Yakama Nation celebrates lamprey harvest at Willamette Falls
For as long as anyone in the tribes can remember, people have been coming to Willamette Falls to celebrate the harvest. This year's Lamprey Harvest Celebration on July 30, hosted by the Yakama Nation at Meldrum Bar Park in Gladstone, was no different — merely continuation of an ancient practice.
Native populations have long harvested the bounty of the Columbia River basin and surrounding areas to fish, hunt and gather.
"This has been our culture and our way of life since time immemorial," said Donella Miller, fisheries program manager for the Yakama Nation. "Our people followed the foods, followed the seasons. We're harvesting all throughout the year."
This event wasn't just about harvesting lamprey, an ancient jawless fish with a toothed, funnel-like mouth; Native people in attendance said it's about a way of life, a way of interacting with the environment and accepting what nature gives you and giving thanks.
"The salmon comes back in the spring; that's kind of the start of the season," Miller said. "We also have different types of roots that are ready then as well. We have the bitterroot and several different types of breadroot; those are all foods the we gather and dry and to store for the year, as well as the salmon.
"Right now, with the lamprey, we also have choke-cherries and huckleberries, the last fresh food of the year," Miller said. "We're also going to be doing a lamprey-filleting demonstration that shows the traditional preparation, how the lamprey was butterflied and opened up, so we were able to wind-dry it and preserve it, and these were all the foods that sustained us throughout the winter."
Culture, religion, identity and tradition: All these things were joined with nature and the harvest at the event to create memories that become stories passed down from generation to generation. Tribal members used the event to convey values like family, sharing, kindness to others and the preservation of natural resources to the public at large.
"Our philosophy is we don't make decisions today for us, we make it for our grandkids, or for those kids that have not yet been born," said Aja DeCoteau, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, "because without these cultural resources — our natural resources are our cultural resources — without that, it would be devastating to our culture, our people, our religion and everything that goes with that when things kind of start disappearing."
The harvest celebration was, at its heart, about a tradition of sharing.
"All of the plateau tribes that inhabited all throughout this area and the Columbia River basin, we all had our tribes and bands, but we all also came together at times like this as well," Miller said. "In being open to the public, it's part of our teachings to share with others. It brings blessings; you're welcoming everyone, so you're putting those good feelings into the meal that you're eating, and that's good medicine."
For the Yakama Nation, and the other local tribes represented at the harvest celebration, the outlook isn't as bad as in other tribes in the Pacific Northwest.
"Many of those Indigenous nations have lost access to salmon completely," said DeCoteau, "Fifty percent of our rivers and streams still have salmon in them, which is not the case when you go upriver, where many tribes have lost access to salmon completely and therefore lost access to part of their religion, part of their culture, part of the songs and their language — it's really part of our ceremony.
"We have this concept called first-foods," said DeCoteau, "at the center of that is water, because water provides all life. It's really centered around our creation story, when the Creator came to this Earth. They were going to prepare the world for humans, and the first to come forward was Salmon, who said, 'I'll give up my life so that they can eat and survive,' and then the next to come forth were the deer and the game. And then the next were the bitter-roots and the medicines, and then finally the berries, and so we operate on kind of a seasonal round. So, when things are in season, particularly, like, fisheries, we always have a 'first-feast' to identify that these species are here. It is now OK to harvest them, so that there is some control with how we harvest, when we harvest, so we're not doing it too early or too late or over-harvesting."
Much of the focus of this celebration was on preservation. Preserving food. Preserving tradition and culture. Preserving the environment.
"Everything we do is so that it can come back, because we're always thinking about the next generation of fish, but also the next generation of our tribal people, so that when my kids and my grandkids get to an age where they can start fishing, that there's actually salmon or lamprey to harvest on Willamette Falls," said DeCoteau.
"Our organization," said DeCoteau, speaking of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, "is quite diverse and complex actually. We provide a lot of services to our people; we do a lot of policy and advocacy. We also maintain 31 treaty-fishing access sites on the Columbia River that operate in coordination with the (federal) Bureau of Indian Affairs. We have a genetics laboratory in Idaho, where we have a world-class geneticist doing research that's highly revered in journal articles on our fish in our rivers. We recently acquired a coastal and estuary-monitoring program — the piece of the puzzle that is always missing, or is an unknown, is what happens in the ocean to our fish once they leave our tributaries and the Columbia River. By acquiring a monitoring program, we can now think about how we look at ocean and estuary issues, or what's happening there, and apply it to in-river fisheries management."
Inter-Tribal Fish Commission officials, which represent four tribes — the Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes with reservations in Oregon, the Nez Perce tribe in Idaho and the Yakama in Washington — try to take a holistic approach to the Columbia Basin as a whole. That requires coordination with 15 tribes in the basin, as well as the Indigenous nations in Canada, where the Columbia's headwaters start in British Columbia.
"We think about a basin-wide scale," said DeCoteau. "It's not just a small watershed-scale approach to anything; you really have to approach it from a whole basin-wide perspective, because you can't fix a small problem in one place and expect it to come to any solutions, if it's down-river or something else is not being attended to in terms of restoration.
"We really see ourselves as a technical and policy arm on behalf of our four tribes," DeCoteau said. "We tend to focus on the mainstem Columbia River and some Willamette issues. We're a consensus organization; before we take action or move forward on any priorities, all four tribes have to be in agreement and come to consensus. We've got about 150-160 staff located in five different locations in Washington and Oregon and Idaho. Our mission is to put fish back into the rivers and protect the watersheds where fish live, to protect and uphold our tribal sovereignty and treaty rights and to provide fisher services to our fisher-people along the Columbia River."
Tribes have been working to reshape the treaty to include environmental and ecosystem considerations, as well as flood control and power production, to protect and benefit tribal culture and resources.
"We have treaty rights on the mainstem Columbia River and the Willamette River all the way to Willamette Falls," DeCoteau said. "It's what we call our 'usual and accustomed areas,' because we've always — for millennia, and generations and generations and thousands of years — have always fished in these waters and in these areas. Particularly for lamprey, but also for salmon and other first food species, as well as harvesting berries and roots and medicines. Although we aren't physically, in today's world, located close to the falls, we do — all of our tribal people — know and revere these sites because it's been passed on for generations."
"It's just kind of common knowledge that this is where you came," Miller said. "I saw my grandparents and uncles and everything — they'd always come down here and harvest, and now we're back down here, passing on these teachings to our young people. Maybe they're playing and rolling around on the ground; you don't think they're listening, but they are. They hear these things, and they'll remember them, and they'll carry these teachings on. That's what makes things like this even more important for them — to take a day, even myself with my job and everything, but still carrying on these teachings, was how I was brought up."
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