Thursday, June 21, 2018

Lessons from a Nez Perce elder

Proposed High Mountain Sheep Dam
Silas Whitman was in town this week, and the conversations were wide-ranging. The purpose of his visit was to speak to our current exhibit, “Dams, Fish, Controversy”—Jon Rombach’s had interviewed Si in researching the High Mountain Sheep Dam for the exhibit—and we were not disappointed. And the “wide-ranging” conversation was our dessert.

Si had been called on by Tribal officials at the time—in the 1960s—to follow the developments on that dam—and others. High Mountain Sheep was just one dam possibility for the Middle Snake. A competing project somewhat lower on the River put forward by Washington Public Power System argued that public power and their proposal should trump the private Pacific Northwest Power Company’s High Mountain Sheep project. Ironically, their competing project would be called the “Nez Perce Dam,“  and the “lake” behind High Mountain Sheep would be called “Imnaha.” (It’s hard now to imagine the mindset of the American power structure one and two generations ago, a mindset that would alter rivers and landscape and put Indian names on the alterations without comprehending the irony!)

The Nez Perce Tribe fought, legal arguments flew, and eventually both dam projects—although the HMS had already been approved, with road developments and land speculation on the way—were scuttled. The Tribe had been joined by a new non-profit called Hells Canyon Preservation Council and public opposition had grown when local and regional leaders toured the proposed dam sites with celebrities from Arthur Godfrey to Pete Seeger. In the end, Justice William O. Douglas said that fish and all they needed and represented trumped the rights of development; HMS died, and the Nez Perce dam was stillborn.

Si Whitman told us about an undercurrent. The Tribe had been caught between government agencies, and “We were an afterthought. We tried to get the BIA to intervene on our behalf and it was like pulling teeth. Our treaty rights would have been underwater.” The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the government agency charged with “managing” Indian affairs for the benefit of Indians, had played possum while the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation flourished. Indian voices on behalf of fish and all that the River was and represented had to wait for sympathetic white voices to rise before their own could be heard. (Alvin Josephy’s 1969 “White Paper” on the BIA documented this situation across Indian Country—but that is another discussion!)

Si reminded us that treaty rights would have been underwater with HMS and other dams on the Snake, and salmon—the salmon runs on the Snake and Imnaha and the entire Grande Ronde watershed—would have been gone. Extirpated, to use the harsh and correct word.

It seems to me that the greater lesson that Si shared was how “thinking like a fish” has to be joined with science if we are going to remedy the rush towards development that dominated natural resource policy during much of the twentieth century. I have asked biologists for years what might happen if the land-locked kokanee of Wallowa Lake were given access to the sea. Would the “sockeye” salmon DNA send some of them back to the ocean? I have learned from fish biologists that the occasional sockeye, probably with some wild gene in charge, is found in local waters. But Si’s answer was simpler and seemingly even more apt: maybe some of those kokanee found at the base of the dam trying to get downstream have the stuff to make it to the sea. He’d start there.

And with the big dams along the lower Snake that many are now demanding be breached? Si worries about the huge buildups of chemicals behind them, but remembers that Indians, when beaver dams stopped salmon waters too much, would pull them apart along their outside edge, restoring a kind of free-flow to the river. Thinking like a fish: “what we need is safe passage around this man-made barrier… and we don’t need the mercury and other junk stacked up behind the dams.”

On lighter notes, I asked Si about the continuing post-War presence of Indians in the Wallowa Valley. He knew of course about the Indian CCC camp that built the wall around what is now the Joseph Grave Site at Wallowa Lake. And he confirmed what I had heard about Indians camped at the fairgrounds in Enterprise, working the hay harvest in the early 1900s. And later! Si worked hay harvest on Harold Klages’s farm out of Joseph in the ‘50s, and remembered fondly the lunch feeds that Ardis put on for the workers.

And he remembered Irma Tippett and the Gold Room, where he played in an Indian R&B and rock ‘n roll band. And stories of his father playing jazz and dance music in the county with the “Nezpercians.”

Put up a few pictures of dams and fish at the Josephy Center, invite Indian elders to come and remember, and all manner of the true history of this place I’ve called home for 47 years floats to today.

# # #

2 comments :

  1. Silas is an outstanding spokesman for the Tribe. Thank you for sharing

    ReplyDelete