Although I have traveled to the Pacific Northwest several times, I never made it east of the Cascade Range. My mission to write about the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation’s project to conserve and restore freshwater mussels to western streams provided the opportunity to venture into new parts of this area I have loved for so long. During my two-week trip, I drove east from Portland through the Columbia River Gorge and on to various parts of eastern Oregon and Washington. I ultimately made it all the way to Hell’s Canyon. While the scenery is quite different from the coast, with more wide-open spaces, flat land, and farmland, it is equally spectacular, and I found myself wondering why it took me so long to venture here.
My travels were dotted with signs denoting points of interest on the Lewis & Clark and Oregon Trails, the one-two punch that helped achieve the United States declared “manifest destiny” and upended the lives of the original inhabitants of what is now the western United States. Colonization by pioneers in the 19th century brought changes to the West that were set in motion when the first foreigners brought disease, exploitation, enslavement, and genocide to native peoples in the “new world” centuries earlier.
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We all know the history. Native peoples were removed from their historic territories and confined to reservation lands; many of their children were placed in boarding schools, which served to indoctrinate them into Euro-American ways while stifling all aspects of Indigenous heritage and culture. Where Indigenous peoples had ingeniously found ways to live sustainably and in harmony with their environment and nature for thousands of years, the settlers’ mindset of property ownership and dominion over nature became the dominant way of life.
Although tribes such as the CTUIR have retained rights to hunt, fish, and gather in their traditional use areas, these rights are difficult to exercise as the populations of traditional indigenous foods have plummeted. The habitat impacts from over a century of development, mining, agriculture, logging, and dam construction have resulted in a number of threatened or endangered species in the Columbia River Basin.
The development that came with colonization has irrevocably harmed the ecosystem. More importantly, this in turn has profoundly affected the customs and traditions of the Indigenous peoples who have inhabited these lands for over 10,000 years. But despite these assaults, the tribes have managed to keep their traditions alive and have been instrumental in raising awareness and giving voice to the need to heal nature.
To add insult to injury, the impacts of global development and the effects of climate change can no longer be denied. Record temperatures scorched the Pacific Northwest this summer. The four largest wildfires in Oregon’s history have been in the last 10 years, including the Bootleg fire, which ignited shortly before I arrived and burned for 39 days. Drought and heat have caused higher water temperatures, stressing aquatic species. This year, record low steelhead trout returning from the Pacific have prompted conservationist to call for a halt to harvesting them.
The CTUIR efforts to restore aquatic species is testimony to their perseverance and resilience despite the repeated assaults on their way of life. The tribe developed a guiding document authored by tribal members and partners in 2008, which was updated by CTUIR department of natural resources director and tribal member Eric Quaempts in 2011. This “river vision” promotes a holistic, ecosystem approach to natural resource management that “…recognizes the importance of water both as a resource in its own right and as a critical resource for supporting the production of remaining First Foods.”
I cannot help but wonder how things might have been different if, instead of waging war on the Indigenous peoples, early foreign settlers had instead found a way to live and work in collaboration. It is not possible to turn back the clock, but perhaps it is possible to do more listening in the hopes of learning from the Native American traditions that sustained their civilization and conserved and protected the environment for thousands of years.