top of page

After 70 years, the salmon are back!

This sign hangs outside a group of buildings 3 miles south of Umatilla. A high fence surrounds the buildings, with signs warning this is Tribal property and trespassers will be prosecuted. When I pulled up onto the dry, hot asphalt that I thought might melt the soles of my sandals, two police cars were parked alongside each other, the men inside chatting and laughing through open windows. I opened the unlocked gate and walked in like I owned the place. This policy has gotten me into the most surprising places in the past, and it worked again.

Northwest Umatilla-20150721-00510

I wandered around the Three Mile Falls Dam salmon facility, took these photos, and finally ran into a human who said he worked for the Oregon State Fisheries department, and who was I again? I dropped a few names of people I’d interviewed on the Rez, but he said, he didn’t know the people in the Tribe. “They just rent us space here.” But he was kind enough to take 20 minutes and walk me through the facility, which includes sorting pools, video cameras that count the salmon as they come up the river and enter the ladders, sluices, and hatchery areas. When I asked him what their biggest challenge was, he said, “Water. The agricultural needs in this area are huge, but somehow, the Tribe got an agreement so more water would flow through the Umatilla, and after 70 years, the salmon are back! Not only that, but we had record runs of Steelhead and Spring Chinook.” And that’s where the sign comes in.

As quoted in my pap

er (see previous post): The CTUIR views land as something that cares for them, and they care for the land. The right to fish is a right guaranteed by the 1855 Treaty. So tribal leaders and members agreed that fisheries policy should be a high priority. In 1980 they initiated the Umatilla Basin Salmon Recovery Project to restore water and salmon to the Umatilla River. The challenge was to achieve this while also protecting the local non-Indian economy, which is dependent on irrigated agriculture. The core of this ecosystem-based restoration plan is an innovative water-swapping agreement in which local irrigators agreed to relinquish their claims to water from the Umatilla and instead receive water piped from the Columbia River in order to raise the Umatilla’s flow to a level sufficient to bring salmon bac

k. (Record, 2008)

The fisheries policy exemplifies the Tribes’ approach of “cooperation over confrontation.” Antone Minthorn, Chairman of CTUIR’s Board of Trustees, or leader of the Tribes, said, “If we have to, we will litigate to protect our treaty-reserved rights, but we have seen that we can create solutions which meet everyone’s needs by sitting down with our neighbors, listening to each other, and developing our own solutions. … We believe the cooperative process between neighbors can be used as a model for success in the region and beyond” (Record, 2008).

The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development listed the CTUIR as an Honoring Nation award winner for its Umatilla River Basin project (2014). The Harvard Project recognizes conditions when American Indian nations use applied research and service to achieve sustained, self-determined social and economic development. It recognizes outstanding examples of Tribal governance through the annual Honoring Nations Awards. When the CTUIR won this award in 2002 for its Salmon Recovery Project, it was just the first of several such awards.

Non-academic me here again: I’ll be interviewing Antone Minthorn about this and I’m very excited to hear his vision for the Tribes’ governance style.

In the meantime, I’ve spent the last two days listening to their Youth Council, and to young adults helping mentor youth, and to elderly people. One of the things I learned was a Creation story that includes gifts animals gave when the first Human was being made. I won’t tell you the whole story, but the Salmon chose to give two gifts. And they were good gifts. The first one was its life, so humans could feed off salmon and live. The second gift was the Salmon’s Voice. But humans had to promise to speak on behalf of the Salmon and preserve it and the land and water in return.

In the Tamastslikt Cultural Center, there are many exhibits about the past, present, and future of the Tribes. One of them says that once the salmon returned to the Umatilla River, as the salmon thrived, so did the People. I’m wondering if Voice had something to do with it.

7 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page