Freshwater, Fish and the Future: Proceedings of the Global Cross-Sectoral Conference

Using Tribal Fishing Rights as Leverage to Restore Salmon Populations in the Columbia River Basin

Paul Lumley, Jeremy FiveCrows, Laura Gephart, James Heffernan, and Laurie Jordan

doi: https://doi.org/10.47886/9789251092637.ch4

The Columbia basin is on the West Coast of North America, draining into the Pacific Ocean. Approximately 85% of the basin lies within the United States, primarily in the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana, with the remainder in British Columbia, Canada. The river system is comprised of two major rivers: the Columbia and Snake. Columbia Lake and the adjoining Columbia Wetlands form the headwaters of the Columbia River in British Columbia. The headwaters of the Snake River are in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

The Columbia River system is the lifeblood of all the tribes and First Nations found along its entire length. Since time immemorial, the water, salmon, game, roots, and berries of our homeland—the sacred first foods—have sustained our health, spirit, and cultures. So fundamental was this connection that when the Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce tribes entered into treaties with the United States in 1855, they specifically included language to ensure that they could continue to fish, hunt, and gather their first foods. (See the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission’s Web site, www.critfc.org, for the full text of each member tribe’s 1855 treaty.) They understood that the connection of their people to these resources must be maintained if there was any hope in preserving their unique cultures and values. When they entered into these treaties, their primary concern was access to these plentiful natural resources. At the time of treaty signing, returning salmon populations were, on average, an estimated 17 million annually (NWPPC 1986), with returns in some years estimated to be as high as 34 million fish. They had no way of knowing that in less than 150 years, salmon would be facing the threat of extinction.

In their treaties, these four tribes ceded a collective 66,591 mi2 (172,470 km2) of their lands to the United States, agreeing to live on reservations. The current tribal reservation lands make up a small percentage of the tribes’ traditional homelands (Figure 1). However, they all retained limited rights to these ceded lands, including reserving the right to fish, hunt, and gather at all their historical usual and accustomed areas.