Damming the West: Northwest tribes battle the legacy of energy colonization

Tribes and supports hold ‘Free the Snake’ flotilla to protest Snake River dams. Photo by Idaho
Rivers United

By Rae Rose of Last Real Indians

“The Indian will be allowed to take fish. . . .at the usual fishing places and this promise will be kept by the Americans as long as the sun shines, as long as the mountains stand, and as long as the rivers run.” Treaty of Walla Walla, June 9th, 1855, spoken by Isaac Ingalls Stevens 

One hundred years later, after the Treaty of Walla Walla was signed, tribes watched their sacred rivers and waterfalls being dammed one after another.  The fishing wars had begun as the American government tried to take away treaty rights from Northwest tribes.  

Today, the fish are dying and no longer able to return home navigating through mass pollution, warming waters and massive dams that block their only way home to spawn.  Spawning grounds have been built over.  Many of the great forests have been clear-cut, destroying precious spawning grounds. Another broken treaty.  

Here, in the Northwest, short-termed thinking of American policymakers mutilated and deformed the beautiful Columbia Basin as they pursued the energy needs of the settler colonizers at the expense of Tribal communities and the environment by constructing dam after dam. 

President Roosevelt called those who objected to the dam’s construction, short-sighted. He referred to our great rivers as a ‘national possession’, disregarding the Tribal communities that lived along these rivers and their treaty rights to fish in those rivers. The ensuing construction of these dams led to mass destruction of habitat, loss of traditional tribal fishing grounds, ones that were promised in treaties. It was sold to the American public as progress.  Anyone who spoke against destruction caused by the dams were labeled as unpatriotic by America pro-dam policymakers.

Mother Earth, a living, breathing planet, her life allows us to live, yet to a small, but powerful, corrupt few who see the disfigurement and destruction of Mother Earth as progress.  To me, any disfigurement or destruction of our beautiful planet can only be seen as reckless destruction of our children’s future.  This idea of ‘progress’ at the expense of destroying the planet, is achieved by the direct manipulation of the American public through the spread of mis-information by energy companies and their government puppets.  

Behind the propaganda, lies the underlying true cost of America’s industrial “progress.”  The destruction and the death of our beautiful river systems, loss of plant and animal species, loss of tribal lands and broken treaty agreements. These dams leave a legacy that speaks volumes for their cruel disregard for the original peoples, the land, our waters, and certainly our other animal and plant relatives.  What strikes me as the saddest fact, is it also speaks volumes to pro-dam backers’ blatant disregard of their own children.  They don’t care if anyone, including their own children and grandchildren, have clean water, food, or a living planet to live upon.

A Native American family is show standing near Celilo Falls, a longtime fishing and trading spot for Native Americans, on the Columbia River in this undated photo. The falls were flooded when The Dalles Dam was constructed in 1957. (Yakima Valley Museum, courtesy photo)

Addressing the legacy of dams 

In NOVA’s Planet Earth the Undamming of America by Anna Lieb, Frank Magilligan, a professor of geography at Dartmouth College explains. “Over 3 million miles of rivers and streams have been etched into the geology of the United States, and many of those rivers flow into and over somewhere between 80,000 and two million dams. “We as a nation have been building, on average, one dam per day since the signing of the Declaration of Independence,” 

The first peoples, who have lived in these lands since time immemorial, have a history of co-existing with the land and waters.  We lived, hunted, worked, and navigated the mighty rivers, forests, hills, and valleys.  It frustrates me that there are people who use clean water, who eat food that is grown from the land, but advocate for destroying and depleting our precious, finite resources.  It hurts me because these are the same people who seem to hate and ridicule those of us who do cherish the waters and land.  I have never understood why they hate us for loving the land that also cares for their loved ones too.

As a guest in the lands of the Coast Salish people of the Pacific Northwest, I have seen elders speak to the loss, the death, and the desecration of land and water by the corrupt mentality of ‘progress’.  These brave elders talk about what was once there, how life once was, and the heartbreaking loss when it was stolen away. 

In speaking about the damage done after the loss of Celilo Falls, Elmer Crow, Nez Perce had this to say in the Damnation documentary. “Celilo Falls is gone. I knew what was there, and I knew what they had done.  The wind changed because of the flat surfaces coming up the Columbia, the temperatures of the water changed.  The dead water makes it harder for the fish.  It means nothing to me. All it means is what they took away.  What these dams have done; they completely tore my country apart”.

