Snake River Vision: Tribal Rights

We tend to think of history as a rigid academic discipline, measuring specific events against linear time, thoroughly verifying them with artifacts and other documents. The recent discovery of artefacts unearthed at a site known today as Cooper’s Ferry along Idaho’s Salmon River dates back 16,500 years. This was great news, establishing Cooper’s Ferry as one of the oldest verified sites of human presence in North America.

Cooper’s Ferry is located in the heart of the Nez Perce tribal country and is part of the vibrant and vibrant culture of the tribes. For many Nez Percés, the discovery celebrated there served above all as confirmation by contemporary science of a story they already know. The narrative stories and traditions of the Nez Perce people – Nimiipuu – tend to be based on a different kind of timeline, one that says that the Nez Perce people have always been on this land, or more precisely, of he. The Cooper’s Ferry site has a name in Nez Perce — Nipehe. It sits in the heart of the vast 260,000 square mile Columbia-Snake River Basin, the world’s largest producers of salmon and rainbow trout. Historically.

Photo of Emily Nuchols
Photo of Emily Nuchols

Treaties between nations are a part of our history and are the supreme law of the land in the Constitution of the United States. In 1855, the US government entered into treaties with the sovereign nations of the western United States: Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama among them. These nations ceded millions of acres of their native lands to the United States in exchange for protection, and they retained the right to hunt and fish in their usual and customary places.

While treaties – which are contracts between nations – guaranteed fishing and hunting in the usual and customary places, later court rulings known as Boldt 2, also guaranteed habitat. In other words, part of our joint contract is that there will be fish to catch and game to hunt. We cannot enter into a contract that allows people to fish and then turn around and kill the fish.

These treaties are contracts that bind and oblige every citizen of the United States: we cannot take actions that result in the extinction of the salmon and when we learn that we are doing this we must fix it. The United States gained a lot when the treaties were signed – just look around – and in return, we make sure there is salmon in the rivers. It benefits everyone and it is a promise we made. Let’s keep it.

While the doctrine of “habitual and habitual” places guarantees rights, it unfortunately cannot guarantee places. The era of hydroelectric dams in the Columbia-Snake basin, inaugurated by the Bonneville dam in 1938, today includes some 150 projects, including 18 on the main Columbia and Snake axes. Many populations of fish species central to indigenous cultures, such as wild salmon, rainbow trout and lamprey, are dangerously close to being lost forever. People representing countless cultures and histories now living in the Northwest believe the removal of four federal dams on the Lower Serpent’s Reach holds the key to unlocking the potential for salvage.

For so many people today, it’s impossible to begin to understand let alone understand what places once were. We have not witnessed it, let alone experienced it ourselves. This is one of the invaluable perspectives that the timeless narrative stories of the Indigenous peoples of the Northwest can offer us all: They have it.

We see the restoration of the lower Snake River – a living being for us and a wounded being – urgent and overdue. Congressman Simpson, focusing on the facts and on a solution, is telling the truth – that restoring salmon and the lower Snake River can also bring together and strengthen regional communities and economies. We will be supporting Congressman Simpson’s initiative and we respect the courage and vision he is showing to the region. This is an opportunity for multiple regional interests to align with a better future for the Northwest: river restoration and salmon recovery; local and regional economic investment and improvement of infrastructure; and long-term legal resolution and certainty.

– Nez Perce President Shannon Wheeler said in a statement supporting Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson’s February proposal for a Northwestern infrastructure package that includes the removal of the four lower dams of the Snake River.

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About Geraldine Higgins

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