By Darlene Lee
The indigenous Nez Perce, or “Niimíipu,” live by the Snake, Salmon and Clearwater Rivers in the Pacific Northwest plateau region. They govern their tribe from Idaho (USA), where they are one of five federally recognized tribes in the state. Environmental leaders within the tribe and their allies are fighting for the removal of four dams on the Lower Snake River, which help restore salmon populations and enhance ecosystem health. After decades of determined efforts, dam removal may be closer than ever.
History of the Nez Perce Nation
According to tribal legend, Nimiipúu, “the people,” were created in north central Idaho at the dawn of time. Evidence indicates the Nez Perce inhabited the Clearwater and Snake River Valleys over 11,000 years ago. In 1800, the Nez Perce had more than 100 permanent villages, ranging from 50 to 600 individuals.
The Nez Perce homeland once covered roughly 16 million acres in parts of what are now Idaho, Oregon and Washington. An 1855 treaty reduced their land to 7.5 million acres. When white settlers discovered gold in the Nez Perce homeland, the US government pushed for a new treaty slashing the reservation to 770,000 acres.
Although some Nez Perce members signed the treaty, others vehemently refused – including Chief Joseph, a renowned voice against the injustices towards the Nez Perce. After a series of battles against the US government, the Nez Perce conceded and this land has become the modern Nez Perce Reservation.
The Nez Perce Way: Harmony with Nature
“The Earth is part of my body... I belong to the land out of which I came... The earth is my mother...” Too-Hool-Hool-Zute
The land and its waters define the Nez Perce way. Like many indigenous nations in the US, the Nez Perce traditionally value the Earth not for what it represents in goods or money, but for it being the source of life. Historically, the people did not own land, but rather belonged to a particular part of the Earth, and owed a responsibility to their place of birth. The Earth was the mother of all life, and the mother of the people.
Over thousands of years nature taught the Nez Perce how to live with her. According to tribal leaders, “This intimate and sacred relationship unifies us, stabilizes us, humbles us. It is what makes us a distinct people and what gives us our identity. We cannot be separated from the land or our rights without losing what makes us Nez Perce. We defend our rights to preserve who we are and what we hold sacred.”
Horses dramatically changed life for the Nez Perce early in the 18th century, both increasing and enhancing hunting and war expeditions. The Nez Perce built up one of the largest horse herds on the continent, selectively breeding for speed and creating the Appaloosa breed. Reservation life and assimilationist pressures destroyed their horse culture in the 19th century.
The Importance of Snake River to the Nez Perce and the Decline of Salmon in Snake River
The Snake River is the thirteenth longest river in the United States. At 1,078 miles (1,735 km) long, it is the largest tributary of the Columbia River – North America’s largest river emptying into the Pacific Ocean. The Snake River arises in western Wyoming then flows through southern Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, where it converges with the Columbia River.
The Snake River has long been imperative to the culture and well-being of the Nez Perce. In particular, the tribe shares a deep connection with the river’s salmon. Salmon once spawned by the millions in the Snake River and were central to the Nez Perce’s way of life. Even the Nez Perce’s creation story involves salmon offering themselves to feed the people. And in modern times, salmon are both a way of life and a treaty right for the Nez Perce.
Widespread damming of the Snake River now threatens the very existence of its salmon. There are 15 dams in total on the river, including Hell’s Canyon Dam, which blocks fish passage to the entire upper Snake River. The Grand Coulee Dam also blocks spawning grounds to the famous "June Hogs" – the legendary Chinook salmon that have weighed over 100 pounds [45 kg] in the past. 
Between 1985 and 2007, only an average of 18 sockeye salmon returned to Idaho each year. Conservation projects run by wildlife biologists have spawned eggs, incubated salmon fry and then transported the young fish by ship to bypass the dams. The dams can injure and kill juvenile sockeye salmon with their powerful tides and currents, which suck the salmon fry down. Although successful at raising salmon numbers, this method costs upwards of $15 million.
Realizing these threats, for decades, river advocates have been tied up in court, demanding the federal government restore the threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead populations that migrate through the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Since 1975, when Lower Granite Dam was completed, salmon in the Snake River basin have faced the obstacle of eight massive concrete dams before making it out to the ocean. Then they do it all over again when they come back home to spawn. Running that gauntlet of concrete and warm water puts a major strain on the fish and is considered perhaps the single greatest reason for their precipitous decline.
Nez Perce support removal of dams from Snake River
Ecologists, conservation groups and many others are beginning to realize that widespread dams are incompatible with healthy river ecosystems. Therefore, there is a growing movement to remove the most destructive, ineffective and outdated dams as a first step towards restoring rivers, including salmon populations.
