Traveling in a large group is always tricky. You never know how personalities will mesh or where hanger (when one’s hunger makes them angry) will strike first. Traveling for work and education is even more challenging. Finding a balance of work, play, and new experiences is vital for the group to bond and have a memorable time. Recently, a group of 24 representatives from Idaho Conservation League (ICL), Youth Salmon Protectors (YSP), the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla (CTUIR) Youth Council, and Washington Youth Ocean and River Conservation Alliance (WYORCA) met for the first time in Washington D.C. to advocate for salmon, orcas, and Tribal justice. 

This fly-in was assembled to spread the message that youth from across the Northwest are united in fighting for a free-flowing lower Snake River. Each group has been advocating for dam removal in their own neighborhoods by putting pressure on local elected officials to take action before it’s too late for salmon. The CTUIR Youth Council has been presenting their letter on lower Snake River dam removal to President Biden for the past two years at conferences across the Pacific Northwest and have surpassed their goal of 25,000 signatures. Maanit Goel, the director of WYORCA, has organized students from across western Washington to rally in front of the state capitol in Olympia. Youth Salmon Protectors have been organizing events and actions in Idaho and across the region for over two years, blazing a path for young advocates to learn about the issue and build a community of peers taking action.

The first day of the trip began with awkward introductions as the young advocates ranging from 12-20 years old, from Oregon, Idaho, and Washington began to get to know each other. They explored exhibits at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, ate ice cream on the lawn of the National Mall, and enjoyed a leisurely day before a week of meetings. 

The CTUIR Youth Council performs a traditional Round Dance in the National Museum of the American Indian.

Over the course of the next five days in DC, the groups attended 13 meetings with elected officials and their staff, federal agencies, and NGO partners. The kids’ confidence blossomed from quietly reading a few sentences off a sheet of paper to sharing personal stories of their own experiences. They shared facts about the salmon, steelhead, and orcas that have been on the brink of extinction since before they were born. 

Calls for Tribal justice rang loud in these meetings. The CTUIR leaders spoke eloquently of the loss they’ve personally witnessed and the hope they still hold for the future of their Tribe and their salmon. They maturely articulated how the decline in salmon has limited or erased some of their practices and traditions and how many in their community have turned toward harmful avenues (gambling, drugs, alcohol, etc) to fill this void. These young leaders were able to connect the dots for elected officials in a way that invited them to be a part of the solution and to act urgently. In many of these meetings, it was hard to find a dry eye in the room. 

“The direct knowledge and personal presentations of what salmon mean to them, their families, and culture were the best form of advocacy with elected Congressional officials and staff here in Washington,” said Lindsay Slater, Trout Unlimited Vice President of Government Affairs and former Chief of Staff for Congressman Mike Simpson (R-ID). “The future for salmon is bright so long as we have young women and men such as these working to bring back and restore our historic runs.”

“Working in DC was an incredibly fulfilling, tiring, emotional, and educational experience. We were able to connect with our legislators on a level that showed them the power youth hold, the undeniable importance of salmon for Pacific Northwest cultures, as well as the facts and figures which go along with dam removal,” said Lilly Wilson, a member of Youth Salmon Protectors and youth engagement assistant for ICL. “We ensured all questions were answered and that everyone had the opportunity to share their knowledge, creating an engaging and effective conversation for all parties involved. I am so proud and grateful that we were able to have such productive conversations and accomplish so much during our time in DC, as well as continue to develop these necessary skills for youth activists. Legislators are listening and they want to hear from you, all you have to do is speak up.”

For many of the Youth Council members, this was their first time on a plane, let alone their first time in DC. It was incredibly powerful to see them walking up to the Capitol in their traditional clothing, performing a song and dance in the lobby of the National Museum of the American Indian, and promising to “indigenize everywhere” they went. The excitement was palpable to see Native representation in a few of our meetings where staff from other Northwest Tribes shared their own stories and experiences as an Indigenous person in DC. 

Lindsey Pasena-Little Sky, CTUIR Youth Council Member and rising sophomore at Whitman College.

“I got to witness youth dressed in their regalia telling congressmen their future is at risk, because their grandparents tell them of a different life they used to live,” said Lindsey Pasena-Little Sky, CTUIR Youth Council member and rising sophomore at Whitman College. “The trip fueled my momentum to continue my advocacy, not only for Salmon, but for Indigenous peoples rights and environmental justice.”

Despite the long days of walking between meetings, catching the metro, and sharing heartfelt stories with elected leaders, there were mornings where, to my surprise, the first person in the hotel lobby was a student submitting their essay or starting their calculus homework to make up for missing a week of school. The will and strength of these young leaders to take time out of their own lives, when they should be getting ready for prom or at soccer practice, reignited my own passion and hope that we’ll soon see a free-flowing lower Snake River.

On our last evening in DC, the group gathered at the local Patagonia store for a private screening of Children of the Setting Sun’s Our Sacred Obligation. The short film highlights the Indigenous leadership in the movements for dam removal in the West including the Elwha, Klamath, and Snake Rivers. To everyone’s surprise, the youth spotted themselves in the background of multiple shots in the film. Their excitement to not only see Native representation on the screen, but see themselves on the screen was remarkable. It also inspired many to move forward into a lead role of salmon advocacy.

Salmon on 3! The group cheers after a long day of successful meetings.

“Us fighting unitedly will be my fuel forever to know environmental justice brings people of all color and ages together,” continued Lindsey. “This is our future and I am thrilled to observe; we all agree everyone’s voice matters in creating it.”

Building relationships with fellow youth advocates was also an incredibly meaningful aspect of the trip. 

“What most impacted me was the community we created over the course of our week in DC, connecting student activists normally scattered across three states and hundreds of miles,” said Maanit Goel, Director of WYORCA. “From the CTUIR Youth Council to my Idaho YSP peers, I heard stories and perspectives that fuel my motivation to continue this work and continue pushing for dam removal, and more than anything – built friendships which will bridge and reinforce our common efforts for years to come.”

“The trip with the Youth Salmon Protectors, ICL, and CTUIR Youth Council was a great step toward Saving the Salmon,” said Keeyan Singer, CTUIR Youth Council member. “This was an opening to our long run to Save our Wykanish. We are not done until the dams are breached on the Lower Snake River.”

We need a plan to stop salmon extinction before it’s too late. Take action for wild salmon and steelhead at the link below, and tell decision makers to enact a plan to replace the services of the lower Snake River dams to remove them and restore salmon to abundance!