One With The Salmon

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Beware, dancing in dories for Salmon may turn you into one.   Ok, slippery humor aside, this past saturday (May 26th) we completed our 11th annual Sacred Salmon Ceremony to welcome the return of Chinook Salmon to our local waters on Salmon River. Our group was small, with about half Nez Perce and half White folks attending. All who gathered together was for the common purpose of appreciating the  return of Salmon Nation and the gift they bring to the people each year.

The event is also designed to help heal old wounds between  two cultures who share a long stained  history that began soon after the arrival of Lewis and Clark days.   This gathering is a good opportunity to get to know each other a little better on a more personal level,   in a most beautiful and appropriate setting.  History is often repeated when nothing is learned from the past atrocities, and brew of bad behavior. Often new generations of people lose contact with those things that happened before their time, so a new version of the same ill wills can surface to fit a new era again. Ignorance breeds many unwanted consequences.

Fixing ramifications from the past  will not happen without acknowledgement and a new awareness to help shape a better tomorrow.  Many events that led up the  Nez Perce War of 1877, was just a microcosm of a much bigger picture painted by the  Manifest Destiny doctrines of a dominant culture advancing across America. Land, gold, fish, and wildlife were always the treasures sought,  usually at any expense, and  often ending with much human tragedy.

Treaties were the instruments by which the dominant culture gained such footing. Though many a treaty was broken, all by that same dominant culture with a more than healthy  lust for natural resources, some treaties, or parts of them still exist today. Thus,  treaty obligations isn’t just something that happened a hundred years ago. They are still legal documents with the same weight and obligations in today’s world. We can still choose to honor them, or not. History will reveal the answer to what will happen, based on our choices today.

In our region, treaties with the Nez Perce (a Domestic Sovereign) allow them to hunt and fish in their traditional areas. It also means, in the case of salmon, that they get half the take, and white folks get the other half.  The fishery  scientist provide all the monitoring of population dynamics and fish counts, with the  shut-down of fishing when targeted catch numbers are reached. . Each Nation enforces regulations on their own members during the season.

Honoring the treaty is also a part of our Sacred Salmon Ceremony. It  includes three basic rituals and process. First is a shoreline ceremony, where Horace Axtel, a long time Nez Perce spiritual leader, guides drummers and singers with native words of ancient songs and wisdom. Three songs are sang at river’s edge, then drummers and those who wish to participate get into dory boats to do three circles in the giant eddy beyond the shore. Three is a sacred number in Nex Perce world, so as we do our three sacred circles, three different songs of long ancient significance are sang during the progression around the eddy.

The eddy is a little edgy during high-water-run-off, so doing turns with hard boats full of people, is a bit tricky. It requires serious attention to angles and momentum to slice precise turning and smooth transitions between  strong opposing current differentials (upstream/downstream eddy line).

Afterwards, we return to the shore and sit in a circle to pass the talking stick around. It goes counterclockwise (another direction held special by Nez Perce people) to  each person and gives them a chance to introduce themselves and say whatever words they wish about the event and ceremony. Afterwards, we have a potluck and sit around to visit and share good food and story telling.


It is always very interesting to hear the Nex Perce tell of their relationships  to different bands and multi-generational ties to the land   They have a deep respect and reverence for water, and all the sustenance it provides for everything. The Salmon in particular is a huge icon to their culture, with many  customs associated to the significance those fish have with their people.

Archeologist have found evidence in this very area that we hold the ceremony, that goes back 7000-8000 years, and in other places along the river 12000 – 13000 years. That is a long historic tie with the land for a nation of people to have. Even more amazing, is that only after the dominant culture arrived, did the salmon nation begin to have problems. Two different world views. Two different results to impact on our home in the universe.

Hopefully, lessons from the ancient wisdom’s of people who were less harsh on their surroundings and more sophisticated in their relationships with nature, will prevail. Kinship with all, or mastery over everything into the future?  Only time will tell us the answer to that question. Our intent with the Sacred Salmon Ceremony is to dance in-step with the Salmon and not stamp  on too many toes of other people.

The Efficacy of Ritual – Why Salmon Dance?


