Growing up, summertime in Oregon was marked by my community and I eating salmon in every dish you could possibly think of. My family’s favorite recipe was a long piece of pink fish laid over a grill with butter and dill dripping down the sides, lemon slices and garlic cloves added for the last 5 minutes. The way salmon bought fresh that morning flakes off the bone is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. But salmon weren’t just important to the Pacific Northwest because they were plentiful and delectable. They have a rich cultural tradition in Oregon, particularly for the Native American Tribes that reside in the region.
The Columbia River Basin Tribes hold salmon sacred as part of their spiritual and cultural identity. They had a flourishing trade economy based on salmon, and many tribal members still prefer their livelihood to be fishing. They consider salmon an indicator species; as fish populations decline, they know that the elk, deer, roots, berries and medicines that sustain them may be in danger. They perform the First-Salmon Ceremony each year as the previous years babies returns to lay their own eggs at the exact same spot they was hatched.
“The importance of the first salmon ceremony has to do with the celebration of life, of the salmon as subsistence, meaning that the Indians depend upon the salmon for their living. And the annual celebration is just that - it's an appreciation that the salmon are coming back. It is again the natural law; the cycle of life. It's the way things are and if there was no water, there would be no salmon, there would be no cycle, no food. And the Indian people respect it accordingly.”
—Antone Minthorn, Umatilla
The cyclical nature of Salmon’s lives is truly amazing. Scientists don’t fully understand how salmon are able to navigate up hundreds of miles of streams to the exact same place they originally spawned. This cycle reflects itself in the seasons, and nature’s other creatures that rely on the salmon for meals. Bear cubs and recently over-wintered mothers rely on them for springtime food. Every year, sea lions and seals discover they can get unlimited snacks by sitting at the base of the Columbia River Dam.
In college, I began studying the ways that salmon complicate the “dam debate” between different groups of Environmentalists. Dams present an almost impossible challenge for Salmon as they swim upstream to spawn. “Salmon Ladders” are a common sight, little steps of water pools up the side of a dam. As you can imagine, however, many salmon are unable to find the ladder and populations dropped dramatically since dams have been added for hydroelectricity on many waterways. This forces companies to get creative with work-arounds. One of my favorite salmon anecdotes: one dam decided to hire a driver whose sole purpose to to take truckloads of water and salmon from the bottom of the dam to the top of the dam. Maybe Northwest States are just beginning to address the issue by taking down old dams.
- Lena Wright is Lettuce's Chief of Staff and resident ex-Oregonian.
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