickitat River, a tributary of the Columbia River, on Sunday, June 19, 2022, in Lyle, Wash. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

James Kiona stands on a rocky ledge overlooking Lyle Falls where the water froths and rushes through steep canyon walls just before merging with the Columbia River. His silvery ponytail flutters in the wind, and a string of eagle claws adorns his neck.

Kiona has fished for Chinook salmon for decades on his family’s scaffold at the edge of the falls, using a dip net suspended from a 33-foot pole — like his father did before him, and his son will after.

“Fishing is an art and a spiritual practice,” says Kiona, a Yakama Nation elder. “You feel exhilaration in your body when you dip that net in the water and feel the fish. Then, you’re fighting the fish. The fish is fighting you, tearing holes in the net, jerking you off the scaffold.”

He finds strength, sanctity, even salvation in that struggle. The river saved Kiona when he returned from the war in Vietnam. As he battled addiction, depression and trauma, the river gave him therapy no hospital could.

When he lies on the rocks by the rushing river and closes his eyes, he hears the songs and the voices of his ancestors. The water, he says, holds the history of the land and his people.

“It heals you.”


From its headwaters in British Columbia where the Rocky Mountains crest, the Columbia River flows south into Washington state and then westward and into the Pacific Ocean at its mouth near Astoria, Oregon. Just below the confluence with the Snake River, the Columbia’s largest tributary, the river turns through the Cascade Mountain Range, carving out the Columbia River Gorge.

It’s a spectacular canyon, 80 miles long and up to 4,000 feet deep, with cliffs, ridges, streams and waterfalls. The landscape and colors change dramatically from the brown hills, shrubs and sagebrush at lower elevations to the lush greens of ponderosa pines, fir and larch trees higher up. Eagles and ospreys nest all along the river.

For thousands of years, Native tribes in this area have relied on Nch’i-Wána, or “the great river,” for its salmon and steelhead trout, and its surrounding areas for the fields bearing edible roots, medicinal herbs and berry bushes as well as the deer and elk whose meat and hides are used for food and ritual. That reliance transcends the material realm into the spiritual, as the acts of gathering, consuming and respecting those foods are inextricably linked to the tribes’ religious practice.

Yet the river is under threat. Warming waters linked to climate change endanger the salmon, which need cooler temperatures to survive. Hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and its tributaries have curtailed the river’s flow, further imperiling salmon’s migration from the Pacific upstream to their freshwater spawning grounds. Industrial pollution are also threats; testing by the Columbia Riverkeeper, a nonprofit that aims to protect water quality, shows that fish caught in the area are contaminated with flame retardants; polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs; and heavy metals.

Pollution and climate change are not only threatening the health of the river and its habitat, but also the millennia-old spiritual traditions that hold Native communities together.


“We are the salmon people or river people,” says Aja DeCoteau, executive director of the Portland-based Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents the interests of the four Columbia River treaty tribes — Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Nez Perce — in policy, advocacy and management of the basin. “Without water there are no fish, plants or herbs.”

Each year the tribes honor the salmon, roots, berries, deer and elk — which they believe were originally placed in the land for their sustenance — with what are known as “first food ceremonies.” When children catch fish, dig roots or pick berries for the first time, they are stood up before their elders in the longhouse and recognized as food gatherers.

Elders speak of how streams flow from the mountains sanctified by the prayers of ancestors who went there to commune with the spirits. These rivulets then flow down and merge with the Columbia. If Nch’i-Wána is the main artery of the land, those streams are like the veins that feed it. So even the smallest creek is vital and sacred.

At communal meals, tribe members typically begin and end with water — “You take a drink of water to purify yourself before you eat and you end the meal with water to show respect for what you’ve eaten,” DeCouteau says.

Tribes also use the river’s water and rocks for rituals such as sweat lodge purification ceremonies, held in low, dome-shaped structures where river rocks are heated along with herbal medicine.

“After you sweat and pray, there is also the practice of jumping in the river to cleanse yourself,” DeCouteau says. “It’s hard to continue practicing these rituals when the river is so contaminated.”