The up-coming Salmon Ceremony on Salmon River, May 26, 2012 is a chance for people to gather collectively and river dance for the return of the salmon nation.  Will it help bring the fish home? Do salmon hear the people? Are outside forces at work? Do spirits from the other world lend a hand? Is there some creative source of the universe at work? Is there a monotheistic god pulling all the strings?

Does any of this really matter? If the desired results of a set of prescribed activities happens, where it came from, known or not, may not matter much.  A positive feedback may prevail and be answer enough to the people who participate.  The importance of ritual is about intention and influence. Where the influence comes from is secondary. Intention is about focus, direction, and attraction.

Rituals began a long time ago, yet prevail in many forms and uses in today’s world.  A ritual is usually some kind of activity that mostly carries symbolic value to a group of people for various reasons.  The efficacy of ritualistic actions is a nebulous and often contentious evaluation as to the effectiveness such behavior may have.  More curiously, aside from actions that seem to have a desired effect, the reasons why, are also quite ambivalent.

Special music, songs and dance, are often a big part of human rituals. Often they are copied from the animal realm that also contains many biological and social rituals in their world.  Such as mimicry of a sage grouse dance,  a wily coyote on the prowl, flight of an eagle, or the butting heads of bighorn rivals.   Even celestial events are copied and given names like the Sun Dance in the Sioux Culture. Most things are done in circular fashion, as many of natures events, from planet shapes and orbits, to cycles of the seasons and circadian rhythms.

Some people believe spirits from the other world can be solicited to aid their wants, and is fundamental to a lot of religious organizations, or spiritual appreciation in a more secular hinged earth flavored paganism.  Rather any force outside of man exists and comes to the aid of the asking, will always be debatable. However, often rituals do help groups become more grounded in a commonality that often helps bring about desired changes, in itself.

The human animal is very much effected by group dynamics and ceremony. Chemical changes in the brain take place and do have an effect on behavior. Thus, the reason a placebo often works as good as any prescribed medicine in healing illnesses or maladies plaguing the unfortunate.  So the act of believing sets in motion changes to the brain that indeed sometimes allow for bringing the desired effect.

In this light, the importance of ritual for humans is that it unites them with a common cause, and in subtle ways very small, perhaps even subconscious, actions may be combined with the right chemistry to be of just enough efficacy to create a welcome desire.

In the case of our Salmon Ceremony and Dance to help bring more salmon back to their spawning grounds, we hope that collectively, all cultures of people can come together and become much more focused on that very intent.  Ritual can help spread a ripple affect across the universe.  It may mean that more people will return home, and in some small way, sometime in the near future, align their own behavior more akin to that with the salmon.  It may lead to changing a vote for a certain politician, with enough like-minded  support, that is more fish friendly when it comes to policy changes that effect biology and ecology of the natural world.

Like it or not, politics is the bottom line to all human events, from ancient times to now, and most likely forever into the future. So what we do today, will have impact for tomorrow. Dance the salmon dance. It is good practice to keep from stepping on nature’s toes. The better you dance and sing, the more likely it will make good  music of the world come to be. You can be religious, or not, atheist or theist,  or appreciate science, mytholodgy, or any other form of spiritualism to particiapte or spectatorate.  The beauty of the Great Mystery, is an  appreciation for the  unkwown future of wonders  ever yet to unfold.

Salmon Ceremony on Salmon River

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For thousands of years the Chinook Salmon have been returning from the Pacific ocean to spawning grounds in the major and minor tributaries of the colossal  Columbia River watershed.  The First Nation Peoples subsisted on annual returns of these monster sized salmon and always celebrated their seasonal gift of life.  Various ceremonies by different tribes were derived to welcome the fish back and promote good will between people and animals.

Indigenous Peoples often viewed animals  as their own separate nation of “beings”  and given respect for their particular place in the web of all life. Simply “being” is honored as an important significance for placement in the biological scheme of time and space on the planet. All Mother Earths creatures are important and have purpose.

Ah, that word “purpose”.   This fundamental idea that all things have purpose or meaning has given man a gut-ache throughout all time and had caused much bloodshed over millenniums. Revelations from one place or another, real or imaginary, gave rise to various customs and religions. Often group gatherings developed  many codes of conduct to suit each following and established behavioral systems to guide the followers.

