Tribal Members Use Totem Poles to Raise Alarm on Salmon Extinction

Snake River dams are harming salmon, orcas, and tribal communities. A solution can’t wait.

A totem pole on display during the Spirit of the Waters totem pole journey in Portland, Oregon, on May 10, 2022.
A totem pole on display during the Spirit of the Waters totem pole journey in Portland, Oregon, on May 10, 2022. (Ayşe Gürsöz for Earthjustice)

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For a 4,000-pound piece of wood strapped to an open trailer, the orca totem pole pictured above handles remarkably well on the freeway. But as lead carver Jewell Praying Wolf James of the Lummi Nation drove it around the Pacific Northwest this May, there was one day when the load became unbalanced. The pole’s weight yanked his rental truck’s front tires off the ground.

“It was pretty scary for a moment,” says James, who was able to regain control of the vehicle on the off ramp.

A different form of imbalance motivated the totem pole journey that James is part of.  It includes several totem poles making 10 stops in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Se’Si’Le’, the inter-tribal nonprofit organizing the trip, aims to raise awareness of how four dams on the Snake River have thrown an entire ecosystem off kilter, endangering the salmon that spawn there, the orcas that eat them, and the tribal communities whose cultures are intertwined with these species.

For more than two decades, Earthjustice has litigated and advocated for the federal government to remove the dams, which were built primarily to aid water transport. Today there are better alternatives and the cost the dams impose on salmon and native communities is unsupportable. Our work is one part of a broader effort to restore the lower Snake River, healthy salmon, and orcas and achieve a measure of justice for Northwest tribes.

These tribes have long been leaders in calling for the dams to go, and they are using public events and ceremonies like the totem journey to insist on bold action now.

When tribes along the Snake River ceded their land to the U.S., the federal government promised to protect their rights to fish for salmon as they always had. But building the dams broke those solemn promises and leaving them in place is a continuing injustice James points out.

At a stop in Portland so packed that some attendees sat on the floor, James and other event organizers spoke about the urgency of the moment. Seventy-seven percent of the chinook salmon runs that make their way through the Snake River basin in spring and summer will be at risk of extinction by 2025, according to analysis by the Nez Perce Tribe, and there are less than 75 southern resident killer whales left in the Salish Sea.

“A future with no salmon is a future that robs us of our spirit,” said former Yakama Nation chairman JoDe Goudy during a speech at the event. “We don’t have a name for ‘resources’ in our language. Water, salmon — we have sacred names for these things.”

Goudy connected the construction of the dams to the Doctrine of Discovery, a racist legal framework by which Christian explorers from Columbus onward justified seizing and exploiting land where non-Christians lived. The U.S. used this doctrine to lay claim to the Northwest after American sea captain Robert Gray sailed up the Columbia River in 1792.

For Goudy, the totem pole journey is as much an opportunity to interact respectfully with the lands and waters of the region as it is to change people’s minds. He took one of the carved totem poles along on a visit to the Snake’s headwaters before setting out on the road.

“He was hoping for something he could carry to the river, but I carved a 9-foot salmon for him,” James jokes about Goudy.

The orca that James and fellow members of the Lummi Nation carved is even larger. A smaller orca rests on its nose — a design inspired by the story of Tahlequah, an orca who in 2018 carried her dead, emaciated newborn for 17 days in a journey of grief.

The Snake River totem pole journey is one of many the carving group House of Tears has conducted over the past two decades. Last year, the group transported a 25-foot totem pole over 20,000 miles in a journey that ultimately led to Washington, D.C. The goal of this event, which they called the Red Road to D.C., was to urge the Biden administration to honor the land and water rights of Indigenous people.

Drawing upon that journey and others, James says he’s learned this: “If we work together, we can help get the message out. We hope that the people who gather with us will go home and call 10 people.”

Washington state politicians are preparing to deliver a plan in July on how to move forward without the dams. We encourage the Biden administration and members of the Northwest delegation to support those efforts. Join us in urging them to take immediate steps to save salmon and orcas.

Based in Seattle, Rebecca Cohen is the managing editor at Earthjustice

Established in 1987, Earthjustice's Northwest Regional Office has been at the forefront of many of the most significant legal decisions safeguarding the Pacific Northwest’s imperiled species, ancient forests, and waterways.