Whether the day is 100 degrees or nine below zero, Terrie Brigham takes her fishing boat out every day before the crack of dawn. Her family, members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, owns Brigham Fish Market in Cascade Locks, a bucolic riverbank town of some 1,500 residents about an hour’s drive east of Portland. Her grandfather erected the family’s scaffolds in the 1950s.

On a cold June morning, Brigham watches proudly at the scaffolds as her 23-year-old nephew, Brigham Campbell, fights a large Chinook salmon thrashing about in his dip net. He secures the fish and holds it up with smile, and she lets out a loud whoop and captures the moment on her cellphone.

Fishing has been the family’s life and livelihood for generations, but it’s also a big part of her spiritual identity. Brigham speaks of her scaffold as if it were a temple, and her boat an altar.

“To me, the river is sacred. The water is sacred. The fish are sacred.”

Each year when Brigham catches the first fish of the season, she utters, “Thank you, Creator.” Then she puts a rope around its mouth so it can be used in the longhouse as part of the ceremony to welcome the fish back, known as the First Salmon Feast.

That first fish is always shared with others in the community, even if each person might get just a single bite.


Bill Yallup Jr. was 6 when Celilo Falls “drowned,” as he puts it.

Known as Wyam to Native people, the thundering cascade was a sacred place where for 15,000 years Indigenous tribes netted salmon as the fish jumped upstream. It was also their economic nerve center, with the salmon trading for all manner of goods from feathers to copper to wampum, beads crafted from shells.

Yallup’s family came to Celilo Falls from Toppenish, Washington, when he was an infant.

“My mom cooked with water from the river,” he says. “You could hear those falls for miles. It was sacred sound.”

The falls fell silent in 1957 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers erected The Dalles Dam, flooding the area and creating the Celilo Lake reservoir. His father brought him to Lyle, Washington, when he was 17. He learned to fish there.

As a young man, Yallup dreamed of a career in Hollywood as a writer and actor. He played a tribal elder in the show “Northern Exposure,” a 1990s CBS comedy-drama series about quirky residents of a fictional small town in Alaska that ran for five seasons.

But, the mighty river has an unfathomable pull, and it drew him back. It reminds him of who he really is, Yallup says: “I’m a fisherman.”

In his deep baritone, he enjoys telling stories of the river that have been handed down over generations.

A tale he has told hundreds of times narrates how Coyote, one of the most important characters in tribal mythology, brought the salmon back to the big river. The fish had left after a legendary battle between Mount Hood and Mount Adams, both portrayed as women in the story, caused the salmon to drain into the ocean. The fish told Coyote they would come back, but only if they were respected.

Young salmon, or smolts, swim down the Columbia to the ocean, where they grow for between one and five years. Then they migrate back upstream to spawn. Some are caught and become a source of sustenance for the people, and others die and become one with the environment. The cycle repeats over and over.

“The sacredness of this river,” Yallup says, “lies in the sacrifice the salmon make each time they fulfill their promise to come back.”


The Whitefoots are a large family spread across the West Coast. The best-known member of the clan, Patricia “Patsy” Whitefoot, is an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women. A member of the Yakama Nation, she often travels along the river meeting family members and attending traditional tribal gatherings.

Her activism is as much a part of her Native identity as her religious practice is.

“If you are Indian, you’ll be political all your life,” she says.

On a recent afternoon, she visits cousins Debra and Sandy Whitefoot, who live near the Bonneville Dam in an “in-lieu fishing site,” lands set aside by Congress to compensate tribes whose villages were inundated by dams.

Many families here live in trailers without restrooms, lights or drains, and Debra, as executive director of the nonprofit Nch’i-Wána Housing, works to provide homes for Native people living along the river.

“My mom saw the world go by at Celilo,” she says, wiping away tears. “We have lost so much. We’re experiencing intergenerational trauma. My hope is I can make a village or a few villages for my people so we can heal and move forward.”

Sandy is smoking freshly caught salmon. She arranges the cleaned and cut-up pieces in trays and places them in a wooden smoking shed by the river. She has a job in a sandwich shop, but this, Sandy says, is “what I do.”

