PORTLAND, Ore. ? To American Indian tribes along the Columbia River, salmon are sacred. They are salmon people ? Wykanushpum ? and for the last 25 years Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce leaders have worked together as the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) to make sure the salmon are accorded the respect they deserve under federal and natural law.
"When He created the land and the earth and the rivers and the salmon, the salmon were given a law to live by ? to provide for the Indian people," says CRITFC Executive Director Donald Sampson. "In return for the salmon sacrificing their body to live, we were obligated to take care of them. That is our obligation as Indian people: to be their caretakers."
To that end, CRITFC coordinates management of member fisheries, advocates for the protection of treaty rights, enforces fisheries code on nearly 150 miles of the Columbia River, and assists in policy development, litigation, fish marketing and watershed restoration.
The commission works by consensus and presents a unified voice in the fishery management in waters of Oregon, Washington and Idaho. It allows the four tribes to develop common educational and restoration strategies through the work of nearly 100 biologists, hydrologists, enforcement officers, legal experts and public relations specialists.
When CRITFC was formed in 1977, salmon populations in the Columbia River above the Bonneville Dam had been decimated by ocean fisheries, hydroelectric development, habitat destruction and misplaced mitigation, said CRITFC spokesman Charles Hudson. Places where tribal fishermen had harvested as many as 11 million fish each year were left with few runs supplying less than 150,000 fish.
As the commission has grown, it has successfully blended traditional knowledge based on thousands of years of sustainable salmon-based economy with scientific research and management techniques, Hudson said. For the last two years, Columbia treaty tribes had their first spring chinook commercial fishery since the commission began.
On June 18, they received High Honors from Harvard University's American Indian Economic Project. The project, based in the J.F. Kennedy School of Government, conducts an annual selection of outstanding tribal programs through its Honoring Contributions in the Governance of American Indian Nations program. The final eight recipients, including CRITFC, were recognized in a daylong ceremony at the recent mid-year meeting of the National Congress of American Indians in Bismarck, N.D.
CRITFC has come a long way from its start with one employee, a temporary office and little technical knowledge, Sampson said. "They've seen rivers where there were no fish where fish have been restored," he said. "They've seen treaty rights protected. They've seen people start to respect salmon."
The commission helped member tribes develop fishing access sites and fought to amend the Regional Power Act to require federal and state consultation with tribes on hydropower issues. It led negotiations for a salmon interception treaty between the United States and Canada to guard against the over-fishing of ocean populations. It helped start Salmon Corps, an Americorps project for Indian youth.
In 1999, it chartered The Spirit of the Salmon Fund, a non-profit organization organized under tribal authority that has since raised more than $1 million to support the commission's programming and activities.
In its tenure, the commission has supported tribal fisheries as they expanded to departments with as many as 400 employees with state-of-the-art supplementary facilities.
The Umatilla Tribe also received high honors in this year's Honoring Nations program for its work in the Umatilla Basin. Working with irrigators, ranchers, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, it has restored several species of salmon for the first time in 70 years. The tribe is now pursuing similar work in the Walla Walla basin.
Other member tribes have had great success as well, Hudson said. The Nez Perce Tribe has successfully reintroduced coho to the Snake River Basin for the first time since 1986. The Warm Springs Tribe is working collaboratively with private landowners and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to enhance salmon runs in Hood River. The Yakama Tribe is operating a state-of-the-art hatchery to boost salmon populations in the Yakima River Basin.
"I think we really are in a very supportive role," Sampson said. "We provide a lot of technical support, legal support and analysis for them, but I think more importantly we bring together a cohesive vision for the tribes."
The commission also implemented a comprehensive public information program, distributing free handbooks describing the holistic principles of tribal watershed protection. Its annual Jammin' for Salmon festival drew 17,000 people to the Portland waterfront last year for music, food and information about the tribes and restoration, Hudson said. This year the festival, renamed Wykanushpum and joined with Indian Art Northwest, is expected to draw an even larger crowd this August 3-4.
On the research end, CRITFC incorporates spiritual and cultural concerns with the best science and implementation strategies, Sampson said. The tribes aren't limited by political boundaries ? their boundaries are the salmon and the watershed. In their work, they have often helped the nine other Columbia River tribes and are looking forward to the formation of Upper Columbia and Upper Snake commissions.
For its anniversary, CRITFC commissioned a Pendleton blanket and installed several museum exhibits on reservations around the state. It will have a salmon feast in September and a public symposium at Portland State University on fish management in November.
By this fall, the commission will have honored past and present commissioners at ceremonies on each member reservation. But the anniversary celebrations are as focused on the future as they are the past, Sampson said.
Sampson envisions rebuilt runs in at least 20 of the river's 28 basins and tribes replicating their successes in Umatilla, Yakama and Hood River. The commission will continue to promote tribal authority, sovereignty and treaty rights, he said. It will continue to work for cleaner waters and an educated public.
"The economy will benefit from the salmon returning. The salmon economy that was here for thousands of years will return," Sampson said. "We'll have a new generation of leaders in the tribes. They'll be able to lead us into the next 25 years and into the next 200 years."
For more information, log onto www.critfc.org and www.wykanushpum.org.