This Christmas season, Project Salmon Claus served around 85 families, bringing gifts to hundreds of children at around 20 fishing sites created along the Columbia River, according to Charlie Quaempts, Umatilla, a commission liaison for CRITFC. These fishing sites were created by Congress for Native peoples whose traditional fishing sites have disappeared due to dams.
Salmon Claus and his volunteer elves handed over a bag of wrapped gifts for the younger kids and a bike for the teenager of the family living in Cascade Locks. As Salmon Claus and his helpers prepared to leave, a train chugged by. Salmon Claus raised his bells in the air and the train responded with a “choo-choo” of the horn in greeting.
Project Salmon Claus was started 11 years ago by officer Jerrod Daniel with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Police Department. Together, they have brought gifts to hundreds of families living at what are called, “in-lieu” sites along the Columbia River.
A community effort
The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission offices in Portland transformed into a gift wrapping factory on Dec. 18, the day before volunteers traveled along the river handing out presents. One wall of the offices was piled high with gifts waiting to be wrapped while the back of the room filled with overflowing tables of colorfully wrapped presents, separated into piles by age and gender. Mid-way through the day, volunteers ran out of wrapping paper and had to make an emergency run.
This year volunteers said they think they saw the most community donations ever. Along with warm winter clothes, some gifts included: basketballs; fidget toys, arts and crafts projects, brain teasers, board games, new bikes and more. One community member even made over 10 dozen homemade cookies to give out while delivering gifts.
“Why we come out every year is to help families in need that can’t get anything for Christmas,” said 12-year-old Èla Morrison, Umatilla, who has been volunteering with her family for eight years. “I feel good when I help people.”
Stops along the river
Salmon Clause and his helpers brought that feel-good energy to everyone they interacted with.
“You guys are great for doing this,” said a resident with a toothy smile as he grabbed a handful of cookies and called his dog Brownie to his side.
At White Salmon a few miles down the river, a 4-year-old Yakama girl eagerly opened her gift from Salmon Claus. When she saw a Princess Tiana Barbie doll underneath the green and red wrapping paper she smiled.
“She doesn’t have this one yet,” the girl’s mom said as she helped unhook Princess Tiana from her packaging.
Further down the river is Celilo Village which was by far the most packed with children running out to meet Daniel, as he and his wife passed out gifts dressed as Mr. and Mrs. Claus. Nearly a dozen kids at the site came out of their homes to play with some of their new toys.
“You guys have a good, Merry Christmas,” Daniel said.
“I’m so glad we got to meet you,” a kid responded, a new iridescent hula hoop in one hand and a piece of candy in his mouth.
Of the 31 in-lieu and treaty access fishing sites along the Columbia River, Celilo Village is perhaps one of the most well known. For thousands of years prior to settler colonialism and the creation of the dams along the Columbia River, Indigenous people caught giant chinook and other salmon at Celilo Falls, or Wy-am. The site was an important center for trade and the heart of salmon culture for many Pacific Northwest nations.
In March of 1957, the United States government submerged the falls with the creation of The Dalles Dam. Celilo Falls no longer exists.
As part of treaty trust obligations, the federal government built five in-lieu sites and 26 treaty fishing access sites to attempt to mitigate the impacts of dam construction on treaty protected fishing sites.
Part of this promise meant providing adequate housing for tribal members who choose to live at these sites. That promise is yet to be fulfilled over half a century later.
James Allman, Nez Perce and Oglala Lakota, understands this history and the growing need. When he started working as an officer for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Police Department three and a half years ago, he also began volunteering as Salmon Claus every holiday season.
In handmade regalia, Allman embodies Salmon Claus, an Indigenous alternative to the stereotypical version of Santa Claus we all know well. Instead of white fur around a red jacket, he wears a red ribbon shirt with a Santa print cloth and red and green ribbons. Instead of simple red pants, he wears breech cloth with a red salmon on his back and front. His wife and mother-in-law add to it each year.
Bells adorn his calves, jingling with each step, bringing the holiday cheer everywhere he goes.
“It’s important that the children of this river community get remembered and recognized,” Allman said. “Every kid can identify with Santa and you just fine tune it a little bit to their culture and what they're familiar with and I think it makes them feel a little bit more recognized.”
Lead image: At the White Salmon site, 4-year-old Leadrea, Yakama, smiles as she holds her new Princess Tiana doll with Venus Allison, Dispatcher for Columbia River Inter-Tribal Police Department, James Allman, Salmon Claus and 12-year-old Èla Morrison, Umatilla. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)