Columbia River salmon is the core of ancient religion

ALONG THE COLUMBIA RIVER (AP) — James Kiona stands on a rocky ledge overlooking Lyle Falls where water foams and rushes through steep canyon walls just before it merges with the Columbia River. Her silver ponytail flutters in the wind and a chain of eagle claws adorns her neck.

For decades, Kiona fished for chinook salmon from her family’s scaffolding at the edge of the falls, using a dip net suspended from a 33-foot pole.

“Fishing is an art and a spiritual practice,” says Kiona, an elder of the Yakama Nation. “You’re fighting the fish. The fish fight you, make holes in the net, pull you off the scaffolding.

He finds strength, holiness, even salvation in this struggle. The river saved Kiona when he returned from Vietnam with post-war trauma, giving him therapy that no hospital could.

When he lies down on the rocks by the rushing river and closes his eyes, he hears the songs and voices of his ancestors. Water, he says, holds the history of the earth and its people.

“It heals you.”


From its source in British Columbia, where the Rocky Mountains crest, the Columbia River flows south into Washington state, then west and into the Pacific Ocean at its mouth near Astoria, Oregon. . Just below the confluence with the Snake River, the largest tributary of the Columbia, the river cuts through the Cascade Mountain Range and carves out the Columbia River Gorge.

It is a spectacular canyon 80 miles long and up to 4,000 feet deep, with cliffs, ridges, streams and waterfalls. For thousands of years, the indigenous tribes of this region have relied on Nch’i-Wána, or “the great river,” for its salmon and rainbow trout, and its surroundings for the fields that bear roots, edibles, medicinal herbs, and berry bushes. as well as deer and elk whose meat and hides are used for food and rituals.

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Yet the river is threatened by climate change, hydroelectric dams and industrial pollution. Warming waters associated with climate change endanger salmon, which need cooler temperatures to survive. Hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and its tributaries have reduced the flow of the river, further jeopardizing the migration of Pacific salmon upstream to their freshwater spawning grounds and threatening the centuries-old spiritual traditions that bind these indigenous communities together.


“We’re the salmon people or the river people,” said 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 Neus. Perce — in policy, advocacy and basin management. “Without water there are no fish, plants or grass.”

Each year, tribes honor salmon, carrots, berries, deer and elk – which they believe were originally placed on the land for food – with what are called “first food ceremonies”. In their creation story, salmon, deer, elk, roots, and berries offered to provide food for humans, and humans in turn received the responsibility from the Creator to care for these resources.

The ancients tell how streams flow from the mountains that were sanctified by the prayers of the ancestors who went there to communicate with the spirits. These streams then flow and merge with the Columbia. If Nch’i-Wána is the main artery of the earth, these currents are like the veins that feed it. So even the smallest stream is vital and sacred.

During communal meals, the tribesmen usually start and end with water – “You take a glass of water to clean yourself before you eat and you finish the meal with water to show respect for what you ate,” explains DeCouteau.

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The tribes also use river water and rocks for rituals such as sweat lodge smearing ceremonies, held in low domed structures where river rocks are heated with medicinal plants.

“After sweating and praying, there’s also the practice of jumping into the river to cleanse yourself,” says DeCouteau. “It’s hard to keep practicing these rituals when the river is so polluted.”


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

Known as Wyam by Native Americans, the thundering falls were a sacred place where, for 15,000 years, native tribes fished for salmon as fish jumped upstream. It was also their economic nerve center, trading salmon for all sorts of goods, from feathers to copper to wampum, beads made from shells.

The falls were silenced in 1957 when the US Army Corps of Engineers built The Dalles Dam, flooding the area and creating the Celilo Lake Reservoir.

Young salmon, or smolt, travel down the Columbia River to the ocean, where they grow for one to five years. Then they migrate upstream to spawn. Some are caught and become a source of food for humans, and others die and become one with the environment. The cycle repeats itself again and again.

“The sanctity of this river,” says Yallup, “lies in the sacrifice the salmon make each time they keep their promise to return.


It was concern over the disappearance of spring salmon from the river that inspired Elaine Harvey to earn her bachelor’s degree in aquatic and fisheries science. She is also concerned about species such as the Pacific lamprey, which “have been around since the dinosaurs” but are now threatened with extinction.

Now a vibiologist for Yakama Fisheries, Harvey says what keeps him awake is the “race for green energy” that has brought multinational corporations to the Columbia River.

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“Wind turbines and solar parks affect our archaeological sites, our cultural resource sites, our wildlife and our fish,” she says, pointing to a sacred mountain near John Day Dam that Native people call Push-pum. “Our root lands are on this mountain. We may lose access to our food.

Harvey says she will never leave the river because that is what her elders taught her.

“We have a real and deep connection with all these places. Our bloodline is here.


Harvey’s cousin, Bronsco Jim Jr., was appointed chief of the Columbia River at the age of 21 and in this capacity performed services in the longhouse, first food ceremonies and funerals.

Sunlight streams into the longhouse during a recent ceremonial meal with the elders of the historic village of Celilo. Jim wears shell earrings and a pearl necklace with the pendant depicting the silhouette of a horse in honor of his ancestors who rode them.

In Native families inhabiting the Columbia Basin, education about first foods begins at home and continues in these longhouses, accompanied by teachings and ceremonies. Deeply felt beliefs also dictate the rules for the search.

The members of the community must wait for this first festival to honor each food before leaving to harvest it. In the longhouse and in the mountains, the gathering of food is accompanied by singing.

“These songs and ceremonies are part of everything we do,” says Jim, adding that losing them could cost his people their spiritual identity.

“They feed our body and our soul.”

Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Deepa Bharat, Associated Press



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