Messages from the Salmon

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Sep 13 13:27:17 MDT 1999

Messages from the Salmon: 3 Lessons for Human Survival

By Patrick Mazza

In the 1960s and 1970s, the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest
began to assert their rights, guaranteed under treaties, to fish at their
"usual and accustomed places". Both in the Puget Sound and on the Columbia
River. Native Americans staged fish-ins to demonstrate that their
traditional rights to salmon runs superseded state fishing regulations.
After numerous arrests and federal court cases, they won recognition of
those rights in the 1970s.

The native peoples now play a vital role in the struggle to save collapsing
salmon runs. A tribal network with legal standing is pressing claims to
save the runs on which they have depended for at least 12,000 years.

No tribal family is more associated with the salmon struggle than the
Sohappys of Cooks Landing, Wash. They led fish-ins at the Columbia River
Gorge site, one of the few set aside for native fishers when Bonneville Dam
flooded their traditional fishing places. One of the prime federal lawsuits
even bore the Sohappy name as plaintiff.

But the government had their revenge on the leader of the family, David
Sohappy. In the mid-80s, state fishing agents arrested Sohappy on trumped
up charges in a questionable sting operation based on illegal sales of
fish. Indigenous activists and their supporters around the world rallied,
but to no effect. Sohappy was sent to federal prison in the late 1980s.
Deprived of his traditional diet, he suffered a stroke in prison and died
in 1990 shortly after being released.

Nonetheless, in 1994 when spring Chinook salmon runs were collapsing above
Bonneville, the first dam on the Columbia, it was the Sohappy family that
again led a fish-in. They set up traditional net fishing platforms at
Willamette Falls on the Willamette River near Oregon City. This was the
first time Columbia River natives insisted on their fishing rights below
Bonneville. This time, state authorities quickly backed down. Native
fishing rights below Bonneville are now recognized.

It was a crucial victory for the natives. The spring chinook are important
ceremonial fish for the Columbia River fishers. They are the center of the
spring salmon return ceremony, a vital heart of their culture. In the
mid-1980s, before the government sent David Sohappy to prison, I had the
privilege of participating in a spring salmon return ceremony and feast at
the Sohappy family longhouse. While it is probably inappropriate to report
the details of that ritual, I can relate two powerful, personal impressions
from that sunny spring day. The first was of the drums, their regular
rhythm ascending in intensity, resonating with the vista of power
manifesting in wind- driven waves on the big river beyond the windows. The
second was of prayers that many times in many ways repeated the thought,
"We are the salmon." More than the prayers of thanksgiving before a meal
familiar in Western culture, the words of the native people at that
longhouse bespoke an integral unity, a sense of oneness between fish and
fisherpeople. Among these people, the divide between their sustenance and
the sacred is nonexistent. Their work and their religion are one in the same.

Since that mid-80s ceremony, the fate of Northwest salmon runs has become
one of the biggest political questions facing the region. As the full
impact of declaring salmon runs endangered species becomes known, the issue
will come to be regarded as one of the most significant in the history of
white settlement in the Northwest, because it affects virtually everything.
- energy, agriculture, industry, transportation.

The salmon runs are too devastated to be a major source of sustenance for
most Northwesterners. But the actions we will have to take to reverse that
devastation can make the salmon a key source of wisdom for all of us. For
the salmon are teaching us three clear lessons in ecological sustainability
crucial not only to the Northwest, but to humanity in general.

The first lesson has to do with energy. Obviously, the hydroelectric dams
that have given the region a source of cheap electricity have been very
expensive in terms of salmon runs. Despite fish ladders, salmon have a hard
time moving beyond the concrete walls that span the rivers. On the way back
down, they are chopped to pieces in turbines. Touted as a renewable energy
source, the dams are nonetheless ecologically destructive. For more salmon
to survive, more water that now turns turbines will have to be "spilled,"
not used for power generation, irrigation or navigation. The lesson here is
conservation, to use what we have wisely and not wastefully. Numerous
credible energy experts estimate we can save 40-75 percent of the
electricity we use, with no loss of comfort or convenience, by investing in
efficiency. Learning the attitude of using what we have more wisely is
vital not only for saving the salmon, but also for dealing with most
environmental problems.

The second lesson is that we are overusing the earth. It comes to us from
what we're finding out about the impact of clearcutting on salmon runs. For
the dams are not the only culprit in the decline of the salmon; silting and
destruction of streams caused by industrial forestry methods also bear much
of the blame. Even if there weren't a spotted owl, we would have to stop a
lot of logging just to save fish runs.

What this teaches us is that we have put too much strain on natural
resources. It is time to end, as much as possible, the extraction of raw
materials from the planet, especially through deforestation. What is needed
is an economy based on waste reduction, reuse of goods and recycling what
cannot be reused. Not only must we use wisely; we must use less.

The third lesson is to take care of each other. In the early '90s, I
attended a gathering of environmental activists at an old girl scout camp
near Roseburg. Through the weekend, pickup trucks with
anti-environmentalist yellow ribbons tied to their antennae were ominously
driving up and down the dirt road next to the camp. Then sometime after we
left Sunday morning, lodges at the camp were systematically destroyed with
crowbars, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damages.

There is a madness in the air in the timber communities of the Northwest
that gives rise to such events. While loggers have lived off an
exploitative industry that deserves to be ending, cutting them off as
people is a mistake. Yet the United States, unlike many countries, provides
almost no meaningful help to shift into new lines of work when old ones are
dying. The strain this puts on individuals, families and communities
inevitably leads to negative consequences - increased crime, alcoholism,
violence, divorce, etc.

The costs of change will be paid somehow. In effect, we are paying them
through the legal and medical care systems.

Considering the needs we have, this is absurd. To deal with the decline of
the forest and hydroelectric power industries, the region needs lots of
work done. Energy conservation, low- impact renewable energy development,
recycling-based industries, tree planting and ecological restoration - all
are creative ways of working through the environmental problems confronting
us. As public policy created these problems, in the form of subsidized dam
construction and the selling of timber for ridiculously low prices, a
social decision must be made to move in new directions. People who have
depended on work that is now fading must be trained and equipped in these
new forms of right livelihood.

The salmon are speaking to us. Like those drums at the Sohappy longhouse,
their voices are increasing in intensity. If we can listen and heed the
message they bring, we will learn some of the most crucial lessons for our
common survival, not only of the human race, but also of the multitude of
other species so vulnerable to us.

Cascadia Planet / Last Modified 30 Dec. 1995 /

Thoughts, questions, comments to: cascadia at

Louis Proyect

More information about the Marxism mailing list