I belong to the Wallowa and Palouse bands of the Nez Perce. My family are descendants of Chief Red Bear, who helped Lewis and Clark build canoes and navigate the free-flowing Columbia River. I am the great-great-great-grandnephew of Chief Joseph.

These rivers have been the lifeblood of Mother Earth since time immemorial and it’s no coincidence that I’m carving canoes today that I will launch into these waters next spring. It’s a part of my agenda to restore our river and recover salmon.

The river was broken the day the first dam was built. As dams were built on the Columbia and Snake rivers, our communities were cut off from the water, our culture diminished and our salmon runs disappeared. Much of this you can’t quantify in scientific or even economic terms, but only in the damage that is done, when those runs are no longer there.

But now we’re working hard to bring our culture back. Building canoes, teaching our youth and reconnecting with our tribes up and downstream to the coast — from the Wallowas to Astoria — is strengthening our people. And central to the revitalization of our culture is the restoration of the rivers that carry our canoes and support us and all of creation.

While salmon runs in the Columbia and Snake rivers have been declining for decades, we’re now facing a moment of crisis. And let me be clear. I am not simply talking about a species, about wildlife. I am talking about our relatives.

As native people, we refer to the salmon as salmon people. We talk about the orca families. The salmon people and the orca families are going extinct. When your family members are threatened, you don’t give up, you don’t give in, you don’t stop fighting. We have a great urgency to accelerate the process of dam removal and recovery.

These issues are complex and it’s time to address this challenge from all fronts — the riverfront, the economic front and the legal front. They are all intertwined and you can’t have one without the other. I am heartened to see a renewed commitment from the state of Oregon to hold the federal agencies to account for their latest failed salmon plan. While we pursue collaborative solutions, we also must stand strong and defend our rivers and salmon from further harm. This is a first step, but we need to keep moving.

I can attest, from personal experience, the stubbornness of trying new ideas and trying something new, which is why I am heartened to hear the growing dialogue across the region about how we might remove the lower four Snake River dams to recover salmon runs and meet tribal treaty rights, while also supporting farmers and ranchers and ensuring clean, affordable energy.

I believe we can accelerate the dam removal process and our own recovery through economic activity and investments in infrastructure. The people who currently count on power from the dams are not our enemies. They’re just trying to make a living like all of us. What we need to do is provide alternative energy options. And there are plenty of jobs to be created in that process.

Ultimately, I believe this is an issue of justice. For our rivers, for the salmon people, the orca families and for my people. For all of us. I dream of the generations beyond me paddling canoes on healthy rivers from the mountains to the sea. It is time for all of our Northwest leaders and our neighbors throughout the Columbia and Snake river basin to work together to build an economy and a way of life that takes care of all of us. This, like all things, will be a generational effort. I am only pushing the canoe off the shore for this quest, as others have before me.

———

Allen Pinkham Jr. lives in Wallowa and is a Nez Perce tribal member and artist.

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