On Saturday, Indian elders helped dedicate the “side channel project” on the Nez Perce Homeland grounds in Wallowa. The Wallowa River, Nez Perce Fisheries workers told us, had been shoved to a side, channelized decades ago, probably in the 1940s and 50s, so that more land would be free for pasture and crops. This narrowed, straight flowing river has scoured the river bottom and eaten the banks, and in so doing destroyed places for fish to rest while migrating, and places for them to spawn. The side channel does not change the course of the main stem, but allows water to drift to and through some of the river’s old territory. In spring runoff, water will spill over the side channels and recreate marshlands, where tule and other native plants can grow. There have already been fish and lamprey in the side channel waters.
Fred Hill from the Umatilla Reservation and Homeland Board Member, emceed the dedication. Jeremy Red Star Wolf joined him in an opening song. Long-time board member and Fisheries worker Joe McCormack introduced tribal elders, Nez Perce Fisheries technicians, and others instrumental in the project. Nez Perce Tribal Chair Sam Penny talked about the work of NP Fisheries and his delight in seeing the fruits of their work. Allen Pinkham Sr. and Bobbie Conner told the crowd that the people who lived here first are still here, and that we must remember the past as we address today and plan for the future. Both also reminded us that we are one human race, that divisions are harmful, but that reconciliation of people—and of people’s relationship to land and water, can occur. This work on this small river—which flows into the Big River, shows us that.
There was more singing, Longhouse leader Armand Minthorn said a prayer, Joe went to cook salmon, and the rest of us toured the project. And then we gathered in the Tamkaliks dance arbor and ate together. Later there were drums and dancers.
It was a small event in a small place, held just one day before Indigenous Peoples’ Day. But it was big in reminding us that the people who lived here first, those who made their way with the fish, fowl, and animals of the region, who learned the plants and the waters, know things still that might help all of us get past 200 years of Euro-American missteps on these ancient lands.
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