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Living Water: Salmon’s Presence

by Tina Wynecoop

We walk side by side with our history. We would have had to be centenarians to have witnessed the extraordinary salmon runs in the Little Spokane River. Spokane Riverkeeper, Jerry White, Jr.’s description of the fish is perfect: “Chinook salmon with tails the size of tennis rackets and weighing up to 100 pounds returned every spring, [summer and fall].” The male Chinook salmon (King) in the photograph left the Pacific Ocean, traveled up the Columbia River, swam eastward into the Spokane River, and bumped into a concrete obstacle where it could migrate no further. Little Falls Dam (1911) blocked its passage. “It was caught immediately below the dam, during the summer of 1938, the year before the Grand Coulee Dam blocked salmon migration into all the Upper Columbia Basin. The fish looks like a male because it appears to be starting to develop a spawning kype (hooked upper snout) and is starting to develop spawning colors.” (Allan Scholz – personal communication). This behemoth salmon’s destination was to one of the tributaries of the Spokane River.

Perhaps the Little Spokane River was calling him home.

A “Calling Home the Salmon” ceremony is conducted every June at traditional fishery sites along the Columbia River. Native peoples gather and pray, and, by tapping cobblestones together, imitate the sound the river’s water once made as it streamed over gravel spawning beds. Indians gather to pray on the banks of the river and remember what once was letting the salmon know they have not been forgotten, and telling the salmon that great efforts are being made to enable their return – efforts to restore and maintain the health and diversity of native fish in the Columbia basin. It is a poignant ceremony because salmon still gather at the foot of dams – instinctively driven to return home yet unable to hurdle the great walls imposed across their watery highways.

In many places in the vast Columbia River watershed (the Little Spokane River is one of the great river’s many tributaries) it has been noted that the salmon swam upstream so thick during spring, summer and fall runs, that one could “walk across their backs to the opposite bank.” This is a common refrain repeated over and over again: The Lewis and Clark expedition of discovery first encountered the Columbia River in 1805. Their journal records that “nearby streams were so thick with salmon that you could all but walk across on their backs.”

Bernard DeVoto, who edited the L&C journals, wrote, “Everywhere the Corp of Discovery saw evidence of how the Indian’s salmon economy was organized: weirs, spears, nets, caches of dried fish.” He added, their notation for October 14, 1805 states with relief: “Everybody [in our group] was heartily bored by living on fish and for the first time in three weeks [we] had a good dinner of Blue wing Teel.”

A Colville tribal member remembered her elders saying “they were so thick you could walk across the river on their backs.”

Celebrated author Sherman Alexie (Spokan/Coeur d’Alene) wrote: “My grandmother said the salmon once swam so thick in the Spokane River that she could walk across the water on their backs.”

Salmon, in their former abundance, were the major food source for the Indians who found them palatable and nourishing. Preparations for catching, preserving, and storage were precise. Even the salmon’s skin provided needed nutrients. I have found photographs of moccasins made entirely of salmon skin.

The 35 mile-long Little Spokane River and its watershed encompassing 710 square miles drains the northeastern portion of the 2,400 square miles of the Spokane River sub-basin. Both the Big and Little Spokane Rivers and their tributaries are part of the vast Columbia River Basin. The “magnitude of the former fish runs in the Columbia River’s watershed were estimated to be as high as 35 million fish.” Annually.

Included in EWU biology professor Allan Scholz’s forthcoming book (spring 2018) are quotes of numerous historical accounts and interviews: In the late 1800’s Little Spokane landowner Ben Norman purchased his property, located at the confluence of the Little Spokane River with the Spokane River, from the Northern Pacific Railway. The railroad company was selling off extraneous parcels of land “gifted” to them by the federal government. Certainly there was little consideration for the aboriginal people who respected but did not “own” these lands in the current sense. Mr. Norman recalled: “The site was a great fishing place . . . the Indians had fish traps across both the Spokane River and the Little Spokane . . . and there was fish for everyone. When I first settled there the fish were so plentiful . . . I have seen salmon, big ones weighing many pounds lying noses together one above the other closely packed in their efforts to reach their spawning ground at the head of the stream.”

From another account: “In 1882, 40- 50,000 salmon/steelhead were seen on drying racks at the Indian encampment on the Little Spokane By 1883 the Indian catch was only about 2,000 fish.”

There were/are many reasons for this stark decline in fish stocks: salmon canneries on the lower Columbia, agriculture, livestock grazing, mining, lumbering, urban development, industrial and sewage (raw) pollution, ignorance, and the construction of dams of all sizes. All have, blow by incremental blow devastated the prehistoric salmon runs. Restoration, though, is more than a wish – it is a goal. The research being accomplished has depth and breadth and possibilities. A simple query on the Internet brings up floods of scientific data. FLSRV members Lindell Haggin, Chris Dudley and I contribute in a small but significant way to this collection of data. As volunteers we take monthly water quality measurements at three sites in our reach of the LSR: these include Little Deep Creek, Deadman Creek and the Little Spokane as it flows past Haggin’s farm. Our reports go to Spokane Conservation District staff for analysis.