Celilo Falls after construction of the Dalles Dam.

In speaking with elders from Coast Salish tribes, I have heard over and over again how the health of the people, the salmon, our land and our waters are all connected.  Each important in their own right, but always a reflection of one another.  If the salmon are suffering, so are the people.  When the waters are cut off and polluted you will see it reflected in the lives and health of the people, of the salmon.  We are all related, never separate, always connected.

It is indisputable that dams have damaged habitat placing natural fish runs and animal habitats in danger.  Over 80,000 dams have altered or completely destroyed Indian Country.  Each dam should be reconsidered, re-evaluated and removed. We have no excuse not to re-evaluate these invasive and costly structures.  There is enough solar, wind, and other new clean renewable energy sources to create real energy needs solutions. It is inexcusable to not reconsider each, and every dam built in America.

While there are numerous dams throughout the Northwest, there are specific dams we need to address, ones that are causing more harm.  This article targets four dams on the Snake River.  The Little Goose, the Lower Monumental, the Lower Granite, and the Ice Harbor dams.

The Columbia Riverkeepers are working to save the Snake River, revitalize the salmon runs, while building a better economy for the surrounding communities.  They reached out to Last Real Indians to help advocate for the removal of the Little Goose, Lower Monumental, the Lower Granite, and the Ice Harbor Dams.  The Columbia Riverkeepers are a collective of tribes, activists, and professionals who have all come together for a healthy river system and a return of our salmon.

In an Interview with Miles Johnson, attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper, he admits that there is a lot of information to process when you are talking about the large-scale energy companies. Taking down all dams is not immediately possible and that is not their goal. Columbia Riverkeeper is asking for the removal of the above-named dams on the Snake River.  

In their efforts to remove the dams, Johnson is adamant that Columbia Riverkeeper is taking into consideration all populations living alongside or by the Snake and Columbia rivers.  Columbia Riverkeeper envisions subsidies for farmers, hope for commercial growth, and economic stimulus, the return of tourism, all alongside the return of our rivers and salmon.

These four dams are all over 100ft high making it virtually impossible for salmon to maneuver home to their spawning grounds.  These dams besides being no longer needed are taking away taxpayer’s money from our communities and the programs we need to survive.  The water does not flow, locked up behind concrete gates the water dies. When the water dies, so do the fishing, and recreational boating, kayaking, that go along with healthy waterways.

It is a simple truth, the blood in our bodies circulates to maintain healthy tissue and muscle while cleaning and disposing of waste.  Mother Earth’s system of rivers is much like the blood in our bodies. When our blood is unable to flow tissue dies and you risk losing that part of your body, or even death. When the blood of our Mother Earth dies or is forcefully pooled, the land and life surrounding that dead body of water are also lost to us.

The first study, Lower Snake River Feasibility Study, cost taxpayers 35 million dollars and was done by the Army Engineering Corporation.  It highlighted the fact these four dams only produce 4% of the electricity used in the Pacific Northwest in the spring.  This 4% is easily replaceable using wind and solar resources, resources that constantly renew without any harm to the environment, economy, or habitat.  Jim Waddel, former Army Corp. Engineer lost his job to blow the whistle on this study’s findings.  

The second study was done by an independent source, the Lower Snake River energy replacement study. This study also shows the inefficiency of keeping these dams in place.  Just the tax dollars for its upkeep would go a long way to revitalizing the communities by the Snake River.  I could find no reason in either study to keep these dams operating.

Both studies found the dams to cause detrimental harm to salmon habitat, and to the outlying economies, while not even producing enough energy to be necessary or in any way beneficial.  Washington and Oregon taxpayers are footing the bill for these dams upkeep, but we are not receiving any benefits for the money taken.  The cost is too much. It is a waste of taxes to continue paying into these outdated and unnecessary relics of “progress” at the cost of environment, habitat, and restoration of our Mother Earth’s beautiful river systems. 

