Historic Summit of Tribes Across Pacific Northwest Presses Dam Removal on Inslee, Biden, Congress

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SQUAXIN ISLAND RESERVATION, Mason County — In a historic gathering of more than 15 Indian nations, tribal leaders from around the Northwest called for immediate action to save endangered orcas and the salmon they depend on.

The call for salmon and orca recovery was joined by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, who each stated dam removal on the Lower Snake River, a tributary of the Columbia, must remain on the table and a comprehensive solution quickly reached to save salmon and orcas from extinction.

Their statements were delivered at the Salmon Orca Summit here, co-hosted by the Nez Perce Tribe and Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, representing more than 50 Indian nations.

From the interior of Idaho all the way to the coast and everywhere in between, tribes gathered Wednesday and Thursday in a show of unity behind a dam-busting proposal by GOP Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho. His Columbia Basin Initiative would take down the four dams on the Lower Snake River and replace their benefits, with billions of dollars of investment in a new future for the Pacific Northwest.

Simpson, present for both days of the summit, said that the time is now to make whole tribes that are unable to enjoy a way of life guaranteed forever in the signing of the treaties with the United States in 1855. The ability to harvest salmon has always been at the heart of the cultures their ancestors sought to preserve.

Salmon recovery is not just about removing four dams, it is about restoring a way of life, said Devon Boyer, chairperson of the Fort Hall Business Council for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in southeast Idaho. It was the Sho-Bans who petitioned for listing the first salmon under the Endangered Species Act in the Columbia-Snake river system, 30 years ago this year.

Neither Snake River sockeye, nor any of the other 12 runs of salmon and steelhead since listed for protection under the ESA in the Columbia and Snake, have recovered despite more than $17 billion spent to save them. Southern resident orcas, which depend on Chinook from the Columbia and Snake, also continue to decline. There are only 75 left.

Climate change is raising the stakes, even as increasing frustration over a long- running legal battle in federal court to save the fish continues to roil the region.

Inslee, in a statement made by a video call, said work must get underway urgently to identify ways to replace the services of the dams so next steps can be taken toward a comprehensive solution for salmon recovery.

Inslee and Murray reiterated at the summit that such a solution must honor treaty rights, protect access to low-cost power, and make sure farmers can affordably get their products to market and continue irrigators' ability to farm.

"We should be committed to getting down to business to determine what can provide the services these dams provide, so we can define how to replace these services so we can build support in our communities for taking the next steps in the dam breaching discussion," Inslee said.

Both he and Murray, who made her comments through a statement read by her state director, thanked Simpson for putting the issue front and center in the region.  Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., appeared by a video call to support the Simpson proposal and funding to pay for it.

In a prepared statement, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. said, "We have a legal and moral duty to recover our beloved salmon and orca populations and work collaboratively with Tribes to meet our sacred treaty obligations."

Simpson blew up the long-simmering salmon wars in the region with his proposal last winter to dedicate $32 billion in an infrastructure package being crafted by the Biden administration to breach the four dams, and replace their benefits, including replacement of power, reconfiguration of irrigation and transportation infrastructure, and reinvestment in ports and tourism.

Simpson said he is still fighting to get funding in the infrastructure proposal now for a Columbia Basin Initiative, with the legislation ironing out the details to be crafted later.

But even if he is not successful in getting money for the proposal into the infrastructure bill, the initiative is not dead, Simpson vowed. "I am not a guy who gives up easy," said Simpson, who has built a reputation for long-haul efforts succeeding in victories that at first seemed unlikely.

Shannon Wheeler, vice chairperson of the Nez Perce Tribe and organizer of the summit, is a descendant of the legendary Chief Joseph and also no stranger to uphill battles. He said the time for action is now — and was backed up by science that shows Snake River spring summer Chinook at the brink of extinction, with fewer than 50 fish coming back to some creeks.

New bonds formed

In addition to solemn testimony, in this gathering of so many nations, old wounds were healed among tribes that historically may have been at war with one another, or battling each other in court. New friendships were made and alliances forged.

Tribes were greeted as they arrived the first day by advocates from environmental groups around the region, holding up giant salmon and orca figures, and signs calling for breaching the dams.

Lummi Nation carvers brought a totem pole to the gathering, for blessing by tribal leaders, to honor the work of the summit.

The summit was also a time for sharing stories, and getting to know one another better.

On a slow slide of the Nisqually River as the evening light painted its green banks gold, Wheeler and Jeremy Wolf, vice chairperson of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, joined Willie Frank Jr., chairperson of the Nisqually Tribe, for a boat ride. Frank explained the fish wars fought by his father, the late Billy Frank Jr., on these very banks. Out on the river they could feel its flow, see Puget Sound glimmering blue at the river's mouth, and had a chance to appreciate the histories and stories of people, united by salmon, across so many miles and boundaries.

The orca and the salmon don't know those boundaries, said Leonard Forsman, chairperson of the Suquamish Tribe and president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. The orca are the first people of this place, and need salmon protection now if they are to survive, Forsman said. "They need something to eat."

Sylvia Miller, vice chairperson of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, reminded tribal leaders that no matter where they are from, whether interior Idaho, the shores of Puget Sound, the coast or the most urban reservation, they all suffer from the same sickness: lack of salmon.

It also was unity on behalf of salmon that brought tribes together in the Fish Wars of the 1970s, fighting for their reserved treaty rights to fish ultimately affirmed first in federal court in the Boldt Decision of 1974 and finally the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979.

"It's very important to remember when we did the fishing rights, we didn't do it alone, we did that with nations everywhere, and people that don't fish, people from everywhere," Miller said. The same sort of unified effort is needed now, Miller said.

Who are we, without salmon? It is a question she and other tribal leaders posed not only to themselves, but the region as a whole, in this fight that is far from over.

To conclude the summit, tribal leaders read resolutions endorsing dam removal agreed to by the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and the National Congress of American Indians, representing more than 500 tribal nations.

President Fawn Sharp, vice chairperson of the Quinault Indian Nation, signed the national resolution, which also calls for another summit. This time, in Washington, D.C.

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