We have never seen a salmon as we conduct measurements in an area of such cultural significance to the indigenous people. We are aware we stand in their history: Anthropologist Verne Ray wrote, “Middle/Upper (Central/Eastern) Spokans maintained a weir and fishing platform station at the junction of the three streams at the base of Shady Slope. Near the mouth of Deadman Creek was a permanent village, a major fish-gathering site called č̓łč̓múle?xw (where a creek skirts the foot of a cliff). [The Indians] stood on this platform to spear Chinook salmon, Steelhead trout and Mountain whitefish that were abundant.” By the late 1800 and early 1900’s, before Little Falls Dam blocked salmon runs on the Spokane River, settlers in the Little Spokane Valley said that farmers used pitchforks to harvest Chinook salmon that had migrated up the Little Spokane River to their farms. Unlike the Indians who ate these fish, the farmers considered these fish to be inedible and used them instead as food for their pigs or else used them as fertilizer by scattering the carcasses over agricultural lands.” (Scholz)

In 1893, ichthyologists Charles Gilbert and Barton Evermann reported extensive damage to the Little Spokane as a result of [settler] activities: “The character of this stream is being materially changed by the advent of [post-contact] civilization, a fact which is, or has been, true of most streams in this country. The cutting away of the timber and brush on the immediate bank and the cultivation of the land within the drainage area of the stream have greatly increased the surface erosion and, in consequence, the impurities of the stream.”

The grandson of the fisherman who caught the Chinook salmon pictured in the photograph remembers these “impurities of the stream” in his boyhood attempts at “swimming” in the Spokane River as it sluggishly flowed along the southern boundary of his reservation. He said, “During the 1940’s one had to dive through horrible layers of green foamy crud to reach the water.” Existence for any living thing downstream was hazardous to health. And, to add insult to injury, because of the damming of the traditional fishery sites, an elder Spokan said, “Your houses are filled with light, but our stomachs are now empty.”

In the Dartford area I interviewed Colville tribal member Jim Tomeo, a long-time resident of the LSR valley. He shared with me conversations he had with John W. Stoneman (1900-1996) who lived and farmed at Dartford. Mr. Stoneman told him, “The salmon were plenty. Whenever they came through the bears and cougars came down to the river’s edge and would wait to snatch a salmon for a meal.” Tomeo said Stoneman remembered when he was very young that Nez Perce Chief Joseph would camp along the Little Spokane at Dartford while traveling between Nespelem on the Colville Reservation and his family home in Idaho. It is said he never went back to his birthplace but he actually did go back and forth. He and his small group would come and camp during salmon runs. He stayed at Dartford and upstream where the Wandermere Golf Course is situated.

In preparation for their leader’s arrival, young men went ahead of Joseph’s group to catch, smoke and dry salmon and prepare enough for their own travels and for trade. Tomeo spoke of the different ways the captured salmon were preserved. The stone tools (lithics) in the photo are from the Dartford area and may have been utilized in processing salmon. The tools are sturdy reminders of the history of our Little Spokane. (Of note, there was a ‘burial” near the golf course – a traditional Nez Perce method of taking care of their deceased: an infant was placed in its baby board and tucked high in a conifer’s branches. The tree is gone and with it a poignant reminder of a sad event happening when the Indians were passing through. A similar committal of an infant was found in a tree at a fishing/campsite located at the mouth of Tshimakain Creek, also a favored stopover of the Nez Perce which was located on what is now the Spokane Indian Reservation.)

On its surface our Little Spokane River appears untouched and pristine. Beneath its surface there is a different story. One that tells of incomprehensible destruction and loss for the indigenous peoples who once thrived along its banks – and loss for those who came later. Although the Little Spokane River has never been dammed there have been feasibility studies to do so. Earlier attempts at manipulation are described in an article in The Inlander titled, “Progress Be Dammed: How Spokane Tried Its Darnedest To Stop the Grand Coulee Dam From Being Built.” Investigative reporter William Stimson writes: “In 1918 there was a plan to divert waters from the north of Spokane to central Washington via gravity (known as The Gravity Plan) in this plan, the Pend Oreille River would be grabbed at a point between the small towns of Newport and Priest River and steered, via 130 miles of existing waterways – such as the Little Spokane River (emphasis added) – across the Spokane River at Dishman and through tunnels under the Spokane foothills to the Columbia Basin.” Although not without great cost to the people who staked their lives on the abundance of migratory salmon, it was determined that the Grand Coulee was a better site for a large dam.

In 1973 Spokane Tribal Chairman, Alex Sherwood spoke: “I remember this river so well as it was before the dams. My father and grandfather used to tell me how it was before the white man came it was beautiful then the fish! The fish sometimes so thick that it seemed that they filled the river I ask, “River, do you remember how it used to be— the game, the fish, the pure water, the roar of the falls, boats, canoes, fishing platforms? You fed and took care of our people then. For thousands of years we walked your banks and used your waters. You would always answer when our chiefs called to you with their prayer to the river… Sometimes, I stand and shout, “River do you remember us?” We thank you for these things, bring us again, as you have every year, the salmon that keep us together as a people and feed us through the winters. Remember!”

An award-winning reporter who witnessed and recorded the successful removal of and the salmon’s subsequent return, aptly concludes in a way that could be said of the Little Spokane River and the surrounding watershed as well, “We busily built a civilization and, while we were at it, undercut the natural balancing capacities of our world. I agree that our human works are now greatly at risk—but also think our situation is not hopeless. Ultimately, this is about relationships. With one another, with future generations, and with the other living beings with which we share the planet, now and in the future, with value all their own.” (Lynda Mapes)

There is remembrance and there is hope.

*A bibliography of excellent resources related to this subject is available here

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