Unfortunately, many belief systems caused people to become selfish over who belonged to the right club and held the correct ticket into an after world where rewards were awaiting those who were the best followers of the prescribed religion.  Even killing of fellow humans who were in different clubs was allowed and often promoted to  help gain perceived holy entitlements.

Historically, most primal Peoples placed a high priority on responsible behavior in this world, not an after world. Their worldveiw saw all life sacred, all with equal footing as a part of the whole, and placed here by the Great Mystery.  Anglo Peoples favored an etheral after world to shift their responsibilities to, and thus justified poor behavior in the real world by sins that were a born  inheritance  to man anyway. Why worry so much about this world, with paradise awaiting in the next one?

In European cultures with God as a centerpiece, and revelations that described man at the center of an earthly presence and all animals put on the planet strictly for  humans gave rise to domination and massive exploitations of most natural resources.  It also came at the expense of subjugating other Peoples and cultures as a means to ends.

In the US, as European expansion advanced across the nation, displacing one tribe after another under the umbrella of Manifest Destiny, a path of darkness followed.  In just a blink of geologic time, disruption of life processes that had been happening for thousands of years, suddenly changed drastically in less than two centuries.   Reservations were established to institute First Nation Peoples, forests were cleared, agriculture replaced nomadic inclinations for food, modern technologies mushroomed,  and fish and game in many cases became threatened with extinction.  The passenger pigeon did succumb to oblivion, the buffalo nearly did, and salmon are also still on the brink of questionable recovery.

Not until wisdom prevailed and a few concerned second nation people came around to establishing the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation to safeguard fish, wildlife, and habitat, through scientific inspired policies, did a bridal get thrusted onto  such a run-away horse. Many success stories of recovered fish and wildlife were gained, but many are still of questionable concern.

To this day, all Peoples still face great environmental challenges in keeping the biological systems in good working order.  The Chinook Salmon runs that has made the entire Columbia River a world-class fishery and life-giving source to people and other wildlife, is in peril.

Aside from treaty obligations with native people, whom could always fish for iconic salmon in their historic places, white culture was prevented from fishing for these same fish for nearly 30 years, due mostly to dams plugging up the river system. It was not until 2001, that white people were granted permission to fish again. Why?  Hatchery fish, is the simple answer.

When dams were first put in the Columbia River, it was known that the fishery would suffer, so mitigation dollars were established to build hatcheries and give an artificial aid to the wild run.  Though, wild fish are still endangered, ocean conditions in 2001 finally gave rise to enough hatchery fish to open a season for the white angler.

But for how much longer will the salmon continue to return?  Downward trending  wild fish  are the seed source for hatchery fish, and with each improvement of hatchery populations, integrity of gene pool propagation is diminished. Long term viability of sustainable annual runs is highly debatable.

A consensus of fisheries scientists that have been studying the decline for over 30 years account dams as being the biggest threat to run survival over time. They give an 80% chance of success if four dams on the Snake River are breached. That any suggestion that a dam, or four, should be taken out and was given serious consideration, was astounding to those of us who had always joked about the potential of yanking such concrete monsters out of canyons to let natural flow prevail.

But in 2000, ground zero for public hearing about such barrier removals happened in Lewiston , Idaho.  While those hearings are a story in itself, one of the over-all results of this public event, for the local Riggins community of concerned citizenry, led to what is now our 11th annual Salmon Ceremony on Salmon River.

I tossed the original idea out amongst the five  of us, “Free the River Cohort Conspirators” as we drove homeward towards Riggins from the controversial and adversarial official dam hearing, to establish a welcome home salmon nation ceremony locally.  The idea was to let fish know, by some unseen, spiritual, or Great Mystery connection, that there are still humans that recognize the salmon’s gift and appreciate their return. Politics and commericalism aside, this event was to simply be a ground zero appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things natural.

Since Indian Peoples have been doing this for centuries, and because the two divergent cultures share the same natural resources, it seemed appropriate to invite the Nez Perce People to participate. What better way is there to help heal old wounds and improve mutual understandings between different cultures, than a  face to face gathering to appreciate an iconic fish that is a common thread to all people?

Horace Axtel, a spiritual leader of the Nez Perce people, agreed to participate and is the official facilitator of the ancient ceremonial part of our salmon gathering.  We gather on the banks of the Salmon River, at Spring Bar, ten miles upriver of Riggins, Idaho in the later part of May each year. Actual dates sometimes change at the last-minute, due to circumstantial Nez Perce ceremonies that Horace is sometimes called upon to officiate at unpredictably.

