On the Elwha, a New Life When the Dam Breaks- page 6 | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Two antique dams on Washington state's Elwha River are set to be demolished. (Brian Smale)

On the Elwha, a New Life When the Dam Breaks

A huge dam-removal project will reveal sacred Native American lands that have been flooded for a century

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The day I met Smith, I also toured the 1,000-acre reservation and adjacent lands, where several hundred of the tribe’s 1,000 or so members live. The wind-mussed meadows and marshes have to be among the most beautiful spots in the world, with hummingbirds zipping everywhere and the mountains huddled around as though they could not resist gazing down on this place.

Lately the reservation buzzes with progress. A new casino employs dozens of people and has a removable wall for future expansion. A state-of-the-art fish hatchery is under construction, a heritage center opened in downtown Port Angeles to teach job skills, and the community offers many services, from day care to vast stacks of free firewood cut for the elders. Lately, the waiting list for reservation housing has swelled. Maybe it’s just the bad economy, says tribal vice chairman Russell Hepfer, but for whatever reason many tribal members are finally feeling the urge to come home.

Today the tribe participates in canoe paddles and ceremonies with other Indians. Members have reinstituted the First Salmon ceremony and given salmon (often caught in other rivers) as Christmas presents, smoking the fish in cramped, fragrant outbuildings, using alder wood for heat and maple for sweetness.

The cultural revival does not interest everyone.

“We tried for years to teach the language to adults in the community,” explained Jamie Valadez, the tribe’s language educator. “We didn’t get very far— they were stuck in the mud. It was very frustrating. Our elders were passing away. Then it hit us: We have to focus on the kids.” They now offer Klallam classes at the Port Angeles high school, as well as a traditional dance program. Successful kids might come back to help their people—which is why tribal members, even those without school-age children, harbor such high hopes for the science education project.

“If we can have even one person come back to work on the Elwha, it would be worth it,” says Hepfer, who wears a tattoo of a leaping salmon on his shoulder and is one of the few in the tribe who still visit the river to pray.

***

Some of the kids at the middle school camp already knew the saga of the Elwha and its people well enough to tell it; others had never even heard the creation story, and a few didn’t know how to spell the river’s name.

But for a week, all of them were immersed in Elwha science and ancestral culture. They went on a vision quest to a nearby hot spring. They played Plenty o’ Fish, a rather cerebral game of chase where they weighed a fisheries biologist’s advice about limited salmon harvests against a greedy grocery store agent’s bribes. They studied uses of native plants—how their ancestors spent their infancies in cedar cradles, how maple wood was carved into fish clubs, Oregon grapes were used for dye, fern roots pounded into flour, snowberries made into medicine, and of course, how alder wood was best for smoking salmon.

At night they wove cattail baskets and listened to stories about a mink whose salmon was stolen by a wolf, and a woman so dirty that skunk cabbage grew between her toes.

About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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