Along the Columbia River, extending from Oregon, Washington, and Idaho is a region called the “Columbia Plateau” – home to four major indigenous Native American tribes. These tribes, share similarities in their culture, religion, diet, and language patterns.
- Nez Perce Tribe
- Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation
- Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon
- The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation
It was common for these tribes to intermarry, interact often, and share resources, and trade with one another. The site of Celilo Falls was a common meetup place and resource that was shared together. These tribes share a common respect for the natural environment and have similar belief systems and mythologies of where they came from – believing their spirits were tied directly to the natural world and all of its inhabitants, one of which specially connected – the Salmon. Salmon brought sustenance and prosperity to the region’s rivers and streams. More information about these tribes can be found at http://www.critfc.org/member_tribes_overview/.
Indigenous Fishing on the Columbia River
Indigenous peoples of the Columbia Plateau have been fishing all of the bodies of water found in the Columbia Basin for thousands of years. As a monumental source of life, these waters have become central to each people’s society, culture, and spirituality. While each tribe had different languages and culture, there were more similarities than differences between the peoples of the Columbia Plateau. The regional economy shared was based around Salmon. This is still true today, although in pre-contact periods – there was a self-regulation with resource availability, and today this relationship suffers with the depletion and near extinction of various salmon species due to the overkill caused by Westerners. In prehistoric times, tribes fished for not only sustenance and trade, but also for ceremonial reasons. Tribes today in the region still prefer salmon as their main course, often recorded as being ten times the U.S. average consumption. This has suffered greatly through the years. In 1855, The Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama tribes made a special treaty with the United States to give away millions of acres of their lands to the U.S. in exchange for various terms including peace and rights to be guaranteed upon them. One of these was the ability to harvest fish in all of the various tribes techniques and practices, culture and spirituality, ceremony and commerce including within waters on or off of reservations. This has suffered greatly. Today the Columbia Plateau tribes struggle to protect their sacred food source directly competing with Westerner pollution of waters, over fishing, property rights, access, and ease of livlihood.
Various techniques have been used through the ages to fish the waters of the Columbia Plateau. Some of these techniques are still used, while others are no longer sustainable nor effective. Some of these techniques are more suited for smaller rivers and streams, while others are based primarily on the waters of the Columbia River. Modern Westerner techniques and equipment are also used today.
This technique is most common around the larger rivers of the Columbia Basin. It involves the construction of wooden structures that are more stable than they appear to be, as platform sites extending out onto the river providing access to fishing spots that the fisher person finds success at. These are also usually privately held belonging to certain families or individuals continually using the same location their ancestors did. Some are extended docks from the shoreline, others are hinged fold down platforms off of rocks, banks, or cliff walls. Adaptation to modern Westerner contributions to the rivers include them being placed off of man-made rock walls, locks, or canals today. Dipnetting is commonly practiced off of the platforms.
One of the most popular forms of fishing are “dipnets”. These are fishing nets attached to poles. These are often used off of these platforms. THere are two common types of nets used in platform fishing: (1) fishing nets attached to poles and (2) hoop nets where the nets are held open by hoops ranging in size from 6-8 feet in diameter. These are lowered into the water beneath the platforms. The nets are pulled up when heavy with salmon using the scaffolding as a brace. Poles can be as long as 25 feet in length. Traditionally hemp twine was used to tie the nets that were bound to the wooden hoops, and the poles were constructed of pliant green branches curved into a hoop and secured to the pole with sinew, binded and sealed with pine pitch. Longer poles were constructed from stripped pine saplings. Today, many of the traditional manufacture materials have been replaced by modern materials such as steel-reinforced plastic net wire on steel hoops, or poles made from bamboo, fiberglass, or aluminum.
“Bag nets” are a more modern conversion of the old hoop nets used by platform fishers. These are constructed of a large net bag held open by a hoop which are set within the river’s waters weighted down and marked with floats. These are left in the waters as a “trap: to catch salmon. As salmon swim through the hoop they become trapped. The fisher person will pull them into the boat along with any salmon caught within them.
This is a modern practice utilizing large nets up to 200-400 feet in length that are strung along various loations of the river. The net diameter is set to catch the head of a salmon, but not the body, thereby snagging the gills of the fish on the net. The fisher person then hauls in the net tangled with the salmon.
Article by Thomas Baurley