Indian Salmon Harvest

1930s painting of Indians fishing at Celilo Falls, as they had for thousands of years prior to white settlement of the Oregon Country.

1930s painting of Indians fishing at Celilo Falls, as they had for thousands of years prior to white settlement of the Oregon Country.

In recent years, conservationists have lined up against a proposed Indian Casino in the Columbia Gorge, and with good reason. While the project would certainly benefit the people of the Warm Springs tribe, it would also have unacceptable environmental effects on the Gorge (A better solution is to simply locate the casino in Portland, which is the obvious force driving the Cascade Locks location – separate article to follow).

But if you are a like-minded conservationist, you have an alternative for supporting the Native American economy that doesn’t involve slot machines. Simply pack a large cooler on your next visit to the Gorge, and stop by one of several roadside salmon markets, where Indians from the Gorge tribes sell fresh, “over the bank” chinook, coho, steelhead, sockeye, walleye and shad.

1930s rendering of Indian fisherman working the narrows below Celilo Falls

1930s rendering of Indian fisherman working the narrows below Celilo Falls

A surprisingly small number of urbanites who visit the Gorge support these fishermen, possibly because they don’t understand the fishery. But if you have never had fresh salmon, you will be pleasantly surprised at the difference in flavor between the tribal fisheries and the fish-farm salmon that your local supermarket is likely selling as “fresh” (dyed pink to disguise its origin, since fish farms produce a gray meat in salmon).

The tribes also sell the finest smoked salmon available, anywhere — after all, they have had thousands of years to perfect the smoking process, and smoked salmon can be eaten plain, as a snack or with hors d’oeuvres, or used in salads, pasta, casseroles or other cooked dishes. Fresh and smoked salmon freezes well, so buying during the fall harvest, in particular, can provide for a full winter of salmon in your diet. This is an excellent option when fish isn’t available at the roadside markets, and helps the tribes sustain their economy over the winter months, as well.

The Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama tribes have had permanent rights to harvest salmon from the Columbia River under a series of 1854-55 treaties with the United States Government. While these treaties have been subject to much litigation — and questionable “compensation” agreements allowed for destruction of Celilo Falls in the 1950s — the tribes manage the fisheries today in cooperation with the state governments of Oregon and Washington through the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fisheries Commission. The focus of the Fisheries Commission is on habitat recovery and sustainable fishing practices, and ensuring that this ancient tradition isn’t lost.

Indians fishing Celilo Falls with dip nets in the early 1900s, prior to construction of dams at Bonneville and The Dalles.

Indians fishing Celilo Falls with dip nets in the early 1900s, prior to construction of dams at Bonneville and The Dalles.

On a recent stop at the Cascade Locks market, beneath Bridge of the Gods, a young Indian in his teens asked me “if I knew any stories about Lewis & Clark”. I looked down at my faded t-shirt, commemorating the Lewis & Clark expedition, realizing why he had asked the question.

I responded with a few anecdotes from the expedition — how the Indians at Celilo had introduced the explorers to salmon, and in doing so, probably saved their lives. I also mentioned that the early white explorers unknowingly brought diseases with them that erased much of the native population, even before the huge waves of white settlers followed in the 1840s. To his apparent surprise, I also talked about the Corps of Discovery being the first true democracy in the United States, with an Indian woman (Sacajawea) and a black man (York) given equal voice at major turning points in the mission.

Upon that, he reached out, shook my hand, and said “thanks, man. I love to hear those stories.” But we both knew he was really testing my knowledge – and my respect for his native culture – to see if I was just another ignorant tourist in a Lewis & Clark t-shirt. I walked away with a bag of smoked salmon fillets and thinking what a complicated world it still is for young Native Americans.

You can learn more about the Indian Fishing Harvest at this official website, including the history of Indian fishing in the Columbia, where to find roadside stands, and how to buy fish from roadside vendors. Often, there are several vendors at a site, so if you plan to buy a few packages of fish, make your way from stand to stand, so that you support each of the vendors.

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