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Presbyterians for Earth Care meet with Native Americans in the northwest

Groups share worship, dance and concern for the environment

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

Residents of Celilo Village dance and sing with attendees of the Presbyterians for Earth Care Conference. (Photo by Rick Jones)

CORBETT, Ore. – It was partly cloudy and windy on Monday, as Be’sha Blondin, with the Yellowknife Tribe, led a “Fire and Water” ceremony along the river banks at Celilo Park. Joined by attendees of the Presbyterians for Earth Care (PEC) Conference, Blondin sang to the east, west, north and south and along with the rest of the group, poured water and placed a piece of tobacco into the river. It was part of a two-day program that allowed attendees to hear and learn about traditions dating back thousands of years.

Two years ago, at the Presbyterians for Earth Care Conference in Montreat, North Carolina, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II challenged the group to step out of its comfort zone and stand with those who are struggling.

Organizers for this year’s conference took that message to heart, scheduling the gathering in the Columbia River Gorge, along the Oregon/Washington state line. The gorge is home to numerous Native American villages that depend on the river for their livelihood.

During a two-day pre-conference meeting, approximately 70 attendees learned how U.S. industry has dramatically impacted the fishing trade and native rights.

Their visits included a stop at the Bonneville Dam where a spokesman described how the dam has generated “$188 million of electricity for the region at an operating cost of $30 million.” The spokesman went on to say that engineers have worked to protect the fish that live in these waters and that the numbers are growing.

PEC attendees show support to protect the water at Cascade along the Columbia River. (Photo by Rick Jones)

However, that assessment isn’t shared by environmentalists or those who fish the banks. They say the numbers are falling and the river is changing as well.

“The Columbia River basin is estimated to have supported up to 15 million salmon at one time,” said Dr. Stan Gregory, with the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife in Oregon. “A recent analysis puts that number at 9 million now, and this decline has happened in the last 20 years.”

As dams have dotted the river, Gregory says they’ve created challenges for the salmon to swim upstream, estimating that nearly half don’t make it to spawning grounds. As a result, the population drops and the impact is felt by Native Americans who depend on the salmon to feed their villages and make a living.

As Blondin prepared to begin the ceremony on the riverbanks, she shared her concerns about the environment in general.

“If we don’t come together as one people and plan to heal Mother Earth, she will not last more than 10 to 25 more years,” she said. “We are leaving nothing for our children or grandchildren.”

PEC attendees ended the day by sharing a meal, stories and dance with the people of Celilo Village.

“There was a time we did not know what famine or poverty were. Salmon was plentiful,” said Karen Jim Whitford, a lifelong resident of Celilo. “Now it is different. I’ve learned not to cry but to be strong and speak up. We fight the sea lions, coal, oil and the chemicals from Portland.”

Ralph Jones shows his prize catch of salmon for the day to PEC attendees in Cascade, Ore. (Photo by Rick Jones)

On Tuesday, the group visited the fishing platforms in Cascade, where they met Ralph Jones, a Native American who has fished the area for more than 50 years.

“I’ve been fishing along this river since 1964 and I can say it has changed significantly,” he said. “For me, the fish are smaller. There was a time when we would bring in salmon at 30 pounds each. Now they are down to 22 pounds. The water temperatures are hurting us.”

Elke and Alysia Littleleaf are members of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs and operate a fly fishing business. Elke says the drop in the number of salmon has significantly hurt his business.

“We know that the cause is human and it is unnecessary,” he said. “If we don’t take care of the rivers and oceans, they won’t take care of us. We must stop taking and give back to Mother Earth. She has provided for us for thousands of years but now things are getting worse and we see it every day.”


The PEC conference continues through midday Friday at the Menucha Retreat and Conference Center in Corbett.

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