August- Freeing the River

Salmon Nation by Roger Fernandes
“Salmon Nation” by Roger Fernandes

The Elwha Dam Removal:

For the Lower Elwha S’Klallam people the Elwha River represents the true source of life. When it flowed freely from the mountains to the salt water, it gave the People sustenance and meaning. The S’Klallam people say that they were born from the rocks of the river.

Following the smell of their home beds, the fall Chinook and Steelhead returned from the North Pacific by the millions and – weighing in at a hundred pounds – their mineral rich bodies provided nutrition for the land, the plants and trees, the bears and eagles, river otters and raccoons. To the Native people this is the salmon’s world. Nation upon Nation of life relied on the return of the precious salmon. Their return is a reminder of wholeness, and informs us without a spoken word, of how to live a life as the Salmon people do, with generosity and loving abundance.

One could only imagine the devastation these nations faced with the construction of two dams along the river in the early 20th century.

“When the dams were built, there was no fish ladder. The builders of the dam said no ladder was needed as it could be replaced by a fish hatchery. The S’Klallam people say they watched the returning wild salmon smashing their heads against the wall of the dam; trying to find a way home. They say the river was red with their blood. The salmon were keeping their promise to always return.”

A starved land, an incomplete people, and a broken food web missing its cornerstone species were all hungry for the gift of life. For nearly 100 years the Lower Elwha Tribe fought for the removal of this dam. In September 2011, their long wait came to an end.

Lady of the Mountain Breaks the Dam by Roger Fernandes, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe
“Lady of the Mountain Breaks the Dam” by Roger Fernandes

With 20 years of planning that involved several professions, organizations, and different governmental entities, the dam was demolished. Subsequently, a series of actions to restore the health of the river arose. Scientists predicted the return of the salmon to be somewhere between five and ten years. In the fall of 2013 after the removal of the first dam, a record return of Chinook was recorded – 4,700 – the most since 1992, doubling what had been recorded in the recent two decades. No one had predicted such a rapid return of the native salmon.

The Elwha S’Klallam people say that when the river  is free again, their lives can return to living along the river in the manner of their ancestors. The salmon can return and play its role as the source of life, giving food and life to all things on the land and in the river. When the river is whole the salmon will be whole. When the salmon are whole, the people can be whole. The cycles of the river and seasons and life can once again guide the lives of the people.


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