Salmon swim above the Grand Coulee Dam for first time in 80 years

Members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation gather to begin a new cycle for salmon.

  • Palus, Moses/Columbia, San Poil, and Wenatchi tribal Elder, Barbara Aripa, is 87 years old. She lives on the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. She dances in pow wows, dries and cuts her own deer meat and salmon and is active in tribal political affairs. Many people at the salmon release ceremony wore their finest tribal regalia. Regalia is worn at important cultural, ceremonial and spiritual events to show how valued such things are. Typically, beaded moccasins are something one would try to keep dry and pristine. On the day of the event, Aripa was the first to release a salmon. She was so excited to wade into the waters of the Columbia and let that salmon swim in her homeland once again, that she said she didn't care about keeping her moccasins dry that day.

  • Dakota Green and Sam Ankney (holding the fish) share in a salmon release as others look on.

  • Elders Barbara Aripa, Bernadine Phillips and Veronica Redstar prepare necklaces for a celebratory giveaway after the salmon release.

  • Tribal members from the upper Columbia River region came from both sides of the US/Canadian border to celebrate the release of 30 chinook salmon in the Columbia River above the Grand Coulee Dam. The significance of salmon swimming once again in the waters of the upper Columbia to the Indigenous "salmon people" who have depended on them since time immemorial is immense, and the occasion was celebrated with much joy and fanfare.

  • After disease, war, reservation boundaries, and forced boarding schools, one could argue the Grand Coulee Dam was the most harmful impact of colonialism to the upper Columbia River tribes. It displaced thousands of people, flooded important archaeological and habitation sites, and caused anadromous fish like salmon, steelhead and lamprey to go extinct in the upper Columbia. Salmon are an essential part of not only physical subsistence, but of spiritual, social and material cultures of the tribes. Their absence is a devastating impact to tribes on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border.


On Aug. 16, members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation gathered on the shores of the Columbia River to release 30 chinook salmon above Grand Coulee Dam. Those salmon are the first to swim above the dam since its construction blocked fish moving upstream nearly 80 years ago. The project is an example of the ongoing efforts of the Colville Tribes to preserve their sovereignty and cultures: Ceremony, prayer, songs and speeches welcomed the salmon back to the Upper Columbia. Tribal members gathered in a “bucket brigade” to pass each fish gently down the line from a tanker truck to the water in specially made rubber containers. Upon reaching the river, people took turns releasing the salmon so that many could have a hand in their return. The hope is that the fish will spawn and their offspring will pass downstream through the turbines of the dam while they are small enough to do so, then grow to maturity in the ocean and return, where they will be captured and transported above the dam to repeat the cycle.

Joe Whittle is a freelance photographer and writer living in unceded Nez Perce territory, in Joseph, OR. He is an enrolled tribal member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, and a descendant of the Delaware Nation of Oklahoma. Currently he’s completing a two-year artist fellowship sponsored by the Fred W. Fields Foundation, Oregon Community Foundation and Oregon Humanities, investigating Oregon’s opportunity gaps for marginalized children. Follow him on Instagram.