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Tribes unite their voices to restore rights, environment

As John Sirois coordinates committee work of Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT) on salmon, wildlife, water quality, environment, timber and fish passage, he integrates his childhood of digging roots and picking berries, his degree in history and Native American studies, and master’s of public administration, and insights from his career with the Colville Confederated Tribes.

John Sirois, UCUT
John Sirois coordinates work of Upper Columbia United Tribes.

He was influenced by strong teachings from his grandmother, Margaret Dick Condon, a Wenatchee basket weaver. While digging camas and bitterroot, and picking huckleberries in nearby mountains, he learned that nature is integral to life.

Like many in his generation, he grew up eating trout and only occasionally salmon.  The Dick family, as many others, had a traditional fishing spot on the Methow River, Columbia River, Wenatchee River and Icicle Creek. 

State Fish and Wildlife officers respected their right to fish there without need of a state issued license. As new Fish and Wildlife personnel joined the department, many did not understand historical fishing agreements, and jailed people for fishing without a license.

The Colville Confederated Tribes fought to win respect for the agreements and historical inherent fishing rights preserved in them.  John worked for the Colville Tribes during that time of recognizing those inherent rights to the tribal first foods.

“Wenatchee River water is good quality.  Tribal members would catch salmon that came up the Columbia,” said John, who fishes and eats salmon three times a week.

John joined UCUT’s staff of five in 2014, bringing his expertise in and commitment to cultural preservation, renewable resources, the Columbia River Treaty renewal and fish passage up and down the Columbia.

“All are tied to taking care of the environment, which is really about taking care of ourselves and all people,” said John.

UCUT member tribes—the Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, Kalispel, Kootenai and Colville—send technical experts to five committees to develop projects, set policies and create a larger voice.

The Colville Confederated Tribes is the largest in land and people—1.4 of UCUT tribes’ 2.4 million acres.  Its more than 9,900 people are from 12 tribes—the Moses Columbia, Entiat, Chelan, Methow, Nespelm, Sanpoil, Lakes, Colville-Kettle, Palouse and Chief Joseph Band of Nez Perce. 

Like many members of those tribes, John has relatives from Yakima into Canada—in addition to relatives on his father’s side in Boston.  His wife is Cree First Nations from Kelowna, B.C.

Upper Columbia United Tribes and First Nations in Canada cooperate to strengthen their voice on fish passage and Columbia River Treaty renewal.

With new technologies, John is hopeful about fish passage along the Columbia River.

The Whooshh Salmon Cannon uses negative air pressure—like pneumatic tubes—to move salmon up a river.  It has been tested in some areas with good results.

Grand Coulee Dam’s height, however, makes it hard to use there. At other dams it can be a cheaper way to move fish than hauling them by truck, and outcomes for fish are better.

The Bonneville Power Authority (BPA) is also exploring ways to move juvenile fish down river by changing turbines, structures and passage systems to be safer for fish.  On the Willamette and Deschutes Rivers, fish netting directs fish into a tube that shoots them downstream.  The success rate is increasing and costs in overall fish passage systems have dropped considerably in the past few years, he said.

“No mitigation is implemented, however, for Chief Joseph or Grand Coulee dams, the largest on the Columbia,” John said.  “These dams need equal funding for it with smaller dams.  We want the BPA to put mitigation where 60 percent power generation is, but there continues to be severe resistance to the idea of fish passage.”

The tribes also call for the Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC) licensing requirements for mid-Columbia dams to change turbines to apply.  While many mid-Columbia dams comply and invest millions of dollars in their fish passage systems, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps Operator say federal dams do not need to comply. 

UCUT, which formed in 1982, connects science and culture.  It exists, as their mission statement says, “for the benefit of all people.”

When the Colville Tribes’ new fish hatchery at Brewster meets its goals for brood stock and escapement, they have invited members of all tribes to share in a harvest as tribes did at Kettle Falls.

Recently John joined a Colville Tribes fishing crew to cull wild fish from hatchery fish, which have their back adipose fins cut off.

“The Colville Tribes use the latest science to preserve native fish and remove them from the harvest in order to spawn,” he said. 

John learned about fish wars, the formation of the Colville Confederated Reservation, Indian education and law, and other aspects of Washington Native American history in his bachelor’s degree studies at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

After graduating in 1991, he returned to Omak for two years as Title 9 Native American advisor to help Indian children in local schools succeed. 

The next two years he helped Dartmouth develop its Native American program, then he came back to Omak to work with the tribe’s Planning Department.

In 2002, he completed a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Washington, where classes covered how city, county, state and federal governments operate, but did not cover tribal governments, until he and another Native American student developed a class.

John worked briefly for the Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, NM, and then headed the Colville Cultural Preservation Division, responsible for the museum, history, archaeology, language, archives and cultural programs.  He learned Salish.

Because boarding schools traumatized many in his mother’s generation about speaking their language and following traditional ways, he had to ask elders in the previous generation to help teach his children’s generation.

“Many people converted to Catholicism on the Colville Reservation despite the harsh treatment at boarding school,” said John, who grew up learning Catholic ways, but prefers the traditional practices of his tribal people.

“When we look at the Bible, there are many things that are  similar to our traditional teachings that we are to take care of one another, our foods and our families,” he said.

“When we take roots or berries, we are to leave the ground as it was when we found it.  We are responsible for first foods, which give up their lives for us.  We are not to pollute or do harm,” said John, who hopes adherents of all world religions live according to their teachings.

In the five years he worked with the tribe’s Renewable Energy Program, he worked on a plan to collect and burn forest slash piles in a steam powered electrical generating facility.  It was not implemented because of the economic downturn in 2008. 

John served on the Tribal Council for two years, one year as chair.  After the tribe won a $193 million settlement for mismanagement because of BIA actions on the tribal lands, he helped put half of it in a trust to improve forest health, clear culverts and maintain streams.

John focused most of his two-year term on the Columbia River Treaty renewal process. The first treaty between the U.S. and Canada, he said, was designed to produce cheap hydropower, create post-Depression jobs and control flooding downriver near Portland.

“Our traditional lands are flooded every year,” he said.  “We are asking the Corps of Engineers to consider tribal lands that need protection from flooding and ensuring there is water for salmon.”

John finds “experts” often offer complex “solutions,” when better solutions may be simple.  To avoid flooding damage, he said people should not build in flood zones.

“Our people knew floods came every year, so we moved our teepees out of the way,” he said.  “I do not want to sound flippant about flood control efforts, but we need to live in connection with our environment, not artificially disconnected.”

John said elders warn that complicated plans are often like coyote “entering our minds and tricking us to think we are smarter than we are and getting us in trouble.  We need to listen less to our inner coyote and focus on the ways to be in balance and take care of one another.”

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