A feast of grilled salmon is an exceptional way to end a day spent kayaking on the Spokane River. For the Spokane Tribe of Indians, it’s also a link to history.
As my group of paddlers pulled into Blue Creek on the Spokane Indian Reservation late Sunday afternoon, Bill Matt Sr. met us with a trailer pulling a portable barbecue. An hour later, we sat down to dinner.
Matt bought the barbecue for family dinners, but he occasionally caters other events on the reservation. He likes to watch youngsters develop an appreciation for salmon.
“It’s coming back into their taste,” said Matt, an environmental conservation officer for the Spokane Tribe.
Salmon fishing was so important to the Spokane Tribe that its leaders missed the 1855 treaty negotiations at Fort Walla Walla. The negotiations in late May and early June coincided with the return of the salmon runs.
One consequence was that the Spokane Indian Reservation was established in 1881 without guaranteed access to fishing spots outside of the reservation boundaries. That hurt the tribe after the construction of hydroelectric dams.
Little Falls Dam, which went into operation in 1911, was built without an effective fish ladder, cutting off salmon migration up the Spokane River 29 miles from the confluence with the Columbia River.
In the late 1930s, the construction of Grand Coulee took another toll, stopping salmon from reaching the upper Columbia basin. The Spokanes – who depended on five oceangoing fish species – suddenly had no salmon or steelhead.
“That was the end of a rich cultural history and a religion. It was pretty devastating,” Tim Peone, the Spokane Tribe’s hatchery manager, said last week.
Peone, 42, grew up in Ford, Wash., five miles from the Spokane River. As a kid, he fished every lake he could find, but never the Spokane River. It didn’t have a viable fishery.
That changed in 1990, when the Spokane Tribe started a hatchery program. The tribe works with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation; Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife; and the Lake Roosevelt net-pen project, which is funded by the Bonneville Power Administration.
The groups’ goal is to release 700,000 rainbow trout and 500,000 kokanee each year for a “put and take” fishery, Peone said. Native American and non-Native anglers benefit.
The hatchery fish aren’t the 80-pound chinook “June hogs” that the tribe once harvested in the Spokane River. But Peone said their presence has helped revive the tribe’s fishing culture.
The salmon grilled Sunday came from a hatchery in Leavenworth. Several tribes divide the hatchery’s surplus salmon. They’re served at ceremonial dinners and distributed to tribal members.
Dinner at Blue Creek capped a day spent mostly in Indian country.
On Sunday morning, we put in below Long Lake Dam at the Avista Corp. boat launch. A gentle current carried us through a narrow, shady stretch of the river, where we watched bald eagles – mottled juveniles as well as adults.
About 40 pairs nest in the lower Spokane River, according to the Spokane Tribe, which conducts yearly counts.
We passed Tshimakain Creek, where the reservation borders the river.
The portage around Little Falls Dam took us to Wynecoops, a beach not normally open to non-tribal members. In low water, you can see piles of rocks that once guided salmon upstream, said Brian Crossley, manager of the tribe’s water and fish program.
Little Falls Dams was built at one of the river’s 11 primary Indian fishing sites. The salmon were trapped in cages and speared. That night, our paddling group made camp along the river. The wind picked up as darkness fell, riffling the rain shield on my tent.
“Look at the moon,” someone said near my tent.
I meant to stick my head out to get a glimpse, but I fell asleep instead.