Thursday, June 20, 2024

First Salmon Ceremony celebrates ancient tribal food staple

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BRIDGEPORT—The Colville Tribes Fish and Wildlife Department held its annual First Salmon Ceremony at the Chief Joseph Hatchery administration building on 48 Half Sun Way last Thursday, May 23. The public was welcomed to the best salmon lunch in the county.

Following a tribal tradition that has honored the salmon as a major food source for thousands of years, the first salmon was caught early that morning in the Columbia River. The capture was accompanied by prayer and song by tribal elders before the catch was filleted and prepared as a special offering for lunch guests. While skewered fillets cooked over an open pit barbecue outside, Master of Ceremonies Randy Lewis, tribal elder, historian, and author, introduced guests inside to presentations by fisheries specialists about projects underway to increase the health and number of salmon in the future.

Major among those is the current program of reintroducing salmon above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams to reestablish populations in traditional waters.

“Our goals are to reconnect salmon to their historic habitat and to the people,” an information release said. “Release locations and number of salmon will be selected to meet multiple objectives including spawning, harvest, ceremonies, and research.”

Phase I is complete. It included evaluating habitat availability and suitability. Fish stocks across five species were assessed for genetics, disease, competition, and predation risks.

“A life cycle model was developed to estimate outcomes of restoration scenarios,” the release said. It also included “evaluating passage facilities and technologies at existing dams to determine how it might be applicable to Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams.” 

Phase II is underway. This involves experimental pilot releases of chinook and sockeye salmon into blocked areas. In August 2019, 30 adult chinook were released into the Columbia above Chief Joseph Dam at Rufus Wood RV Park south of Nespelem.

The tribes expect Phase II to require about 20 years to complete and cost about $200 million.

Before the break for lunch, the prepared filets of the First Salmon were presented on a tray for anyone who wished could share a taste of the honored fish. Many did, offering a prayer in the process. What was not consumed of that salmon was returned to the waters where it was caught earlier in the day.

Following lunch, those interested were given guided tours of the nearby Chief Joseph Hatchery, built in 2013.

The ceremony ended as it started with a song and a closing prayer.

Mike Maltais: 360-333-8483 or michael@ward.media

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