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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Tribes Welcome Back First Salmon
by K.C. Mehaffey - Wenatchee (WA) World staff writer

OMAK — 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.

They 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, clack-clack-clack.

Before leading everyone to the creek's bank to call the salmon back, tribal elder Tom Louie explained what they would be doing.

"I 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.

This was the fourth year in recent times that the Colville Tribes have held a First Salmon ceremony along this creek.

Held 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.

But for several decades, there were no ceremonies on Omak Creek. Salmon were blocked from swimming home to this tributary of the Okanogan River.

Over 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.

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.

"When 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.

Louie 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.

Louie 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.

"I don't know what happened. Somebody got mixed up on their song or something, and they built the dams," the elder said.

Now, Colville tribal leaders are working on many fronts to make sure salmon can return to the heart of their reservation.

Tribal 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.

Joe 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.

The 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.

When 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.

With 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.

During the ceremony, others came forward and spoke of the importance of salmon.

Tom 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 -

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