Nearly 50 people crowded along the bank of Omak Creek at
sunrise Friday, a rock in each hand clack-clack-clack
and called the salmon back.
sang and tapped the rocks together in unison, first standing, then
squatting at the water's edge to tap them under water, splash-splash-splash,
leading everyone to the creek's bank to call the salmon back, tribal
elder Tom Louie explained what they would be doing.
always ask people to have two rocks, and when they're singing, to
hit those rocks together," he told those gathered. "When
the snow starts to melt and the river comes up high, and the rocks
come down, it helps the salmon," he said. Just like the sound
of the rocks tumbling down the creek, he said, the clacking of the
rocks will call them home.
was the fourth year in recent times that the Colville Tribes have
held a First Salmon ceremony along this creek.
by many Pacific Northwest tribes, First Salmon ceremonies welcome
the return of spring chinook salmon, the first to come back to their
headwaters each summer.
for several decades, there were no ceremonies on Omak Creek. Salmon
were blocked from swimming home to this tributary of the Okanogan
the last 10 years, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation
have reopened blocked sections of this small stream. In 2001 they
began releasing young salmon, hoping one day they would return.
they did. Last year, 44 adult spring Chinook came back. It's not
many, but it's more than Louie thought he'd ever see.
I heard about the tribe putting in fish here, at the time, it was
kind of a joke. When they said they had put these fish traps in
so salmon would come back to this creek, I didn't think that was
possible," he said.
led Friday's ceremony, with drumming, songs and many stories about
the importance of the fish that was so central to his tribe. "Salmon
has the medicine for our people, so we can all get well," he
told those gathered.
said the First Salmon ceremony has been going on for generations.
It was held in tributaries, and in the Columbia River, where people
would walk into the water chest-deep, with their rocks, calling
to the salmon.
don't know what happened. Somebody got mixed up on their song or
something, and they built the dams," the elder said.
Colville tribal leaders are working on many fronts to make sure
salmon can return to the heart of their reservation.
councilman Deb Louie said that politically, the tribes have battled
with commercial fishermen and lower Columbia River tribes to try
to get their share of fish returning to the upper Columbia. A lost
court case gave half of the salmon to commercial fishermen, and
the other half to lower Columbia tribes. But agreements are ensuring
that more fish return to the upper Columbia, he said.
Peone, director of the Colville Tribes' Fish and Wildlife Department,
said the Chief Joseph Hatchery which won recent approval
from an independent scientific panel and is now scheduled to be
built next year is a major component of the tribes' plan.
federal government promised the hatchery as mitigation for Grand
Coulee Dam. Hatcheries were built in the Methow, Entiat and Leavenworth
areas, but Okanogan never got its hatchery.
complete, the Chief Joseph Hatchery will raise 900,000 spring Chinook,
with 40,000 to 50,000 of those to be released from an acclimation
pond just upstream from the ceremony site, Peone said.
the environment in mind and with help from the Natural Resource
Conservation Service the tribes have removed barriers, fenced
out cattle, and encouraged new plant growth along the stream. "It
takes time for a creek to heal," he said.
the ceremony, others came forward and spoke of the importance of
Louie said it makes him glad to see fish back in Omak Creek. He
said he doesn't expect he'll see the day when there will be enough
for him to fish for them. "But maybe one day my daughter will
be able to go to Walmart and buy a gaff hook and come up and take
one home," he mused.
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512 - firstname.lastname@example.org