"We Are the Same as the Salmon": A Story of Suffering and Perseverance

Thirty years ago, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes led the effort to save Snake River sockeye salmon from extinction. Today, they’re still fighting for the fish’s survival—along with their own.

The Matsaw family rafting down the Salmon River, the biggest tributary to the Snake River. Each year, the Matsaws take youth from the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes on free rafting trips down the Snake to allow them to connect with nature.

Credit: Skip Armstrong/River Newe

For Dr. Sammy Matsaw and other members of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, an ancient agreement made between their starving ancestors and the fish who saved them remains a guiding principle. “They were here to take care of us, so our obligation is to take care of them,” says Matsaw of the salmon who share their Snake River homelands.

“Those salmon are our knowledge system,” continues Matsaw, who is also Oglala Lakota and a tribal research biologist focused on Chinook salmon and steelhead. “They are our Socrates, our Plato, our Aristotle. And they’re still teaching us today. But they are going extinct. It’s just heartbreaking….It’s not just an animal, it’s not just a fish. There’s a whole people and culture that can be lost.”

But if the salmon’s struggle is also the Shoshone-Bannock tribes’ struggle, so, too, is the fish’s resilience and the people’s resilience. “We are the same as the salmon,” says Jessica Matsaw, Sammy’s wife and a teacher at the Shoshone-Bannock Jr./Sr. High School.

The Snake River, which originates in Wyoming, flows through southern Idaho—including the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes’ Fort Hall Reservation, where Sammy and Jessica make their home. It runs along the border with Oregon before emptying into the Columbia River in Washington and, eventually, the Pacific Ocean. The river was once one of the most prolific salmon habitats in the world, with millions of wild salmon and steelhead returning to spawn there every year and providing the main nutrition source for the area’s Indigenous people for thousands of years. Today, just 1 to 2 percent of most of these populations return home to spawn.

The most endangered of the runs is that of the Snake River sockeye salmon, North America’s southernmost population of sockeye, which has evolved to spawn in the high mountain lakes of central Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley, in the ancestral homelands of the Shoshone-Bannocks. These fish travel nearly a thousand miles and navigate more than 6,000 feet of elevation change in their journey to and from the Pacific. At their height, more than 100,000 sockeye would return every year. These days, returns barely break double-digits.

Pettit Lake in the Sawtooth Range near Stanley, Idaho
Credit: Danita Delimont/Alamy

A Rescue Intervention

The fact that any sockeye remain at all is a testament to the work of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, says Giulia Good Stefani, an Oregon-based senior attorney at NRDC. The tribes have watched salmon populations decline for more than a century, beginning not long after white colonizers arrived in central Idaho in the early 19th century. The trend continued in the 1950s, when Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game actively killed off the fish to replace them with the sport fish that anglers preferred, and it accelerated after the construction of four massive hydroelectric dams on the Lower Snake River.

“These fish would very much not be here today without all of the work that the Shoshone-Bannock people have done to restore them,” Good Stefani says. “So much of the innovation we’ve seen, so much of the really great science and success stories, are because of tribal efforts.”

Those efforts include a successful petition to the federal government in 1990 urging officials to list Snake River sockeye salmon under the Endangered Species Act. (Ultimately, a total of 13 salmon and steelhead species in the wider Columbia River Basin would receive protections under the law.) Meanwhile, over the ensuing 30 years, the tribes have collaborated with state and federal governments on various projects to help sockeye recover.

Kurt Tardy, who’s been the tribal sockeye fisheries manager for 13 years, says they’ve experimented with a number of conservation approaches, but the most recent—a “survival-of-the-fittest approach” that involves releasing adult hatchery fish into a Sawtooth Valley lake and allowing them to spawn there, under natural conditions—has proven the most successful. “Although they’re hatchery fish that put those eggs in the gravel, after one cycle, we consider it to be a natural reproductive success. That’s very important to the tribes,” he explains.

There have been more than 20 years with zero returns over the past decades, so when three fish returned to Pettit Lake last year and 38 this year, he felt a cautious optimism. “It tells us what we’re doing is reasonable. I never like to say correct because next year it could be an entirely different situation.” Tardy notes that the tribes’ management style is adaptive, which involves applying what they’ve learned in previous seasons and making quick changes, if necessary.

His colleague Rob Trahant, senior sockeye technician and a Shoshone-Bannock tribal member who’s worked on the project for 20 years, also found the recent returns encouraging. “I’m very optimistic, and I think the numbers will keep growing,” he says. “I know in my lifetime I’ll probably never be able to fish for them, but I’m hoping my kids or grandkids will.”

The Matsaw family on one of their river expeditions while filming the documentary "River of Return"
Credit: Skip Armstrong/River Newe

A Culture at Risk

Other Shoshone-Bannocks are focused on helping their communities reconnect to an intrinsic—and fragile—part of the identity. For the Matsaws, the demise of the salmon at the hands of colonizers—at least 106 runs across the Pacific Northwest have already gone extinct—mirrors the experience of many Indigenous peoples, who have been killed, exploited, and forcibly displaced from their ancestral homelands. “The land that we live on is so fragmented and disconnected. It's been plowed under. Every part of us has been erased from the landscape here, locally, just outside our window, on our reservation, just down the road, right outside our door,” Sammy says. “We’re marginalized. We are a reflection of those fish; we, too, are going extinct.”