The first fish she ever caught was a steelhead off her father’s scaffold.

“It was one of the most exciting moments in my life,” she says.

Debra’s son, Aaron Paul, and his partner, Betty Jean Sutterlict, live by the river as well. When their son, Bennie, finished high school last year, he had his graduation photo taken on the scaffold wearing a vest embroidered with an eagle carrying a salmon. He now attends Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana, and hopes to major in fisheries and wildlife.

Debra is proud of young people like her grandson, who grew up by the river doing homework under a streetlight, and are now going to college to learn about protecting their natural resources.

“They give me hope.”


It was worries over the spring salmon’s disappearance from the river that inspired Elaine Harvey to get her bachelor’s degree in aquatic and fishery science. She is also concerned for species like the Pacific lamprey, which has “been around since the dinosaurs” but today faces possible extinction.

Now a fish biologist for Yakama Fisheries, Harvey says what keeps her up at night is what she calls a “race to harness green energy” that has brought multinational corporations to the Columbia.

“Wind turbines and solar farms are impacting our archeological sites, cultural resource sites, wildlife and fish,” she says, pointing to a sacred mountain near the John Day Dam that the Native people call Push-pum. “Our root fields are on that mountain. We could lose access to our food.”

The tribes are also focused on preserving areas in tributaries such as the Klickitat and White Salmon, two glacial rivers that provide cold water for migrating salmon.

Harvey hopes to impart this knowledge and sense of stewardship to her children and grandchildren.

“We travel with kids to fishing stations, hunting grounds and root fields,” she says. “We give them the experience of camping on our lands.”

She connects to the land by sleeping on the ground and cooking on an open fire, just as her ancestors did when they were traveling these lands on horseback and by foot.

Harvey says she will never leave the river because that’s what she was taught by her elders.

“We have a real, deep connection to all these places. Our blood line is here.”


Harvey’s cousin, Bronsco Jim Jr., was appointed mid-Columbia River chief when he was 21 and in that capacity performs longhouse services, first food ceremonies and funerals. He knows many sacred songs, one of which talks about the birth of the first salmon at a spot in the Columbia River.

“God’s authoritative word comes down upon (the salmon’s) body,” Jim says. “He jumps out of the water in a circular movement, and in that one revolution, he was given life.”

Sunlight streams into the longhouse during a recent ceremonial meal with elders at historic Celilo Village. Supported by tall wooden beams, the building has at its center the altar, a rectangle of earth that Jim cleanses with water before the service begins.

Jim is wearing shell earrings and a beaded necklace with the pendant of a horse’s silhouette honoring his ancestors who rode them. His soft, measured speaking voice rises into song, echoing throughout the room. It has no words but is a deep, visceral, prayerful sound capable of evoking goosebumps or tears.

Tribal members seated around a table bearing the first foods — in order, salmon, roots, berries — join in softly, waving their right hands away from their bodies and then inward toward their chests. The gesture harnesses the light and energy around them and delivers it to their hearts, Jim explains. Tribal beliefs forbid capturing these solemn services in video or photographs because that would freeze the prayers in time and prevent their transmission to the Creator.

In Native families that inhabit the Columbia Basin, education about first foods begins at home and continues in these longhouses, accompanied by teaching and ceremony. Deeply held beliefs also dictate the rules of food gathering.

“You can’t just casually go out to gather food,” Jim says.

The ceremony for each of the foods is performed at a different time of year depending on when they become available. The salmon are the first to appear in the spring. The roots are ready to be dug in the summer and different berries are picked in the summer and the fall.

Community members are required to wait for that first feast to honor each food before they head out to harvest it. In the longhouse and out in the mountains, the food-gathering is accompanied by song.

“These songs and ceremonies are part of everything we do,” Jim says. “We need the river and these foods in our lives.”

Losing these irreplaceable foods and their sources could cost them their spiritual identity, he says.

“They feed our body and soul.”

—Deepa Bharath, The Associated Press

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