Salmon and Orcas Are Being Managed Toward Extinction—and So Is the Lummi Nation

On Earth Day, an Indigenous demand for tearing down the Snake River dams

By W’tot lhem (Jay Julius)

April 22, 2023

Chinook Salmon jumping at dam.

Chinook salmon jumping at dam. | Evan Linnell/iStock

I am here on Swa’lax (Orcas Island) with other members of our Indigenous-led nonprofit Se’Si’Le (“Our Grandmother”) to work on our book, Right and Respectful Relations. It is good we are here, where the Lummi people (or Lhaq'temish, as we call ourselves) lived for countless generations back to the ancestral before-time of Xales (“the Transformer”) and where our Ancient Ones live on in sacred songs, oral histories, and in the spirit of place. Like other members of the Lummi Nation, I am often out on these waters in the company of our ancestors and with our elders such as scha’enexw (“the salmon”), qwe’lhol mechen (“the killer whales”), and all our other relations in Xw’ullemy (the Salish Sea).

We call these other forms of life our elders because they are the ones who came first. We humans were the young and weak ones who could not survive without their generosity, their pity and compassion, and their spiritual strength. I sometimes wonder what qwe’lhol mechen would say if they could speak about their two-legged relatives on the land. I believe they would ask us if we know we are destroying their home and their way of life, and also starving their families and driving them to extinction. I believe they would ask why we have forgotten an inviolable and sacred obligation we made to them long ago.

The same is true for the scha’enexw who have been in these waters for thousands of years and once were so many in the streams it is said you could walk on their backs. Scha’enexw would remind us of our covenant, our promise to Salmon Woman. When we were starving, she came and said to our people: “I am Salmon Woman. I have many children. My children play in the oceans all around you. They follow me wherever I go and lead them. My children are beautiful, healthy, and their color glows like the sparkle of the sun off the water’s surface.” Every year, our First Salmon Ceremony reminds the people to always respect Salmon Woman and her children. But the salmon people are disappearing. Today, they are down almost 99 percent from what their numbers were in the Salish Sea just a hundred years ago. They, too, would ask if we have forgotten or forsaken our covenant with Salmon Woman.

We have not forgotten or forsaken this sacred obligation, this covenant. Like our Xw’ullemy relatives, we the Lhaq'temish are also living through a catastrophic disruption that arrived just six generations ago to our lands and waters that is driving our Xw’ullemy to a catastrophic ecological collapse. The salmon are disappearing from their ancestral waters. And this is happening everywhere, from the Yukon River in Alaska, to the Fraser River in British Columbia, to the Columbia River, down the West Coast to the Sacramento River, and across the Bering Sea to the Russian Far East. We need to ask the question: According to what higher moral authority are these extinctions allowed?  What is the price to be paid by the Salmon Nations, whose lifeway, cultural identity, and spirituality relies on our salmon relatives? 

Scientists will give us their theories on the precipitous decline of the salmon population. Politicians will talk until our hearts break about stakeholders, economic trade-offs, and constituents. State and federal agencies will tell us how they are doing their best to manage the salmon. But, at least in our view, what’s happening is that the Lummi Nation is being managed to extinction—just like the salmon and the Southern Resident killer whales. If that sounds harsh, it is. Because the hard reality is that ecocide leads to genocide. Our salmon and orca relatives are being dishonored, along with the rights and promises made by the settler government to the Salmon Nations of the Xw’ullemy just six generations ago. The First Peoples of the Xw’ullemy are awake to this reality.

This betrayal of trust and broken promises is occurring now on the Lower Snake River. The urgent ecological, cultural and spiritual crisis on the Lower Snake River led Se’Si’Le in May of 2022 to request a letter from the Washington Catholic Conference. To their credit, the state’s Catholic leadership responded with a statement titled, “Caring for Creation and the Common Good in the Lower Snake River Region,” which was signed by five Catholic bishops. It was read at a public event by Archbishop Etienne during our International Indigenous Salmon Seas Summit. The letter, cites Pope Francis in his Laudato Si where he states: “It is essential to show special care for Indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners.” The bishops’ letter draws on Pope Francis’s statement and places it in the context of the Lower Snake River dams: “We urge federal and state policy makers to develop and implement a holistic plan for the Lower Snake River region that seeks input from the Original Peoples of Washington State as principal dialogue partners.” (Italics added)

These are good and necessary words but are not sufficient in themselves to prevent the great dying of the salmon or the end of the Southern Resident killer whales. We appeal, once again, to state and federal politicians to honor the spirit and intent of the treaties by breaching the Lower Snake River dams. We call on those officials to stand on the right side of history and on the moral high ground. They know and understand this is a matter of the survival of our lifeway and the spirit of our people. But, as in Matthew 13 in the Parable of the Sower, we find in them “hearts that are waxed gross, ears are dull of hearing, and eyes they have closed.” We have been, and are being, betrayed by descendants of those who made promises to our people in the name of every American.

I will close with the words and feelings of a Lummi elder that speaks to the deeper meaning of our spiritual struggle for our relatives, and to the sacred obligation of honoring the Creator by stewarding in right and respectful relations the Creation:

The Salmon People aren’t hardly here no more. We need to talk to them. We need you, Salmon People, the life-givers. You gave up your lives so we can live. It is important for our people, about who we really are. We sit in the lap of Mother Earth learning all there is to learn … not all at once, but built up over a lifetime, every day. We need to keep learning. To never quit learning.