Once everyone is present, those wishing to participate  gather along the banks of the river to  follow an ancient ritual, then hop into dory boats, (if interested and with enough room) to make three sacred circles in the giant eddy water of the Salmon River. My boat will lead off with Horace and other elders singing and drumming ancient songs welcoming the fish back. Other boats follow quietly behind for each of three circles, before landing, and anyone is welcome to bring their own boat or raft to join the eddy circles.

Afterwards, people gather in a circle on the beach, with a talking stick passed counter-clockwise for each person to say what comes to mind about salmon and people. Upon completing the circle a pot luck is held where food and visiting ends the day.  This year the ceremony is on May 26, 2012 at 2pm.

Last year, we incorporated a “Salmon Shield” into the ceremony to be passed back and forth each year between the two cultures. It represents the all inclusive salmon cycle, gifting, and a human appreciation between all cultures.

Please leave dogs at home out of respect for other participants, bring a dish of  food to share, your own eating utensils & plates and your non- alcoholic beverage. This is a non-alcoholic event, not a football game tailgate party. A pure heart is all that is required.

River That Flows Into The Far Beyond

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Welleweah is an old Nez Perce word used to refer to the Grande Ronde River, in Northeastern Oregon. Like many Indian words, that often have more than one meaning, this word had two: “river that flows into the far beyond” and canyon where horses winter well.” Similar to place names that meant different things at different times or to various individuals, many of the words used by the Nez Perce are also onomatopoeic. This long, rolling greek derived word,  describes  rhetoric formed to copy sounds that are associated with an object or action. For example, coyote is called itsiyiyi or iceyeye, and comes from the yiyi or yeye yiping that is often heard when these wild canines howl at the moon, or whatever it is that they howl at.

It is also a word that describes what we sometimes yell as we plunge through exhilarating rapids of the wild rivers we float.  Why this primal urge hits when bouncing through lively whitewater may be related to the electricity in the water that comes from the spirit of the river.  Like a static charge, it jump starts the heart and promotes a surge of energy through one’s soul.

Before maps, google earth, and cars, when travel was confined to foot of man or horse, places and distances were larger than they are today. Or at least, relatively, that is, when the earth was still thought of as flat, rather than round.  Though circular thinking was large in primal times, by direct observation of nature’s way, it took more human inventions (telescopes, etc) and  thought evolution to determine the earth was a sphere and not something to fall off from.

From an early Nez Perce perspective, looking at a canyon like the Grande Ronde, more than a hundred miles long from where we launch boats and rafts today, near Minam Town, to our take-out at Heller Bar on Snake River, was like staring into oblivion. It probably seemed like the river, indeed, flowed into some far beyond place that took days to get to or could  never be  arrived at. But, they did winter their horses in the canyon parts they were familiar with, as the forested canyon of pines and fir also had lush grassy slopes for their animals.

Not only horses did well in the mix of grass and tree montane habitat, but so did deer and elk, and even the wooly mammoth, of times even farther back. This canyon provided wonderful forage for stock animals of the Nez Perce both in summer at the upper end, and winter on the lower elevation parts.

Unlike horse travel used to traverse the ridges and old Indian trails, our boats make sight-seeing in this canyon much easier and less impactful than grazing animals. While there are no Appaloosa horses, for which the Nez Perce are a famous for developing, or mammoths ambulating around, we do often see deer and elk getting their fill of the green of spring.

For river travelers of today, enjoying a watershed is much more than getting “rapidly” entertained.  Watching natures show, with all her cast members fading into and out of various scenes along the way, add a stimulating dimension to a river that will transport you into a time and place of the far beyond.

Rivers make good medicine with us, we make good medicine with rivers.

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Fools Peak On The Owyhee

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It is hard to believe, but the Owyhee River peaked at 2710 cfs  (at 1:45 pm)   on april fools day for the 2012 seasonal run-off.   So, those of us who hoped for higher flows to boat the river in late April and  early May, were fooled into a false expectation.  Low snow packs and warm weather happening much earlier than normal created the unusual happen-stance.

