Getting to Know Your Neighbors

Q&A with Jeremy FiveCrows

Jeremy FiveCrows is the Communications Director for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and an enrolled member of the Nez Perce Tribe. He moved to Sunnyside in 1999, and now lives here with his wife and two kids. He spoke to us about the history of the local tribes’ fishing rights, the health of the salmon fisheries, and the importance of native peoples’ “First Foods.” 

What do you love about Sunnyside?

Jeremy: I love that it feels like a real neighborhood – the walkability of it. We have so many independent shops. My favorite place is probably The Bagdad. I love the décor, the themed cocktails, the community feeling it has; it’s such a little treasure. I also love that you can go to this big grocery store, Fred Meyer, and yet it feels more like a local store. You recognize all the staff, because they have been there for years. 

You are a science communicator, helping tell stories about salmon and river science for the Columbia Intertribal Fish Commission. What do you love about that work? 

Jeremy: I love telling stories. I want everyone to feel at home here, and that feeling requires making deeper connections to this place, including emotional and spiritual connections. Tribal people have made a home here for thousands of years; part of my work is helping explain how they have done it. We can take their example of how to put down deeper roots in this place. We can all put our roots down a little deeper. 

Can you talk more about the work of the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission? 

Jeremy: The Commission is made up of four member tribes: the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama, each with treaty fishing rights. Our broad scope is restoring watersheds, especially for the benefit of salmon, Pacific lamprey, and sturgeon. The Commission was formed in 1977 at a time when salmon were highly threatened with extinction. The tribes saw this decline and knew that their right to fish is meaningless if there is no salmon to catch. They came together to unify their voice in the management and coordination of the fishery. 

Can you share more about the history of treaty rights and salmon? 

Jeremy: All four tribes signed treaties with the U.S. government in 1855. Importantly, in the treaties fishing rights were “reserved”—they were not part of the negotiation, and therefore can never be taken away. The four member tribes have a specific treaty right to fish not only on their reservations, but in all their “usual and accustomed places.” For example, the Nez Perce, who live primarily in Idaho, can fish at Willamette Falls as we traditionally did. Subsequent court cases also determined that the fishing right includes the right to co-manage the fisheries in partnership with the states and federal government. Today, of all the areas the salmon are physically able to return to, most are located in lands that used to belong to these tribes but were ceded to the U.S. government when the 1855 treaties were signed. These lands are the salmon’s last interior stronghold. 

What is the health of salmon fisheries today? 

Jeremy: At the time of treaty (1855), estimates were that between 17-30 million salmon would return upriver annually. Today those numbers have been reduced by over 90%. It’s a common misconception that dams are the main cause. Even before the first dam (Bonneville) was built on the Columbia in 1938, the number had already dropped to 2 million a year due to clearcutting, gold mining, fish wheels and overharvesting. As more and more dams went in, it really kicked the salmon while they were down. One year in the late 1970s had fewer than 1 million salmon returning – across all species. But, that low point led to many things coming together to help salmon: the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the tribal self-determination push. These all combined to bring awareness and political will to change. 

But now, with climate change, we are very alarmed. In 2018/2019, the Nez Perce completed a run count in Idaho and they predict that by 2025—in just two years—77% of the spring Chinook salmon streams in Idaho will reach the quasi-extinction threshold. [A quasi-extinction threshold reflects the fact that a population may be doomed to extinction, even if there are still individuals alive, because it is so small it is unable to sustain itself.]

That’s terrifying. What can be done?

Jeremy: We need to pull out all the stops. It is especially important to focus on habitat restoration covering the entire lifecycle of the salmon—from the estuary to the rivers and creeks. Salmon habitats touch every facet of life in the NW—our hydrosystem, our energy system and our agriculture. We are doing more policy work in the Columbia Basin than we used to. We just completed a Tribal Energy Vision—how to prepare to make sure that the energy transition to wind and solar isn’t built on the backs of salmon. It would be a disaster to power our energy grid using the river as a reserve battery, turning the river on and off when needed. 

Tribes have done really good work but the reservations are small and most of the areas salmon return to are not on reservation land. Our organization works together with local landowners, local governments, and states. We work with so many people you might think of as adversaries—power companies, ranchers, farmers, county governments. We have to find our common priorities. Most ranchers love their land, and love to see salmon in their creeks again. 

How does the Fish Commission marry indigenous knowledge with Western science?

Jeremy: We can use the tools of Western science to look at salmon and the ecosystem in granular ways, such as through genetic research. For example, previously it was thought that Pacific lamprey spent 3-4 years in rivers before migrating to the ocean. Now, because of genetic testing, we know it can be a decade or more. But to learn that, we also needed traditional ecological knowledge, such as where to look for the lamprey, historical areas of abundance, etc. Coupling the two perspectives broadens our view. 

How can individuals support the local salmon economy? 

Jeremy: At various times from spring through fall, tribal fishers sell fresh salmon at many Portland farmers’ markets. You can also stop at the Bridge of the Gods exit on I-84 and buy from tribes who have stands and sell fish directly. 

What do salmon mean to you?

Jeremy: Tribes talk about First Foods— salmon, deer, camas roots, huckleberries. They are the foods of this place. When you eat these foods, your body becomes literally made of this place. Eating salmon from the Columbia carries on a thousands-of-years-long tradition of participating in the salmon economy. I’m not a fan of farmed salmon—it turns salmon into a crop instead of allowing us to see it as the gift it is.

Hannah Neuschwander

SNA Member

Author: Hannah Neuschwander

SNA Member