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.