Tyson Andrew is visiting land so sacred he won’t even disturb the lures lost by careless fishermen.
“They might be offerings,” the solemn 12-year-old explains as he steps from one mud-stained rock to the next.
Tyson and his father, Arkie Andrew, are among a handful of Native Americans making pilgrimages this week to Hayes Island, an ancient gathering place that usually is underwater. They are recalling old times, sharing wisdom, leaving offerings and fasting and praying for the future.
They spend nights in five canvas tepees visible from the Kettle Falls bridge over the Columbia River.
The Indians have not visited the island since 1991, the last time enough water was drained from Lake Roosevelt to lift the island above its river grave. It has been even longer since they’ve seen Kettle Falls, the tumbling rapids that were split by the island.
This week, the falls are just a ripple on the surface of the Columbia. The water would have to drop another 35 feet to reveal the entire cascade.
That last happened in 1969, when the reservoir was lowered so workers could install a third powerhouse at Grand Coulee Dam, 105 miles downstream.
The falls won’t show this year; in fact, dam operators say Lake Roosevelt is about as low as it will get before they allow the reservoir to start refilling late this month. The drawdown was ordered to prevent flooding if snow melts quickly from the mountains.
For thousands of years, the island and the falls were the center of life for Native Americans who relied on the Columbia for food and spiritual strength.
Each summer, hundreds of people gathered to spear and trap chinook salmon that had traveled 710 miles from the Pacific Ocean.
In those days, Tyson’s band, the Lakes Indians, camped on the island with several other local tribes. Native Americans from as far away as Montana camped on shore.
The Indians held council, shared food, danced, played stick games and told ancient stories of the animal people.
The last salmon came to the falls in 1940, the year before Grand Coulee Dam forever blocked their path.
Now, Lake Roosevelt fishermen jig for walleye, a species that was introduced from the Midwest. Or they troll for rainbow trout, which are reared in pens and released to attract tourists.
Yellowed newspaper clippings from the last salmon run show tribal leaders in cowboy hats and head bands pointing to some of the best fishing spots.
Tom Louie was two years old when a newspaper photographer snapped the picture. On Wednesday, he returned to the island in an aluminum boat to pray that the federal government will install fish ladders at Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams, so the fish might return again.
“They’re spending all that money elsewhere” to restore salmon runs, said Louie. “They ought to give us a little of it for fish ladders.”
Even as he prays, Louie concedes his cause is hopeless. There are too many obstacles to restore the great salmon runs. So he also prays for a natural disaster that would crumble all dams.
He prays for an end to the pollution that makes the river’s fresh-water mussels inedible.
He prays for a cleansing of the air.
He prays because “talk doesn’t seem to help.”
There is no spite in his prayers.
“People say, ‘the white man, he took this and he took that,”’ said Louie. “Nobody took nothing from anyone because it belonged to all of us.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SALMON FEED Members of the Colville Confederated Tribes will hold a salmon feed and powwow at noon Saturday near Kettle Falls. Everyone is invited.