Is this related to global climate change?  In my mind it is highly  suspect.  The number of climatologist and scientist that support the anthropomorphic causes to weather pattern alterations is too vast to ignore. Since I am an evidence sort of guy, I tend to side with those things that can be measured by mathematical means rather than mere faith.  Fortunate are we who have the science gained from those wise folks before us.

It was not that long ago that many people believed a person might fall off the edge of the earth if one adventured too far, or that the sun came up and went down every day. But we now know our globe is not flat, and revolves to make it appear the sun is doing all the moving.  We now even measure flows of rivers and can appreciate recognizing levels, high and low, when running them with rafts or dorys can be good or bad.

How coincidental or cosmically poetic it has been that the Owyhee found its zenith of run-off on April Fools day.  Mother nature can play the game with the best of man’s tricks and contrivances.  So, now that the Owyhee is boating history fo this year, I can now get back to anticipating and planning trips on the river I grew up on – Oregon’s Grande Ronde. While the Owyhee flows in the SE corner of Oregon. The GR flows through the NE section of the state.  Unlike the desert of the Owyhee canyonlands, the Grande Ronde permeates the forested flanks of the high Wallowa’s.  The saw-toothed granite peaks of te Eagle Cap Wilderness and Elkhorn Mountians are the headwater sources of the this great cold water salmon and steelhead stream.

Rivers make good medicine with us, we make good medicine with rivers.

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Be the Boss of Your Own Island


Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have your own island in the middle of paradise? Well, this lady found her piece of the rock, or should I say, the entire rock, and was stranded on it in the middle of the Owyhee River.   Terri had a few moments to be Queen of her own little island in the center of nowhere, or everywhere, depending on your view of the universe.  Not only once, but on several occasions she had the opportunity to be in command of her own rock island.  Although, one such island was a bit of a balancing act.

Terri and I just came off a most enjoyable trip on this charming desert river.  Another rafting couple was supposed to travel with us down the Owyhee River, on our original itinerary, but cancelled out at the last-minute, when the water dropped to levels they were not comfortable  navigating.

Not many oufitters will run a commercial river trip for just one person, due to the marginal economics of it all,  especially when water conditions fall below 800 cfs, which is very challenging and demanding.  Mistakes on the oars during low water can come with huge consequences and the margin of error is disastrously slim. However, I am one such outfitter willing to run such trips. Why? Simple. The Owyhee River is one of my favorite places, and any chance I have to see and learn more about this remote watery ribbon of desert river, is one I am quick to take advantage of.

Also, with over a hundred trips down this canyon, in a high range of extremes (high and low water), my comfort level for taking on the harder navigational challenges is not as intimidating as it may be to others not knowing the area quite as well.  So, I am willing to take on the hardships low flows present, because it enables me to get another trip on one of my favorite rivers of all time.

Even with an extensive experience of many trips in this area, it still is an opportunity to discover more. It would seem that the more you learn, the fuller you would get. But, just the opposite is true. The more you learn, the more you appreciate how much you don’t know.  Thus, revelation of nature’s mystery is everywhere, all around, all the time. A curious mind is the only thing necessary to enjoy the magic.  I always find something new on every trip.

Since this was Terri’s first trip on the Owyhee, everything was new.  Each bend held another threshold of beauty, just waiting to be passed through.  In anthropomorphic terms, the canyon walls could be seen as taking pride in having its outstanding natural charm appreciated by mere human forms.  While some women use several tricks with make-up to high light their personal beauty, the canyon just waits for special lighting conditions.  Indeed, the effect is most astounding.

The remoteness of the Owyhee can create feelings that are hard to describe.  It is akin to what it would be like if you were ever marooned on an island in the middle of the ocean.  We did not see one other float party during our entire four-day trip. This alone, adds another dimension to that remoteness and feeling of isolation created.  Wonderful, is all I can think to say. Peace. Blissful appreciation for nature, also come to mind. No distractions. Distilled nature at her finest.

In this day and age of so many people on the planet, and so much alterations of nature by man’s hand, it is an exceptional treat to actually know there are still places that remain where  you can escape, find temporary refuge,  and still appreciate un-marred naturalness of our orb in the cosmos.   The Owyhee River is one of those places.  I love magic.

Rivers make good medicine with us, we make good medicine with rivers.

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