SPOKANE, Wash. – Opening up miles of steelhead and Chinook spring salmon spawning habitat on the Omak Creek is having a restorative effect on another Native group – the Confederated Colville Tribes who have lived in the northwest area since time immemorial and to whom the return of the salmon has profound cultural meaning.
On June 19, CCT celebrated the Omak Creek watershed rehabilitation work by honoring its project partner, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, at a special First Salmon Ceremony near the town of Omak. More than 50 people attended the event.
The NRCS, a service within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has completed about 98 percent of a watershed plan to remove fish passage barriers from the river. The barriers were created in the 1920s by the construction of the railroad that opened up the West to ever increasing settler expansion and development.
Dynamite explosions from excavation activities sent boulders cascading into Omak Creek – effectively cutting off the spring Chinook from traditional spawning waters in the upper reaches of the stream.
But beginning in the mid-90s, the tribe, NRCS, and other agencies have worked to restore salmon access to 60 miles of the rocky-bottomed, fast-moving fresh water creek.
And the work will continue into the future. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently announced that the Agriculture Department will provide $625,000 to improve fish passage along other critical areas of Omak Creek in Okanogan County. The funding is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
The First Salmon Ceremony included a sunrise service along the banks of Omak Creek where members of the tribe, tribal council members and invited guests listened to traditional songs and prayers offered by elders Tom Louie and Lionel Orr. The service, which included a symbolic “calling of the salmon” with river rocks preceded the formal recognition of the NRCS event at the Omak Longhouse.
For NRCS State Conservationist Roylene Rides at the Door, Blackfeet, who represented the agency at the event, both the project and the ceremony were deeply moving.
“When I went out on site, one of the areas we did work on was in front of an old mission school and I looked at it and I had to just kind of stop and take a breath. It was just overwhelming. I thought, here’s a mission school and we know the church received government money to take away our language, and our heritage and our culture, and yet, I thought, here’s the government coming to bring it back. It made me feel good to know that we’re trying in a sense to right a wrong.”
The sunrise ceremony took place in front of the school.
“They had us all get down and click the rocks and (the elder) said that when the water rushes down in the spring it rolls the rocks, so it’s the clicking of the rocks that signals the salmon to come home. I thought that was very cool,” Rides at the Door said.
Reviving such an important ceremony is a powerful experience for the tribe, connecting members to the past life ways of their elders and forward to future generations, CCT Fish and Wildlife Director Joe Peone said.
“Through the years, with the salmon gone, we almost lost an important cultural activity, but now the tradition is being handed down to the next generation.”
Peone expressed the tribe’s gratitude to NRCS for the help it has provided over the past decade and more.
“NRCS’ assistance through the years has been outstanding. We continue to use NRCS’ expertise – they’re always available to help us move this process forward. And we look forward to doing even more work in the months and years ahead.”
At the dinner, elders spoke about their memories of the Omak Creek and its native salmon.
“Being a tribal person, it was so humbling for me. I understand how much this means to Indian people as far as it being a part of their culture and who they are. Listening to the elders stand up at our dinner and talk about how in their time the Coulee Dam went up and prevented the salmon from coming up the river was very moving,” Rides at the Door said.
Grand Coulee Dam is a massive hydroelectric gravity dam north of the CCT territory on the Columbia River built in the 1930s. It is the fifth largest producer of hydroelectricity in the world. The dam is almost a mile long with a spillway 1,650 feet wide.
“It really hit home that this happened in their time when they were children, and they remember the devastation and how much pain it was to them to lose the salmon. And it made me realize this isn’t just a project. This is helping too. From what I’ve seen they haven’t completely recovered from the pain – how do you when something changes your life so drastically? – but they were so elated and so happy for the little bit that we are doing,” Rides at the Door said.
The entire Omak Creek watershed is on the tribe’s 2,100 square miles of land. The next steps will involve removing 17 culverts that are too small for the vigorous salmon to get through and replacing them with larger ones.
The remaining restoration will be almost entirely in the hands of CCT, providing jobs and opportunities for tribal members.
“We’re going to enter into a cooperative agreement with the tribe and they’re going to do it all. They have to meet our standards and specifications, but they’re going to hire the contractor and do all that,” Rides at the Door said.
The plans that were drawn in the 1990s have been upgraded to meet the stiffer environmental laws that have been enacted since then, and they are currently in the public comment phase.
NRCS and CCT hope to begin the actual work by early September in the short window of time between the end of the steelhead and Chinook spawning season, which ends in late July, and the spawning season of another salmon species that begins in the fall.