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
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.
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
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.