The Nimiipuu people of the Pacific Northwest (more commonly known as the Nez Perce Indians) have a close, interdependent relationship with salmon. This fish has long been central to their diet, rituals, stories, and understanding of the environment, the cultural consequence of their physical interdependence with the salmon. At the time of their first contact with Europeans, the Nimiipuu consumed some 500 pounds of fish per year, principally chinook, coho, chum, and sockeye salmon, as well as trout. Their nature-based spirituality also revolved around water, the salmon’s habitat. Today, reliance on salmon for food signals that a family maintains Nimiipuu tradition: salmon and water remain central to tribal gatherings, rites of passage, marriages, and ceremonies. Julia Davis-Wheleer, an elder in the society explains, “The salmon is a part of us, and we are a part of it. Our chil dren need to be able to feel what it is like to catch and eat salmon” (83).
When one or more animals becomes so integrated into the life of a culture, argues Benedict Colombi, there is little separation possible among environmental stewardship, defense of rights to the landscape, and cultural survival. Nimiipuu have been obliged to apply their collective knowledge, work, and claims for sovereignty to the daunting challenge of sustaining salmon in rivers interrupted by nearly a century of dam building. Large-scale dams for hydroelectricity and the irrigation of export crops like wheat have cut salmon runs by 90 to 98 percent from their historic levels, just as the Nimiipuu population is returning to its mid- 1800s peak. In an effort to cope with these opposing trends, the community has opened seven fish hatcheries and lobbied for habitat restoration and dam decommissioning. Traditional environmental knowledge is combined with environmental policy intervention in efforts like the Wykan- us-mi Wa-kish-wit (The Spirit of the Salmon) plan for the species’ recovery. Invoking 19th century treaties that affirmed their right to fish for salmon at “usual and accustomed places,” the Nimipuu have reclaimed land and water rights, deploying the latter to increase the flow of Snake River. Their treaty rights and complex cultural connection make the Nimiipuu uniquely able to intervene forcefully in federal water policy to ensure salmon’s recovery. The Nimiipuu people’s sovereignty and their leverage over land-altering decisions are now vital for the future of the fish they have valued for centuries.
Benedict J. Colombi. 2012. “Salmon and the Adaptive Capacity of Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) Culture to Cope with Change.” The American Indian Quarterly 36(1): 75–97.
This column, a new regular contribution to Anthropology Now, will highlight emerging anthropological research that has the potential to reshape contemporary social and political debates. A series of short reviews will be coauthored and edited each issue by a diverse student collective from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, which has historically supported publicly engaged anthropology. The members of the collective would like to thank Katherine McCaffrey, Ida Susser, and the rest of the editorial board for this opportunity and their continued support.
In addition, the members express their appreciation to the “Discoveries” student collective of the sociological journal Contexts for generously advising on process and approach.