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Field Notes: a Northwest nature blog

One of the reasons many of us live in the Pacific Northwest is the natural wonders that amaze us all. On this blog Seattle Times writers and photographers will share their explorations of the natural world from snowcaps to whitecaps. Write us at fieldnotes@seattletimes.com with your own sightings, questions and wonders to share.

August 19, 2011 at 7:00 AM

Honoring first salmon caught below Elwha dam - for the last time

Posted by Lynda V. Mapes

With song and ceremony, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe this week honored the first chinook salmon caught below Elwha Dam this year by tribal fishermen. Just five chinook salmon in all, this small catch nonetheless had big symbolism: it's the tribe's last chinook harvest before two dams on the Elwha start coming down next month in the largest dam removal project ever, anywhere.

Last year saw a record low run of chinook return to the Elwha River. The five chinook caught and honored in the First Salmon ceremony Monday are from a remnant of the once mighty run of kings on this river, the largest fish of their kind in Puget Sound.

The fish will be cut into pieces and gifted to the tribe's approximately 70 elders said Lower Elwha Kallam tribal member Rachel Hagaman, who helped lead the ceremony by banks of the Elwha.

As a thick marine fog ghosted over the river, Hagaman and her sister Lola Moses wove a raft of cedar bows atop a folding table set up on the banks.

cedar raft.JPG
Lower Elwha Klallam tribal member Rachel Hagaman, right, helped bring the first salmon ceremony back to Lower Elwha after it had not been practiced for many years. Hagaman, right, and her sister Lola Moses wove rafts of cedar boughs to float the carcasses of chinook salmon, ceremonially returning them to the Elwha, and, as their teachings instruct, to the Salmon People, dwelling in houses under the sea.
Steve Ringman, photo

Ahousaht First Nation member Pat John and Lower Elwha Klallam tribal member Mark "Hammer" Charles raised their voices in a song to honor the first chinook caught this year. The tribe will forgo all fishing in the river for five years once the dams come down, so its next chinook will be harvested from an open river, for the first time in more than 100 years.

The song twined with the mist as Hagaman and Moses worked, preparing a ceremonial platform for the carcasses of the fish. Joining in was four year old Roger Tinoco Wheeler, Charles' grand nephew. Charles has been teaching him traditional songs since he was born.



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Pat John, in white wool headband, and Mark "Hammer" Charles, right, sing a traditional song honoring the first chinook caught on the Elwha River this year. It was also the last chinook the tribe will catch before the dams come down. Joining in the song is Charles' 4-year old grand nephew, Roger Tinoco Wheeler; standing back to camera next to Charles. Lower Elwha Klallam Elder Ben Charles stands to the left, wearing red and black regalia.
Steve Ringman, video

Elder Ben Charles explained the ceremony welcomes the salmon back, and urges the Salmon People in the river and the ocean to come back home, and feed their people.

The ceremony, Hagaman said, also honors the Creator, "and acknowledges that He's keeping our people, the Salmon People, coming back."

Kids from the tribes' child care center turned out for the occasion. Phil Charles, a former tribal council member, rode up on his Harley, and arrived wearing black leather chaps.Two dogs swirled about. Fisheries, restoration, and hatchery workers and directors turned out to -- and were reminded of the spiritual context for the tribe of their work.

Hagaman said the dam removal project that begins next month is the answer to many prayers. "It's all been by faith, everything that has happened. When the dams went in, the elders were upset but didn't have a voice. Then they were ignored. For all of us who have had the honor to work on this issue, this is the answer to our prayers."

As the river whispered past, elder Ben Charles offered a prayer of his own for the ceremony.

"I'm glad for all the reviving, the first salmon... our community welcomes the first salmon back, and sends that spirit of the first salmon catch where it needs to go. Tell them: 'These people love us, they need us, this is where we need to go, C'mon.' Then all kinds of salmon will come up this river."

When the dams went in, Charles said, it created confusion for the Salmon People. "But now when the dams come down, they will once more go up, and be home. That is the great thing that is happening in our village.

"And I am thankful, for all the ones in our community, that all the things that have been a hurt for so many years will heal over. Our prayers are answered.

"We are praying that the spirit of the salmon will again be strong, coming on the great ocean, along the Strait, and the river. May they be plenteous, and strong. Be with us in the next month as we dismantle [the dams]. Give the salmon a passage way, up to their homes."

Hagaman and her sister placed the carcasses of several of the fish on the cedar raft, for Charles to help carry to the river's' edge. There, Charles helped push the raft along with Lower Elwha Klallam tribal member Steve Jouquin Robideau gently into the water, for the current to carry the fish off, back to the river, and the home of the Salmon People.

As the green raft with its crimson and silver burden floated on the current, everyone gathered on the banks to watch as the last big kings to be taken from this river were returned to it, carrying with them their hopes for a river reborn.

bamks.JPG

Lower Elwha Klallam tribal members and guests watch as a cedar bough raft carrying the remains of chinook salmon is carried away by the Elwha River. The next chinook tribal fishermen catch will be from an open river, without dams, for the first time in more than a century.
Steve RIngman, photo

Tribal members are readying for the dam removal festivities beginning in mid-September. The drum group is practicing traditional songs, and the tribe is preparing to welcome guests for song, ceremony, prayer, and story telling at the reservation. Interviewed in her office at tribal center, Tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles said the tribe is compiling a list of all the council members and tribal leaders going back generations who have worked to help make dam removal a reality.

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Tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles, in prayer during reconciliation ceremony in Port Angeles in January, 2005. Steve Ringman, photo.

Charles says she hopes dam removal will bring back wildlife as well as salmon to her tribe's homeland in the Elwha watershed.

"We are humbled and honored to be able to have the environment come back, we need to have the wildlife come back, the eagles, the beavers, eating off the salmon, you don't see too much of that anymore, and we are going to be able to revive some of that," Charles said.

"It's about our ancestors and those before them, we are walking in their footpaths, all the ones before us, they are the ones we want to recognize, and whose footsteps we are following. These were the foods our people lived off. The fish people were beaten and arrested for, to provide food for the table. How do I feel? I don't even know, we have been talking and dreaming about this for so long.

"it's going to be history. Not only for the Elwha Klallam tribal people, but nationally. We were always told it would never happen. It is going to be an overwhelming day. I think about all the work, the effort, over all the generations. It's a process of restoring what was lost."

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