The impact of the Bonneville Dam on Native American Culture

For the Native American tribes living in the Columbia River Basin, salmon are an integral part of their lives, serving as a symbol of their prosperity, their culture and their heritage. There are more than fourteen different tribes represented in the area, including the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama tribes. While they are separate tribes, with differing cultures and traditions, their reliance on salmon to maintain their way of life is a common bond.

Life Before the Dam

Economically, salmon were a large part of the culture of most of the tribes along the Columbia River. Before the treaty of 1855, many tribes had sucessful fishing economies. They traded salmon in order to obtain goods from other regions of the country. The salmon that were necessary to sustain their bodies and provide for their economic needs were available to them and therefore, the tribes were wealthy and self-sufficient. The economic benefits of the salmon were tremendously important for the welfare and maintenance of their communities, representing one of many significant benefits of salmon to their lives.

Year after year and generation after generation, the salmon returned every fall to spawn in the river. With this, a transfer of traditional knowledge and values occured. They passed on knowledge of fishing tecniques, as well as philosopies such as a respect for all forms of life. The return of Salmon to the river and subsequent transfer of knowledge symbolized to the natives that there had been a continuation of all life and assured them that their culture, tradition and spirituality had been upheld. It also served to reinforce their sense of place. When the salmon returned the tribes would gather down at the river to collect the salmon they needed to sustain them for the year. During the spring and summer they would head up to the hills to collect roots and berries to supplement their diet. People have mistaken these tribes to be nomads who wandered aimlessly in search of food and resources, but this is a misconception. These tribes followed the seasons, utilizing their resources in a circular pattern. The salmon were a fundamental component of their seasonal migration and their way of life.

Because the salmon played such an important role in their way of life, the salmon were incorporated into their spirituality and religious practices as well. The tribes felt that their souls were connected to the natural world and all of its inhabitants, including the salmon. Because of this "over a dozen longhouses and churches on reservations and ceded areas depend on salmon for their religious services" ( The return of the salmon each year was cause for celebration. One of the ceremonies used in celebration of the salmon was the First Food Feast. In this celebration they would pray, sing and dance before eating a traditional meal of salmon, deer or elk, roots and berries. Antone Minthorn of the Umatilla tribe explained the importance of this ceremony...

The importance of the first salmon ceremony has to do with the celebration of life, of the salmon as subsistence, meaning that the Indians depend upon the salmon for their living. And the annual celebration is just that - itís an appreciation that the salmon are coming back. It is again the natural law; the cycle of life. (

A Clash of Cultures

The native tribes to the land surrounding the Columbia, and the white settlers that arrived in the early to mid 1800's had very different philosophies concerning their respective relationships with the land. In general the white settlers displayed a disregard for the limits of their resources and brought with them the concepts of ownership and property. As a result of this, the non-Indian economy thrived at the expense of the Native Americans, whose fishing economy was driven almost to extinction. The native way of life depended on respecting the earths limits. They saw themselves as spiritually connected to the land, the animals, and its incredible abundance of resources, and they knew that by hurting the land they were hurting themselves. They understood the importance of sustainability, realizing that even if the effects of exploitation were not immediately apparent, they would be felt eventually, hindering the lives of the generations to come. This fostered a duty to protect the salmon. Bill Frank Jr. stated:

Survival of the salmon has always meant more than just food for the Indian people. Indians have long recognized that if they are to survive and if their childrenís children are to survive, it will be because the salmon survives. It is their legacy. (

As the salmon population declined and many of their traditional fishing sites were flooded as a result of the constriction of the Bonneville Dam and other dams along the Columbia River, the culture, tradition and spirituality of these tribes have been put in danger. The native philosophies were essential in managing the resource of salmon, yet they were powerless in enforcing their methods because their ideas were seen as inferior. Allen V. Pinkham Sr. of the Nez Perce tribe who among other involvements in Native American politics spent nine years on the Nez Perce Tribal Council and was chairman of the Columbia River Tribal Fish Commission, explained:

We utilized the salmon resource, we didnít deplete it. We utilized what was necessary to sustain our lifestyle and life ways, both spiritually and physically. Nobody does that anymore. Non-natives see only the salmon as a commodity that gets bought and sold. Not thinking about the survivability of that salmon as a species. (Pinkham, 1996)

Present Day

Today the Native Americans struggle to maintain their fishing economy. A recent article by Ellen Morris Bishop in the Columbian describes the hapless state of Native American commercial fishing as follows:

In the next month, Indians from Eastern Washington and Oregon will balance on flimsy platforms above the riverís current and plunge nets into the rolling green water. Others will challenge the Columbia in battered Boston Whaler boats, setting out gill nets in gathering darkness and harvesting their catch at dawn. They fish at sites their ancestors used, sites registered with the tribe, sacred ground. (Bishop, August 27, 1998)

A decade ago there were nearly 1,100 native fishermen, while today they number fewer than 500. This year, in accordance with Native American treaty rights to half of all fish allocated for commercial harvest, the Upper Columbia River tribes are allowed to catch a total of 51,534 fall chinook and 16,720 steel head. It is anticipated that 2,400 will be wild steel head, but most of the fish will be from hatcheries. This yearís catch is up from last yearís 40,200 but far less than the 79,000 Indians caught commercially in 1990.

According to a 1995 article by Allen Thomas in the Columbian, in an effort to replace tribal fishing grounds flooded during construction of the Bonneville Dam, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned to build and improve Native American fishing sites. The multiple sites along the Columbia and Snake River were planned to include parking lots, foot docks, camping sites, showers/restrooms, lighting systems, sewer and water systems, and fish cleaning stations. (Thomas, October 13, 1995)

It seems that the government is attempting to repair some of the damage done to the Native American fishing economy, but unfortunately much has already been lost. The Culture, tradition, and way of life of the tribes in the Columbia River Basin will never be the same as they were before the construction of the Bonneville Dam.

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