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The Sanctity of the Columbia River

For thousands of years, Native tribes in the Pacific Northwest have relied on Nch’i-Wána, or ‘the great river,’ and its surrounding areas. That reliance transcends the material realm into the spiritual.

June 20, 2022 | Bonneville, Oregon | A man throws a fish back into the Columbia River from the Whitefoot family scaffold.

The Columbia River has sustained Indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest for millennia. For generations, they have fished for salmon and trout from scaffolds perched just above the sacred water, while its nearby areas bear edible roots, medicinal herbs and berry bushes, as well as the deer and elk whose meat and hides are used for food and ritual. The acts of gathering, consuming and respecting those foods are inextricably linked to the tribes’ religious practice.

Yet the river is under threat. Warming waters linked to climate change endanger the salmon, which need cooler temperatures to survive. Hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and its tributaries have curtailed the river’s flow, further imperiling salmon’s migration from the Pacific upstream to their freshwater spawning grounds. Industrial pollution is also a threat: Testing by the Columbia Riverkeeper, a nonprofit that aims to protect water quality, shows that fish caught in the area are contaminated with flame retardants; polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs; and heavy metals.

(Editor’s note: Some captions include excerpts and information from the story “Columbia River's Salmon Are at the Core of Ancient Religion” by Deepa Bharath of The Associated Press. Read the full story here.
(Jessie Wardarski/AP)

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