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  March/April 2000 Features:
Salmon's Second Coming
One Man's Wilderness
High Noon in Cattle Country
Inside Sierra
Ways & Means
Lay of the Land
Food for Thought
Bulletin: News for Members
Last Words

Sierra Magazine
Second Coming

Another little-discussed factor in this debate: flagrant racism. Four dams created by cold war paranoia and sustained by a subsidy-addicted few are wiping out the sacramental fish, sustainable economy, and ancient religion of the region's Native American culture for the sake of no industrial good, service, or commodity that can't immediately be replaced by profitable, sustainable equivalents. To add insult to injury, the tribes are so hated in industrial circles for standing faithfully by salmon that they are being publicly accused, by the PR flacks of slackwater industry, of bringing about the salmon's demise by simply exercising their treaty-guaranteed right to fish.

Northwest Indians catch and eat salmon for two reasons. One is the reason cattleman eat cattle: It's who they are, what they do, and what they have. The other is the reason Catholics eat bread and wine at Mass: The grateful catching and eating of salmon was a sacrament for Northwest Indians centuries before the birth of Christ. Thus salmon-killing industrialists are simultaneously destroying the tribes' Columbia and Snake River places of worship and vilifying the tribes for still worshipping.

Under the Marsh decision the Umatilla, Warm Springs, Yakama, and Nez Perc people are full participants in the effort to save endangered salmon. But NMFS and the Clinton administration have given their calm, reverent voices no more weight in management decisions than the voices of blacks were given in the courts of Alabama in the 1950s. And for the same reason: The four dams on the Snake are like four Whites Only drinking fountains. The Snake's life-giving flow is being denied to Indians and salmon fishers and converted into profits reserved for Anglo industrialists. If this isn't federally defended Columbia/Snake River racism, I don't know what is.

It's time we listened to the tribes. But if we don't, if reverence toward rivers and salmon is too "primitive" for our leaders, we will pay dearly. In 1855, the United States signed a treaty, a powerful legal document granting sovereign rights and privileges to Indian peoples for all time, among which are hunting and fishing privileges in "usual and accustomed places" throughout the Northwest. These rights are not, as some believe, a form of welfare. They are legal obligations to the tribes granted by an inadequately shamed U.S. government as Indian lands, languages, and lifeways were being ripped apart.

This is why, when I hear posturing corporate flacks blaming salmon decline on Indian fishing, I open Dante to enjoy his descriptions of the particularly heinous circle of hell reserved for malicious slanderers. The tribes were given hunting and fishing "privileges" over the dead bodies of men, women, and children and against their best judgment and will. When Kamiakan, chief of the Yakama, signed the 1855 treaty, he was so certain that its promises could be twisted into meaninglessness by whites that his lips dripped blood from biting them in an effort to contain his helpless rage.

Kamiakan's fears were prophetic. For a century and a half 1855 treaty rights have been dishonored and negated. Many "usual and accustomed places" are buried under slackwater. Others are on private land, with legal access illegally denied. When it isn't denied, there's often nothing to fish for. A court in Idaho recently declared that though the Nez Percť have a right to fish in usual and accustomed rivers, they have no right to ask white irrigators to leave water in these rivers. And now the Clinton administration may eliminate the last Columbia/Snake tribal fishery in order to keep the dams.

The tribes have been magnificently patient. They want the return of the salmon, not court battles. But when intelligent recovery strategies are insulted and ignored and treaty rights violated over and over, litigation becomes the only choice. If NMFS continues to allow a coterie of subsidy beneficiaries to drive the tribe's treaty-guaranteed salmon into extinction, the United States will be justifiably sued and the settlement will be huge: $10 billion, even according to NMFS, and possibly much more. The dwindling fish counts at Snake River dams should be posted daily—in the nation's financial pages.

In 1999 the salmon's countless defenders were powerfully joined by the Northwest bishops of the Catholic Church, who in a formal document define the Columbia and Snake rivers as a "sacred commons" created by God to be shared and lovingly cared for by all.

