Bringing salmon back to the upper Columbia River will be the focus of a free online festival taking place from May 10th to 16th.
Sockeye salmon. Photo by Eiko Jones
Okanagan

Bringing the Salmon Home: Week-long festival celebrates Indigenous knowledge, restoration

‘It's going to be such a celebration to see that first salmon come back.’

Bringing salmon back to the upper Columbia River will be the focus of a free online festival taking place from May 10th to 16th.

Hosted by the Columbia River Salmon Reintroduction Initiative, the Bringing the Salmon Home Festival will feature talks from Indigenous Elders, leaders, storytellers, artists, Knowledge Keepers, biologists and scholars. There will also be salmon cooking classes and performances by Indigenous musicians and poets. 

“This Initiative is about providing both salmon and hope for our common future,” says Kukpi7 Wayne Christian of the Secwepemc Nation in a statement. 

“It is our sacred responsibility. We’re excited to be co-hosting this Bringing the Salmon Home Festival as part of engaging community members in this important work.”

The festival will open on May 10 with “drumbeats from within each Nation, with songs, prayers and stories rippling out from the headwaters of the Columbia to the mouth of the river where it meets the Pacific Ocean, and beyond,” according to the festival’s schedule.

Mark Thomas will be hosting the festival. He is a spokesperson for the salmon reintroduction initiative and the Shuswap Nation’s technical lead for the Columbia River Treaty works.

“Salmon restoration is something that I’m very, very passionate about. I believe that it’s something that will help reinvigorate if not bring back a lot of our lost culture for [the] Shuswap Indian Band,” says Thomas, who is a councillor for the Shuswap Indian band.

“Every man, woman and child that lives in a basin will have a benefit from the return of salmon in the Columbia River.”

The Columbia River Salmon Reintroduction Initiative is a three-year program that started in 2019. It represents a collaboration between five governments: the Syilx Okanagan Nation, the Ktunaxa Nation, the Secwépemc Nation, the B.C. government and the federal government. It’s funded by the two latter governments as well as the Columbia Basin Trust to the tune of $2.25 million over three years. 

Impact of the Grand Coulee Dam on salmon

In 1933, construction began on the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River Basin in Washington, U.S. After the dam began operating in 1941, the migratory fish run of the upper Columbia River stopped, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, an American federal agency.

The Columbia River flows from Columbia Lake in southeastern B.C. across the border into Washington and Oregon, where it empties into the Pacific Ocean. Today there are 14 dams on the main Columbia River (not including dams on the watersheds), including three — Mica, Revelstoke and Keenleyside — on the Canadian side. The Grand Coulee is still the biggest dam in the Columbia River Basin.

Upper Columbia River. Photo credit Chris Conway

“It was over a mile across the river, and it stopped the salmon from coming up,” says Thomas. 

The impacts of the Grand Coulee were felt almost immediately by communities whose way of life, ceremony and captikwł (stories) are interconnected with salmon. Thomas explains that it was his grandmother’s generation who first felt the devastating impacts of the dams, which he says were built without the consent or knowledge of the Columbia basin First Nation communities. 

“She lived through the loss of salmon,” he says. “My grandmother said that, you know, she lived through it, and she couldn’t believe that they did that to us.”

“Some of our people were sent downstream to find out what happened,” he says. “They said, ‘I don’t know, we don’t know. And we talked to those other people downstream — they don’t know.’ Finally, it came back probably a year or so later, that our salmon [weren’t coming] back anymore,” he explains.

Indigenous-led restoration

An important element of The Columbia River Salmon Reintroduction Initiative is that it is Indigenous-led. 

“Bringing the salmon home will require innovative and creative solutions from both technical experts and traditional knowledge holders from the three nations,” says Sandra Luke, chair of the lands and resources sector council of the Ktunaxa Nation Council in a press release on May 6.

“The Bringing the Salmon Home Festival and the Columbia River Salmon Reintroduction Initiative are tremendous opportunities to showcase the importance of salmon to the Ktunaxa Nation, as well as to work collaboratively to achieve the goal of bringing the salmon back.”

Thomas encourages people to “come with an open mind” to the festival and enjoy themselves. 

“I think the most important aspect of this is for people to learn, for people to understand the complexities of restoration, the difference between restoration and feasibility, the importance of [the] ecological benefits of salmon returning to all levels of the biota, to the importance of salmon returning to the people,” says Thomas.

“I can’t wait because it’s going to be such a celebration to see that first salmon come back.”

To attend any of the festival’s free events, register here. A full itinerary of speakers and events can be found here