For centuries, it was one of the two top salmon fishing sites for Native Americans in the Northwest, the other being Celilo Falls. Salmon once swam in Kettle Falls by the thousands, bringing tribes throughout the northwest together each summer to fish, trade, exchange news, and preserve fish for the coming winter months, but it has been nearly 60 years since a gathering like this has occurred.
The fish began declining in the 1900s when commercial fisheries near the mouth of the river started harvesting huge numbers of salmon. The final blow came with the building of the Grand Coulee Dam, which opened in 1942 and completely blocking the salmon from swimming upstream. The reservoir it created raised water levels, which flooded Kettle Falls. The falls remain, but beneath the waters of Lake Roosevelt.
Many tribal members met, waiting as the canoes traveled across the lake to a shallow beach. It was a day to rejoice, to remember the past and to pray for the future. Respected Kalispel elder Francis Cullooyah was one of those waiting. “When I saw those canoes coming I never thought I’d see that happen. I always thought about it in my dreams. I’ve seen the coastal people in their canoes. Now the Kalispels, we have a canoe we built ourselves. It was great.”
The logs for the canoes were supplied by the Quinault Tribe, a Pacific Coast tribe, which harvested 80 acres of western red cedar. Of those, six logs were provided to the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT)—interior tribes—for canoes, which were 5 feet wide at the base and upwards of 30 feet long. The UCUT spent the winter and spring hollowing out and shaping canoes. There was a sense of pride as many individuals helped, some for a short while and others for many days or weeks. June 17 was the culmination of this work as all the canoes, after several days of paddling from their respective reservations, reached Kettle Falls.
It was a grand day, an emotional day for the UCUT tribes—the Coeur d’Alene, Spokane, Kootenai, Kalispel and United Tribes of the Colville. Dan Nanamkin, from the Nez Perce Band on the Colville Reservation, was one of the paddlers. He gave great credit to the women paddlers. “There were times I wanted to quit it hurt so bad, but these women kept singing and kept rowing. Our elder here, she really pulled us through. She would sing beautiful songs. We sang, we said good prayers and talked in our language. We offered gifts with our fellow tribes and created that unity. We became more related as a family.”
Others spoke of the unity felt both during their journey and at the conclusion where their ancestors had harvested salmon over eons of time.
It wasn’t always an easy journey. Strong winds and rain created bad conditions. “Yesterday was an epic journey. The weather was horrible. It was scary and we could have died. It was bad. But it was also very awesome as we got ever closer,” Debbie Stanger, Spokane, said. “We learned this is a team effort. When you’re in a canoe, you’re in a team. The kids got to witness that, the togetherness, the family. We’re not three different tribes, we’re a family. It’s been really powerful.”
Chief Allan, Coeur d’Alene Chairman, said: “Making this canoe has sparked a sort of cultural awakening with our tribe. We’ve seen hundreds of tribal members take an interest in the canoe.” The Coeur d’Alenes had the longest route, first traveling the length of Lake Coeur d’Alene, then down the Spokane River where they met up with the Spokane Tribe. Together they traveled to Lake Roosevelt where the Consolidated Tribes of the Colville are located. Then all headed northward to Kettle Falls. Meanwhile the Kalispels and Kootenai of Idaho arrived from the north, along with two canoes from British Columbia who joined in, bringing the number of canoes to eight.
John Sirois, Committee Coordinator for UCUT, said he was honored and grateful to be part of this and spoke of the unity the event was creating. “When you’re in that canoe you have to be as one and that’s what our culture teaches us, we’re supposed to take care of each other and that will lead to success. I cannot be happier because this is going to be the start of something that’s going to empower and bring us back to the river. Next year there’s talk about travelling to different reservations. Another idea is to paddle to the ocean. So we’ll see. People are so jazzed they want to talk soon and start planning.”