The bishops argue against "arbitrary policies and practices based primarily on the greed and politics of power," and call for holistic, watershed-wide solutions that take into account "the needs of native peoples of the watershed, the economic benefits of jobs and property taxes for communities provided by all commercial fishers, [and] respect for salmon and trout who are God's creatures and share the commons with us." The bishops share a crucial principle with the tribes: It is not possible for individuals or governments to comprehend, effectively analyze, or defend a living holiness from a purely quantitative point of view.

An analysis that places the loss of a fundamental biological component from a 260,000-square-mile watershed or the tribes' loss of a ten-millennium spiritual tradition on a par with the profits of wheat transporters and soda-can manufacturers is no analysis at all. Wild salmon are not "economic units." They are transrational beings whose living bodies bring far-reaching, nonquantifiable blessings to a watershed. Their self-sacrifice in migration is a literal and symbolic magnificence. Their existence puts us in touch with ultimate questions, their annihilation with ultimate consequences. As the tribes and bishops declare: Salmon are, first and foremost, a spiritual gift, so their vanishing is spiritual loss.

The very first page of the Bible celebrates the sublime creativity that has given us an inhabitable planet, our bodies, and salmon with these words: "And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas."

The preservation of salmon is not just U.S. law: For believers, at least, it's a biblical mandate. The extirpation of creatures whom God creates, blesses, and orders to fill the seas is a repudiation of scripture and the spiritual impoverishment of a people. The bounty of Creation is daily evidence of a living, giving Creator, and in the Northwest there is no more moving evidence of such giving than a thriving run of salmon. Speaking from lifelong experience, the sight of these massive, mountain-born, faithfully returning ocean travelers in a clear flow before me, hundreds of miles inland, thousands of feet above the sea, feels like some impossibly literal answer to unspoken prayer. Words aren't needed in the presence of such an answer. There it swims in the water before me, Genesis' blessing: the moving creature that hath life.

What we are stealing from all future generations, via the glib operation of four unneeded dams, is this literal kind of answer to prayer.What we are removing from every child's intuitive reach is the awe, faith, and gratitude that such gifts inspire. What we are squabbling over, as if it were a two-party political trade bauble, is a holiness promised to all people by Moses' beloved God.

Removal of these dams is inevitable—sooner if we heed the tribes, bishops, and Bible; later if we heed slackwater rhetoricians and NMFS. Let's envision this process that so horrifies the Northwest's far right: Once federal approval is given, removing the earthen portion of these dams will be a piece of cake. It will not touch 95 percent of the region's power. It will cost us no irrigation, no flood control, no industry, will not harm a single cattle rancher or potato grower. It will protect Lewiston, Idaho, from its own worst minds and the rest of America from Lewiston, turning this myopic Portland-wannabe into the revamped, world-class outdoor- recreation and sportfishing destination it could have been all along. It will create thousands of jobs and a half-billion-dollar-a-year sustainable fishing industry.

It will attract tourists, fly-rodders, kayakers, birders, botanists, Lewis and Clark buffs, and rubberneckers from all over the globe to ogle the dam remnants, study the returning plants, birds, and wildlife, ride the 70 new whitewater rapids, hunt the newly revealed side canyons, fish the hundreds of new steelhead riffles, and watch the spawning fall chinook. It will bring, in the form of an abundance of salmon, a flood of health, income, and energy to hundreds of inland biological and human communities and a source of hope, happiness, and gratitude to every riverine creature from insects to kids to angels.

Poet Jane Hirshfield writes: "As water, given sugar, sweetens/given salt, grows salty/we become our choices." The Columbia/Snake, given current, creates wild salmon; given Snake River dams, creates electricity, extinction, and heartbreak.

We become our choices. I pray there are leaders in Washington, D.C., who will weigh this choice carefully: 95 percent of our electricity intact, and all of the interior West's wild salmon thriving, and our rivers again burgeoning with their living symbol of generational sacrifice. According to Genesis, God blessed the chinook, coho, steelhead, and sockeye the waters brought forth, pronounced them good, and as they took their part in the panoply of creation he upgraded that to "very good." To restore to our fellow blessed and very good creature its indispensable path to and from mountain birth-houses, we have four dams to unbuild in a hurry.

DAVID JAMES DUNCAN is the author of The Brothers K and The River Why. His last article for Sierra, "The War for Norman's River," appeared in May/June 1998.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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