Standing in a circle, tribal youth opened the Columbia River Indian Fisher’s Expo with a traditional Umatilla prayer song.
Open to Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama tribal members, the event provided resources designed at addressing issues unique to fishing in the Columbia River. This year marks the return of the expo, hosted by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), for the first time in five years.
Roughly a dozen organizations set up booths at Skamania Lodge, where CRITFC held the expo. The U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers each had a booth providing education on water and boating safety. Other groups offered marketing help and fishing supplies, such as coolers and scales. Numerous booths were geared toward health and access to healthy food.
Tribal fishers also had the opportunity to take a food handling class on site and walk away with a printed food handlers card after passing the test.
For many, educating tribal fishers about how to stay safe was a main priority at the event.
“We’ve lost a lot of fishermen,” said Emerson Squiemphen, Warm Springs, a CRITFC commissioner and committee member for the Warm Springs Department of Fisheries. “I lost my son like that.”
In 2009, Squiemphen’s son drowned in rough waters while out on a fishing boat.
Since losing his son and joining CRITFC, Squiemphen prioritizes the safety of all tribal fishers through events like the Columbia River Indian Fisher’s Expo.
“We’ve got to educate people on what we do, why we do it. And teach our young as best we can,” Squiemphen said.
At lunch, a group of panelists answered questions on the theme “Empowering Tribal Fishers in Public Sales and Farmers Markets.”
Salmon was a favorite at the lunch buffet — fitting as salmon were a main topic of conversation throughout the day. While tribal fishers do catch and harvest multiple types of fish, salmon are perhaps the most important.
“Salmon are so culturally relevant to our people. It’s not just a commodity, it's a first food,” said Buck Jones, Cayuse (Umatilla) tribal member and salmon marketing specialist at CRITFC. “Fishing is something our tribal members have been doing since time immemorial. We respect and honor the salmon.”
Fishers of all ages attended. Young children ran between the booths, many of which had ways to engage different generations. Yakama Nation Fisheries brought a fish tank, one of the safety tents had a bucket of ice water where youth splashed around, and two women from Warm Springs laid out different parts of prepared salmon along with the Kiksht name.
In an old Vlasic pickle jar, layers of rock salt and salmon belly mingled together. The traditional method for preparing salmon belly is not as common these days, but many Warm Springs elders have memories of eating salted salmon belly prepared that way by their mothers and grandmothers, according to Valerie Switzler.
“People need to know that the salmon are precious to us,” Switzler said. “Wasco people have always been here along the big river.”
Lead photo: From left, Deanie Johnson, Valerie Switzler and Doris Miller, all Warm Springs tribal members, staffed a booth that shared the traditional names of fish and information on various fish storage methods. A large pickle jar filled with layers of rock salt and salmon belly illustrated one traditional storage method. (Photo by Jarrette Werk / Underscore News & Report for America)