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Know the West

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.


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.