Giving back to the salmon
PORTLAND, Ore. - A red and yellow design runs around the skirt of the small
teepee, and poles leaning in on each other for support reach upward from
under the weight of the canvas. A swath of Oregon's native plants and trees
feather in around the teepee, and the lush smell of the Pacific Northwest
fills the grand ballroom of Portland's historic Governor Hotel. Courtesy of
the Spirit of the Salmon Fund of Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish
Commission (CRITFC) and Bosky Dell native plant nursery, the stage was set
for the four Columbia River tribes' annual spring salmon feast - the
Invitations said evening wear and people came decked out for the occasion.
Former director of CRITFC and chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the
Umatilla Indian Reservation, Don Sampson has mostly short hair. Still, his
pencil thin braids tracked long dark brown lines down the lapels of his
tuxedo and his iridescent bow tie, where blues and greens reminiscent of
the river itself, shimmered.
Why the event? "The salmon gala is a celebration of tribal culture and
art," said Sampson. "It is a way to acknowledge our partnerships with
industry and business leaders in the region."
Sampson drifted off to the silent auction where there were enough paintings
and sculptures from artists to raise thousands of dollars. Bob Charlo of
the Kalispel Nation in Montana, who donated one of his black and white
photographs for the auction, picked up Sampson's thread. "The salmon have
done so much for us for centuries," Charlo said, "it's about time that the
true human beings start giving back."
Giving back is what people did. It started with the co-chairs of
Wy-Kan-Ush-Pum Gala, founder Norm Thompson, John Emrick, and former first
lady of Oregon, Sharon Kitzhaber. "Part of the purpose of the salmon gala,"
Emrick explained, "is to give citizens of Portland a first-hand experience
of Native American culture." And boomer-aged Kitzhaber surprised the crowd
when she said that, while she enjoyed living in the governor's mansion
during her tenure as the state's first lady, "the best home I ever had was
Of course, along with teepees come the chanters and the dancers and the
drum. The Quartz Creek group from Warm Springs were present singing in
honor of their family's work to protect the salmon, especially their
patriarch, the late Eugene Greene Sr. Shell earrings dangling, black felt
hats off, the drummers sent their songs to the four directions while the
bells and beads and wands of the dancers picked up the rhythms. From the
yellow face paint and quill breast plates of the men, the studded yokes of
the matrons' dresses, the fringes and fans of the maidens' traditional
gear, and the miniature vest with the water zigzags on a little guy who
stamped his moccasins alongside grandma - the regalia left no doubt that
the evening was one where Indian culture held sway.
All gathered for the gala, though, weren't liberals. Republican from
eastern Washington's conservative agricultural community, Benton County
Commissioner Leo Bowman was in attendance and honored for his work on
behalf of the fish. "Do the salmon and eagle and elk know the difference
between Republican and Democrat," Bowman said. "That's why I do what I do."
he continued, "the treaties are no different from any contract you sign on
a second mortgage on your house or for a car. They are agreements that have
obligations." Bowman works closely with the Yakama Nation, one of the four
Columbia River treaty tribes. "The Yakamas have never lied to me, and I
haven't lied to them. As far as I'm concerned, there's room for everybody
here in the Northwest, including the fish."
Members of the Umatilla delegation and CRITFC commissioners, Kat Brigham
and Jay Minthorn, appreciate people like Bowman. "We signed the treaties,"
Minthorn observed, "but not as a conquered people." In a similar vein of
sovereignty, Brigham observed, "People don't have to agree with us all the
time. We just hope they develop an approach where we can all work
The executive director of CRITFC, Olney "JP" Patt Jr. of the Confederated
Tribes of Warm Springs, concurred. "The cross-section of attendees at the
gala - tribal members; agency people from the federal, state, and county
levels; members of the environmental community; and the public at large -
shows that many interest groups care about the recovery of the salmon. In
the past we tended to take the huge runs for granted, but when they reached
the brink of extinction, we all realized that we had to pitch into this
That it should be so was echoed by John Emrick. "The salmon nation," Emrick
mused. 'Aren't we all of that and in that?"
Certainly the half dozen men lined up on the central dance floor to give
the invocation thought so. "It is very important when we come together like
this to meet one another and to meet new friends," said Jay Minthorn. He
then paused for a moment to let his message sink in and invited the 200
people gathered for the gala to rise.
In the middle of the room, Indian men, every one, thick braids shining
against the turquoises and electric blues and greens and oranges woven into
their Pendleton vests, chanted their songs of blessing, their songs of
celebration - "ey yah oh yey hey ney yah ..."
"We're all salmon people," said Laura Berg who has worked with CRITFC for
the past two decades and who has studied Native American culture. "Just
like prior to the 1850s before European settlement occurred, we're creating
a salmon culture again. Art. Food. Consciousness. All the different
elements that tie to the landscape."
Rennee Rank, vice chair for the Native American Youth Association and
corporate marketer for McMenamins, both groups of Portland, thinks along
the same lines as Berg. "The Wy-Kan-Ush-Pum Gala is so great with all the
people and artists and dancers that come in," Rank said. "Every year it
just keeps getting that much better." And Rank is echoed by regional artist
Lillian Pitt of the Warm Springs tribe. "I have donated one of my pieces
for the auction every year, and it has been a privilege."
Retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional coordinator for the
Endangered Species Act (ESA) from 1977 - 1981, David Marshall and his
family also supported the event. Although he committed conservationist
William Finley words to memory: 'Bonneville Dam was the beginning of the
end for Columbia River salmon,' Marshall believes that "the ESA is one of
the strongest conservation laws we have, and one of the reasons we are able
to have this salmon gala."
The Wy-Kan-Ush-Pum Gala. The straight lines and bright overhead lights of
the ornate ballroom softened by a teepee and native plants with their pots
shrouded in moss. Not quite like the pre-1850s culture Berg recalls when
people thronged to Celilo Falls, the great fishing and trading spot on the
Columbia which was flooded by the Dalles Dam not quite 50 years ago.
Nonetheless, a celebration of the salmon culture it was.
A salmon culture that is as much a part of the Pacific Northwest as the
forests and the rain and green. A culture that prizes the succulent pink
flesh of the fish. A culture of people that, in the words of newly elected
CRITFC commissioner Buck Smith of the Warm Springs tribe, "are having a
pretty good time here."