Nez Perce tribe members believe the best way to restore salmon and steelhead to their Idaho communities is by breaching the four Lower Snake River dams. And there is strong precedent to support this claim. For example, the removal of the Lewiston Dam on the Clearwater River, a tributary of the Snake, resulted in a dramatic recovery of salmon populations. And elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, the removal of the Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River resulted in the return of over 4,000 Chinook salmon to spawn upstream of the dam the very next year – the first time they had been seen there in over 100 years.
Another reason to advocate for dam removal is simply that other methods have failed. "All of these other methods and alternatives have been tried to date, and the fish are not returning,” said Elliott Moffett, President of Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, a nonprofit that defends the treaty rights and lands of the Nez Perce Tribe. "So as tribal members we cannot exercise our treaty rights to fish, for an example, and utilize the salmon as we have in our past, in our culture and tradition."
Elliot Moffett also recognized the connection between the well-being of humans and nature with regards to river health. “[Salmon] need that clear, cold, swift running water. And they don’t have that because the dams have impounded their rivers,” he said. “[W]hen the river’s not doing well, we’re not doing well, we’re that connected with our environment in the natural world.”
The proposed removal of four Lower Snake River dams has been the subject of legal battles since 1991. Most recently, in May 2016, a federal district judge ordered dam operators to put all options on the table to save threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead – including dam removal on the Snake River. The judge’s order led to federal hearings throughout the region, ending earlier this year. Meanwhile, the Nez Perce and those that care about a thriving Snake River continue to wait for meaningful action before Snake River salmon runs become extinct.
The Rights of Rivers
ELC believes that all rivers have inherent rights, whether or not governments recognize them. There is a growing movement to recognize these rights worldwide, with four rivers gaining legal rights recognition in 2017. These were waterways in New Zealand, India and Columbia. In New Zealand, a treaty was the source of rights for the Whanganui River. And in India and Columbia, court decisions established rights for three rivers.
Recognizing the rights of rivers would promote the removal of dams, which may violate a river’s inherent “right to flow” as well as other related rights. It also would ensure that river health is no longer compromised for short-lived economic benefits. The rights of rivers movement also explicitly acknowledges and honors the crucial role that indigenous groups have in protecting rivers and utilizing them sustainably for their well-being, as the Nez Perce did for generations before the US government intervened.
ELC believes that until rivers have legal rights, destructive dam projects and other harms will continue to destroy ecosystems, including salmon runs. This right would be enforced by legal guardians, particularly indigenous peoples for those rivers upon which they historically depend. And it would support Native American treaty rights for fishing, since tribes have long honored and depended upon salmon and other fish species.
Tribal Environmental Summit
ELC attended the October 28 Nez Perce Tribal Environmental Summit to present on the rights of rivers and how it supports dam removal. The Nez Perce has long-recognized many rights of nature concepts at the deepest level. The rights of nature movement relies heavily upon indigenous wisdom.
At the Summit, ELC began by discussing the flaws in our current environmental laws. For example, the Endangered Species Act kicks in only once species are on the brink of extinction, rather than setting a positive goal of ensuring that all species thrive. Due to these negative goals, many fish species teeter on the brink of extinction – including Snake River salmon, which have plummeted in population since damming the river.
ELC then discussed solutions, including reforming our governance to recognize the rights of rivers. As one example, ELC discussed our Universal Declaration of the Rights of Rivers, which provides a template that can be implemented at all levels of governance. The Declaration requires that governments “consider for decommission all dams that lack a compelling social and ecological purpose.” Under this framework, many harmful dams in the western United States would be candidates for prompt removal.
In addition to speaking, ELC listened. We learned of the impassioned efforts to protect the Snake River and surrounding ecosystems that have been going on for years. This includes the “Free the Snake Flotilla,” where hundreds of supporters take to the water to demand removal of the Lower Snake River dams. And it also includes efforts to oppose nearby oil trains that can blow up on a whim, contaminating ecosystems and killing anyone in the blast radius. The Columbia River watershed is home to many great environmental leaders with whom ELC is proud to work.
How you can get involved in a rights-based approach to protecting rivers
We need your help to secure rights for all rivers worldwide. This will promote dam removal as a legal right for waterways. Here is how you can help today:
- Connect with us on social media and sign up for our newsletter
- Sign the Universal Declaration of River Rights as an individual or organization
- Volunteer with ELC
- Contact ELC if you want to work on your own river rights campaign, including efforts to oppose dam construction and remove existing dams
- Donate to ELC