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(Many Paths)
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Smithsonian Museum Features Nisqually Salmon Recovery Effort
by Les Blumenthal - McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Below the 45-foot model of a right whale named Phoenix, behind the case holding a rare giant squid and not far from the remains of a prehistoric coelacanth caught off Africa, is an exhibit highlighting Pacific Northwest salmon and the efforts of the Nisqually Tribe to restore a wild run.

Though it may not be the flashiest display in the new, $49 million Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, curators say it's a unique story about a fish that migrates thousands of miles against almost overwhelming odds before returning home to spawn.

But there is also a human side to the tale. Salmon are the lifeblood of a Native American culture stretching from northern California to Alaska, and restoring the dwindling runs is an almost sacred duty. The northwest Pacific Coast became the most heavily populated Native American region because of the salmon.

"Without salmon, we would cease to be Indian people," reads a quote in the display from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Picking the Nisqually to feature in the exhibit was an obvious choice because of the tribe's efforts to restore a wild Chinook run that was all but extinct. The tribe's effort serves as model for similar projects throughout the region, said Jill Johnson, a Smithsonian exhibit developer who spent five years working on the new oceans hall.

It's the largest salt marsh restoration project in Puget Sound.

"This is the perfect story," Johnson said.

The exhibit is housed in four cases that are dimly lit to protect the artifacts they contain. There are replicas of a Chinook that could weigh 40 or so pounds, and a smaller Silver salmon. There are carvings of salmon-boys, salmon-shaped rattles, clubs, spears and harpoon points used to catch salmon, a beautifully decorated paddle and headdress. Photos show Yakama Indians fishing on the Klickitat River and Tulalip Tribe purse seiners fishing on the sound. There are explanations of First Salmon ceremonies and other celebrations.

Hanging above the display cases is a 26-foot, hand-carved canoe from the Tlingit Nation in Alaska. On the front of the canoe is a replica of a raven. According to the story, an actual, live raven with a broken wing showed up when the canoe was being carved in Juneau.

Under the headline "Nisqually Tribe Takes the Lead" are pictures and text explaining the tribe's efforts to restore salt marsh habitat critical for the Nisqually River's salmon runs.

"The Nisqually Indian Tribe from Washington state plays a crucial role in the recovery of the endangered Chinook salmon," the text reads, adding that the tribe, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has restored more than 800 acres in the river's estuary where juvenile salmon rest before starting their saltwater journey.

Photos show tribal members working with federal biologists identifying and counting juvenile salmon, and students from the tribal school returning salmon carcasses to the river, which helps restore nutrients to the river.

Every year, the efforts of a different tribe will be featured, but the Nisqually were first.

"We asked our anthropologist to find a tribe to illustrate the efforts of the Native Americans to rebuild the salmon runs and the Nisqually Tribe was chosen," said Johnson.

Two tribal elders were on hand when the exhibit opened in September.

Cynthia Iyall, Nisqually tribal chairman, said the exhibit was important because it reminded tribal members of the importance of the salmon and the river they live next to. The exhibit explains to the outside world that the tribe's very existence has been tied to the salmon runs for thousands of years, she said.

"The salmon is hugely significant for our tribe," she said. "It's what maintains our people."

The Nisqually River delta, in south Puget Sound between Tacoma and Olympia, was the scene of some of the most angry clashes in the late 1960s and 1970s between Indians and fish and game officials as tribes fought to assert their fishing rights.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the city of Seattle wanted to build a garbage dump along the estuary, and Weyerhaeuser wanted to construct a log export facility, said David Trout, the tribe's natural resources director.

But the major problem was a series of earthen dikes built more than 100 years ago by early homesteaders that turned salt marsh into pastureland. Those dikes are now being removed by the tribe and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Where once the Nisqually Chinook run was virtually wiped out, roughly 1,200 wild fish returned this past year.

"It appears it has been working," Trout said.

Tribal officials said they were surprised when museum officials contacted them about the exhibit.

"I was checking my e-mail one day and there was this e-mail from the Smithsonian," said Jeannette Dorner, the tribe's salmon recovery program manager. "I thought I should open it. We weren't even aware they were looking for a tribe."

Dorner has seen the exhibit and said it was an amazing experience.

"I think they did a very good job," she said.

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