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'One River, Ethics Matter' speakers tell of salmon returning

Carol Evans


Opening "One River Ethics Matter" (OREM) Conference Sept. 27, Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribal Business Council and the first woman to serve as tribal chair, said her family links her with the many conference speakers.

"We as indigenous people are connected, related. That means we take care of one another," she said, inviting people to embrace the ninth annual conference to "help us find ways to protect and preserve our environment. Land, air and water are sacred," Carol said.

"My ancestors were river people, salmon people, relying on the return of salmon to survive," she said. "Salmon have not returned for 100 years, but now thanks to the Spokane, Colville Confederated, Coeur d'Alene, Kalispel, Kootenai and Nez Perce tribes working together through the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT), we are bringing back salmon."

UCUT released 700 fish on Aug. 24 in downtown Spokane on the Spokane River where their ancestors had fished as a sustainable way of life.

Ralph Allan

"We also need to repair our environment from poisons on the land and in the river," she said.

Carol said former Tribal Chair Alex Sherwood would find a lonely spot where the river ran wild and ask the river if it remembered the canoes, fish and fish platforms used for thousands of years.

Ralph Allan, Jr., a Coeur d'Alene Tribal member, feels privileged to have lived, worked and hunted in his traditional homelands all his life. He has worked 25 years with the tribe's Fisheries and Wildlife Program.

"Most of my time is spent working on efforts to reintroduce salmon into the blocked areas," he said. "I hold the return of salmon into traditional waters high in my heart."

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Emcee and Spokane Tribal member Margo Hill of Eastern Washington University coordinated the event with physician John Osborn.

She reaffirmed, "We are all connected in the effort to restore salmon."

John helped develop OREM events to connect streamside ethics with bedside ethics he developed at Providence Sacred Heart and the Veterans Administration Medical Centers in Spokane.

"We need ethics whether it's treating a sick patient or a chronically-ill river," he said, quoting the late elder Virgil Seymour who said, "The river is sacred. People need to put aside their differences to bring the salmon back."

The OREM series grew out of 1990s work to apply medical ethics to the environment. Since the first conference in 2014, events have alternated between Canada and the U.S. The impetus is the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty that was ratified in 1964 for hydropower production and flood risk management.

In renegotiations, the tribes ask that eco-system functions and the river's health be included, John said. 

"Dams benefit some at wrenching costs to indigenous people upriver where their valleys are flooded to prevent flooding downstream," he said.  "The river has been converted to a system benefiting companies but bringing poverty and mental health struggles to people."

John described indigenous efforts to restore salmon to the Okanogan, Upper Columbia and Snake Rivers.

OREM speakers raised multi-disciplinary concerns advocating for the spiritual, ethical and social transformation of the watershed, applying South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation process to healing related to the Columbia River genocide.

The Columbia River Watershed Pastoral Letter of the region's Catholic bishops in 2001 framed the conference's parts: Water Is Life, Water Is Memory, Water Is Past, Water Is Our Responsibility.

"Indigenous people are the best protectors of the rivers," John affirmed.

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In the "Water Is Memory" panel, Bill Matt Sr., 72, a member of the Spokane Tribe and fifth-generation Kalispel, told of growing up beside the Spokane River in Peaceful Valley. He learned Spokane Tribe traditions and stories from his grandfather, who was born in 1881, grandmother, mother and aunties.

In his 36 years working with the Tribe's Natural Resources Department, he has been involved in the environmental and cultural programs.

"I liken people who stood on the shore waiting for salmon to come back to people going to the grocery store and finding the shelves empty," he said. "My grandparents had plentiful food."

His grandfather told him of 1,000 Indians from 12 tribes catching 250 pounds of salmon a day along the Spokane River.

"We lost so much," Bill said. "They took our children to boarding schools and took our traditions from them.

"When European settlers came, it was like the Garden of Eden here. Salmon were so plentiful we could walk across the Hangman Creek on their backs. We always shared. It is who we are," he said. "Now we are trying to bring back part of what our people had before poisons were put in the water at Kellogg. If we can land on the moon, we can develop technology to bring salmon back.

"Now it is good to be native people. In the 1950s it was not cool to be Indian, but now we can fight for the water and bring the salmon back," said Bill, who recently brought his 17-year-old grandson to a salmon release on Hangman Creek.

"We can make it happen with the cooperation of all entities," he said

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To view videos of the four panels, visit

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, November 2022