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Tribal leaders persist in efforts to modernize treaties related to river

D.R. Michel, executive director of the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT), spoke at the recent Winter Waters Celebration of the Sierra Club’s Upper Columbia River Group and the Center for Environmental Law Practice on modernizing the international treaty that governs the Columbia River.

D.R. Michel
D.R. Michel, executive director of Upper Columbia United Tribes, informs people of treaty issues.

The previous treaty between the United States and Canada in 1964 allowed for building four big dams in the Upper Columbia to benefit hydropower and flood control at the expense of U.S. tribes, Canadian First Nations, salmon and the river’s health.

D.R., a member of the Colville Tribe, who grew up in the community of Inchelium on the banks of the Columbia River, still considers Lake Roosevelt the Columbia River.

In his work with UCUT, he represents 20,000 members in the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Kalispel Tribe, Kootenai Tribe and Spokane Tribe, serving an area of 2 million acres of reservation land, 14 million acres of aboriginal territories—land of indigenous people—more than 500 miles of waterways, 40 interior lakes, and 30 dams and reservoirs.

“Our mission is to unite the tribes to protect, preserve and enhance treaty and executive order tribal rights, sovereignty, culture, fish, water, wildlife, habitat and other interests to benefit all people,” D.R. said.

In 2008, when UCUT learned there would be a review of the treaty, participants met to bring tribal interests to the forefront.  They developed a Sovereign Review Team in 2010 to look at the 1964 treaty and raise consideration of ecosystems of salmon, food, water, land and air.

“Our goal is to better coordinate management of the Columbia River from its headwaters to the estuaries,” he said.  “What is done in the Upper Columbia should not negatively impact the lower river.  That means we have to work with Canada on eco-system management with input of tribes and everyone.

“We need to review flood-risk management and other uses, such as recreation, navigation and irrigation.”

D.R. said that in the past, there had been short-term evaluation, but now there is need to look at long-term management for all needs, so there are not losers, but there are win, win, win solutions for the future.

Modernizing the treaty, he said, is “an opportunity to right wrongs” and to realize that fish passage does not have to cost $500 million at Grand Coulee Dam.  There are new technologies to get fish above dams.

“The current treaty has had a negative impact on our lives and on the salmon culture in our region.  If we stick together, we can make changes,” he said.

D.R. calls for talking of legacy, asking, “what did I do to make improvements to leave to my children and future generations.”

 On Feb. 14, Canadian First Nations and 15 Columbia Basin Tribes met at Northern Quest and developed an interim joint paper on “Fish Passage and Reintroduction into the U.S. and Canadian Upper Columbia River,” he said.

That study, he said, describes what needs to happen so that “one day my children and grandchildren will be able to be at the river and catch fish.”

U.S. tribes and Canadian First Nations propose “reintroducing and restoring habitat and life history connectivity for native anadromous salmon and resident fish into and within the Upper Columbia River” based on a modernized Columbia River Treaty.

Anadromous fish are fish that are born in fresh water, spend most of their lives in the sea and return to fresh water to spawn.

Reintroduction of these fish is critical to restoring indigenous peoples’ cultural, harvest and spiritual values, according to the report.  It is also important for “ecosystem function adaptation to climate change.”

Reintroduction of fish passage focuses on Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams in the U.S. and three dams in Canada.

The study was written by several intertribal organizations representing 15 Native American Tribes in the U.S. Columbia Basin, and several First Nations in British Columbia.  

“The study provides a brief history of the construction and management of Columbia River dams and the consequent devastating impact on salmon populations and the native peoples who depended on salmon for food, trade, and culture,” reported Rachael Paschal Osborn of the Columbia Institute for Water Policy.

 Prior to dam construction, 1.1 million sockeye, Chinook, steelhead and coho salmon returned to the rivers above Grand Coulee.  Of those fish, tribal members harvested about 644,000, according to the Fish Passage Report.  Total salmon consumption ranged from 6.8 to 13.1 million pounds per year.  Salmon was a key component of the diet of Upper Columbia Tribes and First Nations prior to extirpation—local extinction, D.R. said.

 “The survey of rivers and lakes that once supported salmon species is impressive. In the U.S., the list includes the Spokane, Little Spokane, Hangman, Sanpoil, Kettle, Colville, Pend Oreille, and Kootenai Rivers.  In British Columbia, salmon inhabited the Kootenay, Slocan, and Salmo Rivers, and the Columbia River lakes all the way to the headwaters, including the Lower and Upper Arrow, Windermere and Columbia Lakes, and others,” Rachael said.

 The tribes propose a multi-step process to evaluate fish passage technology, donor fish stocks, quantity and quality of habitat, and hydrosystem operating changes necessary to accommodate salmon reintroduction.   Studies would also evaluate the socio-economic benefits of returning salmon to the Upper Columbia basin, for Tribes and First Nations, and non-native peoples, including recreational, subsistence and commercial fishers.

 The study was prepared as part of preparation for negotiations over the Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada, expected to begin this year.

For information, call 209-2412 or 939-1290 or email or


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