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Tribes seek to restore salmon runs

Through Upper Columbia United Tribes, D.R. Michel coordinates education and events geared to restore salmon and protect resources for future generations.

To educate people on their goals to preserve resources—land, water, fish, wildlife and culture—for future generations, the Upper Columbia United Tribes has produced a documentary, “United by Water,” said UCUT executive director D.R. Michel.

The film follows UCUT’s five tribes—the Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, Kalispel, Kootenai and Colville Confederated—as they received logs in 2015, carved canoes, learned to paddle and journeyed through lakes, eddies and rapids from their communities to Kettle Falls for the annual Salmon Celebration in June 2016.

“It helps us understand and celebrate who we are,” D.R. said, “and invites others to learn how the system can operate without winners and losers, but to benefit all.”

The tribes used to fish at Kettle Falls each year before the dam there covered the falls in a reservoir and other dams blocked salmon.

At Kettle Falls, the Salmon Chief made sure all who came left with enough fish to feed their families for a year.  Then he said to stop fishing so enough fish would go up the river to spawn to assure there would be salmon in the future.

“One day, salmon will come home,” said D.R., who helped carve and paddle to learn about his heritage.

UCUT, he said, seeks to preserve healthy ecosystems as the U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty is renegotiated.

The film’s trailer on Facebook shares a Sherman Alexie poem, promising that the tribes and salmon will forgive the damage done to the ecosystem and the loss of culture, when salmon again swim to Kettle Falls to spawn.

It intersperses photos of the 1940 Ceremony of Tears at Kettle Falls before dams, and the 2016 journey.

“United by Water” records carving canoes from logs UCUT purchased from the Quinault Reservation and delivered in spring 2015 to the five tribes at six sites—two on the Colville Reservation at Inchelium and Nespelem.

UCUT canoes

The logs were old-growth cedar, 500 to 800 years old, 30- to 40-feet long, weighing 12,000 to 25,000 pounds. Out of the logs, each tribe made a 600- to 700-pound canoe.

John Zinser, a canoe carver and consultant from New York, helped four years ago when tribes carved canoes at the mouth of the Columbia and paddled 1,243 miles to the source. UCUT helped produce a film, “Journey up the Columbia River for People and Salmon,” on that experience.

John taught children to elders how to strip bark, use hand tools, slowly remove thin strips of wood, keep the wood moist, and shape the sides and a shovel-nose end.  Each canoe included unique symbols carved onto the sides.

“It was emotional and life-changing. As we connected to the canoe and river, it awakened part of who we are,” D.R. said. “It reminded us what we lost with the dams.”

He helped carve the Inchelium canoe, which was launched at Scotty’s Marina near Arrow Lake Dam in B.C., the territory of his tribe, the Arrow Lakes Sinixt.

The Nespelem canoe left from Spring Canyon, the Coeur d’Alene from Benewah Lake, the Spokane from Wynecoops Landing, the Kalispel from Pend Oreille and the Kootenai from Black Sand Beach above Northport.

Each group traveled by water where possible and transported their canoes by trailer around blockages, rough water and hard-to-navigate areas.

“The paddlers—eight to 10 in a canoe—learned how to turn by leaning their heads and working as a team,” said D.R. “I paddled from Trail, B.C., through some wild water.  Even though we wore life jackets, I was afraid, because I don’t swim and the canoe was tippy.”

The tribes met enroute and set up camps several nights.

Hundreds of people were involved.

D.R. said the Arrow Lakes are one of the 12 Colville Confederated Tribes. In 1956, the Canadian government declared them extinct, paving the way for development in Canada related to the Columbia River Treaty.

D.R. grew up in Inchelium, a mile from the Lake Roosevelt Reservoir on the Columbia River. He, his brother, two sisters and friends played and camped by the shore.  He felt close to the water as a child. 

“We didn’t understand about drawdowns or know what we lost.  It wasn’t a river or a lake, but a reservoir behind a dam that has negative impact on water quality, resident fish, safety and access,” he said.

D.R.’s parents grew up in Inchelium.  He, his wife, who also grew up there, and their four children have a home within 10 miles of the shore. 

Even though he has lived in Spokane 10 years for his work with UCUT, he goes back as often as he can to teach his children respect for land, water, plants, wildlife and family.

After high school, D.R. went to work in 1977 as a forestry fire guard with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). For 17 years, he was a forestry technician, marking timber and arranging sales. He learned the importance of managing timber and other resources for future generations.

He learned more about protecting resources in the eight years he served on the Colville Business Council.  He was the council’s delegate to UCUT.

At UCUT, his work is to assure that future generations survive.

“Our values are from thousands of years of applied science about how to co-exist with Mother Earth and the Creator,” he said.  “We do things to respect and share with others.  Salmon give up their bodies to feed us.  In turn, we take care of them.”

UCUT seeks to have the new Columbia River Treaty include sustainable management of the eco-system to benefit needs of people, timber, fish, wildlife, land, recreation, irrigation, flood control and power.

One goal is fish passage.

“People ask, if we restore fish above the dams, will they know where to go.  Every year, salmon swim to the base of Chief Joseph Dam and look for a way around.  Some go up the fish ladder, not knowing it leads to a hatchery.”

Some circle in front of the dam and spawn below the dam. Others go up the Okanogan River.  The tribes have a fishery at the base of Chief Joseph Dam. In recent years, they have done a selective harvest, catching fish in nets, giving sockeye to tribal members and releasing Chinook to spawn in the wild.

There are new ways to bring the fish home. Dams may not go soon, but the treaty can include fish passage, he said.

Nine U.S. dams fragment the river, each run by a different entity, like the Bureau of Reclamation, which runs Grand Coulee, and the Army Corps of Engineers, which runs Chief Joseph.

Because some decision-makers consider only development, profit and short-term benefits, he said, “resources are disappearing, wildlife is becoming extinct, we are experiencing natural disasters because of climate change.

“We need to manage resources for long-term benefits. It doesn’t have to be either/or.  We can have salmon above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams, and have inexpensive power and flood control,” he said. 

UCUT, Earth Economics, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Pacific Rivers, Save Our Wild Salmon and WaterWatch Oregon did an economic study that shows “natural capital” could be worth more than $200 billion to regional economy with a modernized treaty.

“Modernizing” it means managing dams to increase water flows in low-water years to keep the ecosystem of trees and forests, soil and slopes, flows and wetlands healthy so they generate “ecological goods and services”—water, wildlife, timber, vegetation, salmon, recreation and less flooding.

Without sustainable management, there is economic loss. With such management, the basin can enhance natural wealth for present and future generations. Clean, abundant water means “breathable air, drinkable water, nourishing food and stable atmospheric conditions.” 

Those “services” have economic value, protecting jobs, infrastructure, restoration and property.

At Brewster, where tribes have worked with ranchers and farmers to balance irrigation needs and sockeye runs, the runs grew from 2,500 in about 2000 to about 400,000 in 2014. Sockeye runs add $1.5 million to Brewster’s economy, drawing people to fish, eat at restaurants, use the RV park and shop, D.R. said.

UCUT showed “United by Water” in October at the Garland Theater in Spokane and will schedule more shows in theaters, and for tribal events, film festivals and community groups.

For information, call 954-7631 or email

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