It was a great honor to attend the Tribal Salmon and Orca Summit, hosted by the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI) and Nez Perce Tribe on July 7 and 8. The testimony and reflections of tribal members on the importance of salmon and steelhead to their culture, religion, economy, and way of life inspire me to work even harder to recover Idaho’s fish. 

These fish are critically important to the ‘Salmon People’ living across the Northwest. Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council Member Gene James warned other Tribes that still had access to salmon that, “The very essence of our being is the salmon. All of us, that’s what we share. And when that gets taken, the people can never be whole again until the salmon return. My people are relegated to getting fish out of the back of a truck.” 

Tribal leaders gathered at the salmon and orca summit in support of Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson’s Columbia Basin Initiative and to ask the Biden Administration, Congress, and the governors of Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington for urgent action to save salmon and steelhead from extinction. More than two dozen Tribes, Rep. Mike Simpson, and several staff from Northwest congressional offices attended the meeting in person.

Rep. Simpson’s initiative would invest $33.5 billion to restore the lower Snake River, build new renewable energy facilities and transportation infrastructure, and enhance community economic development. At the summit, Rep. Simpson spoke from the heart about his efforts to recover salmon, calling out those who claim to share his passion but are unwilling to take the necessary steps to accomplish this goal. 

Based on science and fisheries experts, it is clear that breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River in southeast Washington is necessary. Congress and other officials responsible for the hydropower system must act on this to save Snake River salmon and steelhead. His proposal has started conversations across the region, attracting both support and opposition, and, hopefully, a lot of critical thinking. Several federal infrastructure packages are being discussed in Washington, D.C., any of them could include funding for the Initiative

“We’ll get this done one way or another,” Simpson said, knowing that getting approval for his initiative would be difficult. Nonetheless, he vowed to continue fighting. 

The unwavering efforts of the Tribes and Rep. Simpson to move his initiative forward has led to growing recognition that breaching the four lower Snake River dams and replacing the services they provide are necessary to recover these fish. Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, both Democrats, support Simpson’s efforts and appeared virtually to reinforce this position. Also appearing virtually, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, embraced significant actions in line with Simpson’s proposal. Inslee wants to “define what benefits these [lower Snake River] dams provide and how to replace them.” 

Throughout this Tribal Summit, Tribal leaders spoke their truths. They are Salmon People, they are Orca People. The status quo is failing them – and salmon and orca. The government of the United States made promises that have not been kept. The loss of salmon harms them to their core. Since time immemorial salmon have been central to their culture, their spirituality, their health. As salmon spiral towards extinction, so does the way of life for those here now and for future generations. It is time to unite, it is time to take action; to establish a balance that restores the health of rivers and the fish and wildlife that call the Northwest home. Time is running out.  

These are powerful truths. As I listened, I was deeply moved by the passion, the frustration, the commitment, and also hope that I heard. I wondered if the Biden Administration was listening.

Were the members of the powerful Northwest Congressional delegation listening? Really listening. Will those in power go beyond responding with words? Will they take action to support lasting, comprehensive action on salmon and orca for the Tribes, indeed, for all the people of the Northwest.

In coming together, Tribes have issued a call to action. In May, ATNI passed Resolution #2021-23, which calls for salmon restoration and tribal justice from Congress and the Administration. Unanimously, they want to see the Columbia Basin Initiative funded this year and for the Biden Administration to abandon its legal defense of the status quo in court. More recently, this same Resolution was adopted by the National Congress of American Indians, demonstrating national support for salmon and the Salmon People. 

ICL is standing together with Tribes in asking for nothing less than a true pathway to abundance for Snake River salmon and steelhead. There is an opportunity in front of us to secure that, and to secure a better future for our children and their children. To seize it, we’ll have to work together, and deal honestly. That starts with truth, which is what I heard at the salmon and orca summit. It can be bitter and unwanted. It can be hard to swallow the past mistakes of our society and the ways it is unfair even today. But it is vital to take these as lessons and use them as steps on the road to justice to make everyone whole. 

Together we must speak truth, and we must unite in action.