The Matsaws are addressing the experiences and hardships their community has faced through a nonprofit organization they founded three years ago called River Newe (pronounced New-uh, the Shoshone word for “peoples”). They offer weeklong rafting trips on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River—the largest tributary of the Snake River, and some of the world’s most pristine salmon habitat—geared toward Indigenous youth. Many of the participants, who have never left the reservation, get to experience and reconnect with the land, animals, and plants that their ancestors knew so intimately. As part of the trips, Sammy, who recently completed his Ph.D. in Water Resources, and Jessica, who at the same time completed her Bachelor of Science and Masters in Education with a focus on developing Indigenous curriculum and instruction, also create and facilitate lessons based on STEAM, which stands for the fields of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. (The documentary River of Return features the Matsaws leading one such trip.)

“You see the world as it was before and you’re able to revive that wholeness,” Jessica says of the river expeditions. “We’ve also been able to create a space where our cultural values are not questioned.”

In addition to making space for young people—including their own four children—to set roots, and ensuring that their ancestors’ footprint is preserved, she and Sammy hope through River Newe to inspire a new generation of conservationists. After all, Jessica says, “our ancestors have been scientists since time immemorial.” She describes the feeling of connection to food and the land that comes over her when on the river. “The salmon holds so much power. It’s medicine. And there’s the high respect of what that salmon had to go through to be here. Again, that is a reflection of our people.”

As with the sockeye recovery program, Jessica notes that the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes have had to master how to be adaptive and responsive. “That’s something we’ve learned how to do as an Indigenous people over hundreds of years,” she says. “We’ve had to either figure it out or die. You are seeing right now the best and the strongest of our community because we had to be. The same goes for our salmon.”

Credit: Snake River sockeye salmon that have returned from the Pacific Ocean to Idaho over the summer are swimming in a holding tank at the Eagle Fish Hatchery in southwestern Idaho. Fisheries biologists in Idaho say they think they know why a relatively new $13.5 million hatchery intended to save Snake River sockeye salmon from extinction is instead killing thousands of fish before they ever get to the ocean. Dan Baker/Idaho Fish and Game via AP

A Cascade of Impacts

Today, the two biggest threats to the salmon’s survival are climate change and the dams. Snake River sockeye are particularly vulnerable to high temperatures and will begin to die when water temperatures climb above 68 degrees Fahrenheit. In 2015, a particularly hot summer in the Pacific Northwest, 250,000 sockeye succumbed in the Columbia River Basin. And despite the conservation efforts of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and others, a recent study estimates that sockeye populations could drop as much as 80 percent as the result of climate change.

If these trends continue, the result could devastate the larger ecosystem. “Salmon are a keystone species,” says Good Stefani, who was part of the legal team that filed a motion in June, together with Columbia Riverkeeper and the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, in a case to uphold a Washington State requirement that the federal government manage its hydropower dams on the Columbia River and lower Snake River to reduce heat pollution and protect salmon. “Salmon are connected to almost everything in the ecological web of the Pacific Northwest, from the trees to your biggest carnivores,” explains Good Stefani. “If we lose them, it really sets off a cascade that reaches all the way to the ocean and the few remaining Southern Resident orcas who rely on them.” Recent science has shown that the endangered whales spend a significant amount of time during the winter and spring months fishing off the mouth of the Columbia River, with Columbia Basin salmon a critical part of their diet. But as the whales struggle to find enough food to eat, the population has dwindled to just 74 individuals.

“It’s becoming really clear that our fish are in serious trouble and that Snake River sockeye are canaries in the coal mine,” notes Miles Johnson, a senior attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper.

For that reason, Johnson says, removing the danger posed by the dams along the lower Snake River is more urgent than ever. “We can have a great hatchery program and great spawning habitat in central Idaho, but if the sockeye die getting to and from it, all the work that the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and others have put in to preserve and restore the fish gets wiped out. As daunting as it sounds, I think dam removal is the most expedient thing we could do to have a big enough impact.”

The dams that a Snake River sockeye salmon has to pass in order to reach and return from the ocean pose a heavy burden to the fish. Adding to these navigation challenges, the reservoirs they create are slower moving, shallower, and subject to more warming. During the summer, the reservoirs behind the Snake River dams frequently exceed temperatures that are safe for salmon. Removing the four lower Snake River dams would substantially eliminate these obstacles, and give Snake River salmon a fighting chance at survival.

According to a 2018 dam replacement study by the firm Energy Strategies, the undertaking is not only feasible and affordable, but it would improve grid reliability and can be done without compromising the region’s greenhouse gas reduction and climate goals. Nevertheless, the U.S. government announced in July it wouldn’t remove the dams, offering instead the continuation of the helpful but inadequate solution of increasing the dams’ spill at certain times of day. In the wake of that decision, governors of Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Montana recently agreed to work together to restore Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead.

It’s a promising step, and a sign that people are starting to wake up to the reality that we could lose these runs in Idaho in the next couple of decades, Johnson says. “We find the ground is moving rapidly under our feet, so we can’t just bump along and do the same thing as we’ve done before.”

Despite the challenges they have faced, and those that still lay before them, Jessica maintains hope for the salmon and her tribe’s future alike. “This is a story of so much perseverance and survival and thriving. And of life being there, despite the fact that it shouldn’t be.”

Sammy agrees, and notes that it is the women of the tribes who keep them going. “All of the personal traumas Jessica and I have been through, and all of the traumas our people are going through, that is the definition of perseverance,” he adds. “They’ve been trying to tear us down, tear us down. But we’re still here. We’re not extinct yet. And we won’t go down without a fight.”

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