There is so much propaganda and deliberate manipulation of the facts, it is hard to wade through all the information to finally get to the simple and honest facts regarding these four dams.  The first misleading fact comes from the Bonneville Energy Company.  As soon as you open their website, the first thing you will see is a picture of a dam with big bold words stating “NATIONAL HYDROPOWER DAY!” above this reads, “Half of the region’s power comes from hydropower,” beside it, “HYDROPOWER FLOWS HERE.”

To someone like me, before researching this issue, this ad makes dams look pretty “damn” good.  “More than half of the hydropower generated in the region is made by federal dams and marketed by Bonneville Power Administration.” In the first paragraph Bonneville Power admits this is a business and much like Puget Sound Energy and Seattle City Light, they are harnessing our natural resources, using our tax dollars to pay for and to maintain, for these power companies to monopolize and to profit from.  

Lower Granite Dam, one of the four dams on the Lower Snake River that are driving all remaining Snake River salmon toward extinction. Photo by Chris Jordan-Bloch/ EarthJustice.

Our rivers, the extinction of wildlife are all resources that have been perverted by power companies to control outcomes, profit from natural resources, and justify their destruction of natural habitat.  It is a man-made disaster; we have to correct these mistakes before it is too late.  

The areas of dead water, near-extinct species, and the amount of taxpayers’ dollars wasted should be enough to relook at and rethink our current energy crisis.  Big energy companies like Bonneville Power Company, Puget Sound Energy, and Seattle City Light tell consumers there are no other natural solutions.  They put millions into making the public believe our only choices are to rape our Mother Earth for fossil fuels or to disfigure Our precious Mother Earth for hydropower.  

Even beyond the moral issues, switching to renewable non-invasive power solutions is more efficient for long-term stability.  These dams are not solutions, they do not produce enough power to even be considered necessary. These four dams being marketed as clean renewable energy is misleading and irresponsible.  

Crippling our planet and downplaying the importance of natural habitat creates dangerous illusions. Even beyond the fact that it is wrong, detrimental, and divisive, it is taking away from every American citizen and all of our generation’s right to a future.  Not to mention it is only feeding an already corrupt existing system of power and wealth monopolies for the few at the cost of us, the many. 

Columbia Riverkeeper is fighting to remove these 4 ineffective and environmentally harmful dams. More importantly, the National Congress of the American Indians and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians also support comprehensive legislation to remove these dams for the greater good.

Miles Johnson, attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper, was kind enough to speak with me about the dams, what they are trying to restore, and why it is important.  He estimates before the dams were built there were 10 to 15 million salmon returned to the Columbia River basin every year.  You could hear the salmon from the shore. There were so many.  The salmon created an economy for Native and then non-native settlers, the communities thrived when the rivers ran free.

 Miles continues to tell me about the loss of pink salmon in the Columbia River entirely, beloved rivers, great falls all gone.  In less than a century of damming our waterways, we have cut off, and we have destroyed great areas of habitat necessary for salmon, trout, steelhead, and countless other species to thrive.  To Native Americans who have been here since time immemorial, these rivers and falls are sacred.  The blood of a mother who has provided and cared for them always.  To see the damage inflicted upon mother earth is the same as watching a loved one maimed, tortured, and injured for no reason.

Even beyond the love for our lands and waters lies a brazen truth.  Taking down these four dams will allow the Snake River to heal.  A beautiful and powerful river flowing free will attract tourists creating an economy to help the communities around the Snake and Columbia Rivers to prosper.  As the river heals the fish and wildlife will return creating opportunities for fisheries to reopen, family farms will also be able to prosper from returning tourists.  

We have also seen several dams removed successfully.  It has been a powerful testament to the natural world’s ability to heal and persevere.  “I got to watch what happens when a river gets its teeth into a dam, and in about an hour, I saw what would otherwise be about 10,000 years of river evolution.” Grant a hydrologist spoke about what happened after the Marmot Dam was removed in the Undamming of America article

We have seen the recovery of nature, habitat, and the return of salmon.  To me, who fell into this research on a request, it is a simple solution we owe to our Mother Earth, the fish, wildlife, and to our future generations.  

Something we need to address dam by dam.  We also need to push for new power companies to stop the monopoly of power by big business companies like Bonneville Power Company, Puget Sound Energy, and Seattle City Light.  Instead, I would love to see community organizations led by diverse community groups bring forward large-scale conversion operations to revitalize long-term energy changes especially centering on wind and solar-powered solutions.