Course:CONS370/Projects/An assessment of Tribes, First Nations, and salmon ecosystems of the upper Columbia River

From UBC Wiki


Theme: Salmon ecosystem restoration by Tribes and First Nations of the Columbia River Basin
Country: Canada,USA
Province/Prefecture: British Columbia

This conservation resource was created by Nava Sachs, Teah Schacter, and Morgan Tien.
It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0.

The anadromous salmon in the Columbia River Basin (CRB) are well known to hold cultural, spiritual, economic, and ecological value [1][2]. However, the construction of hydroelectric dams along the CRB throughout the 1900s has severely depleted migration habitats, abundance and distribution of salmonoid species. The opening of the Grand Coulee dam in 1942 blocked salmon and steelhead access to the upper CRB at the expense of many Columbia Basin Tribes and First Nations (CBTFN) whose culture, subsistence lifestyles, and spiritual relations depend on anadromous fishes[1][3].

The 1964 Columbia River Treaty (CRT) between Canada and the United States (US) promised hydroelectric power and flood control, however included minimal to no ecological considerations for the CRB. Indigenous rights were also not considered in the CRT.

Several Columbia River Tribes and First Nations groups have initiated fish restoration programs throughout the basin, and are seizing the Columbia River Treaty modernization as an opportunity to amplify their voices in salmon-related decision-making.

Key words: salmon restoration, indigenous governance, upper Columbia River Basin, transboundary ecological agreements, The Columbia River Treaty


  1. "First Nations" is primarily used in this webpage to describe indigenous peoples in Canada.
  2. "Tribes" is primarily used in this webpage to describe indigenous peoples in the US.
  3. "Indigenous" is used in an international context, following terminology used by United Nations documents[4].


Kettle falls of the upper Columbia River in 1860. Before flooded by the Grand Coulee dam in 1941, the falls were a place of abundant fishing and gathering by Columbia Basin Tribes and First Nations.

History of the Columbia River

The Columbia River is roughly 2000 kilometres in length and the fourth largest river by volume in North America.[5] The river begins in southeastern British Columbia (BC) in the Rocky Mountain Trench and flows through a number of US states before the mouth debouches to the ocean near Astoria, Oregon.[5] The river has historically been an ideal environment for anadromous fish species such as salmon and steelhead.[5] Preceding the beginning of colonization of the Northwest in the 1840’s, it is believed that between 10-16 million salmon and steelhead would return to the river for spawning annually. This number declined to under 1 million through the 20th century.[5]

Traditional use

There are many oral traditions regarding the creation of the Columbia River but the most common telling is involving Coyote.[5] It is believed that Coyote saw that the people of the interior needed food, so in order to bring the salmon from the ocean Coyote fought the giant beaver god Wishpoosh all the way through the Cascade Mountains before killing him. It was the back-and-forth action of the beaver’s tail which carved out the Columbia River Gorge and opened the channel to the sea, making salmon available to the people.[5]

The CRB has been home to several distinct Tribes and First Nations for centuries.[6][3] Prior to the imposition of colonial powers in the mid-1800s, the Tribes and First Nations of the upper Columbia River resided on and managed millions of acres of land across the areas which are now known as BC, Idaho, Montana, and Washington.[6][3] Their peoples were separated and required to move onto reservations a fraction of the size of their traditional land bases, away from their traditional fishing areas and gathering places.[6] These Tribes and Nations also already had established indigenous names for the ‘Columbia River’, it was often called the Big River, Wimahl, Nich’i-Wàna, or Swah’netk’qhu. [3]

The CRB Tribes and First Nations have traditionally been people of the salmon, and the now-disappearing fish species is considered sacred and fundamental to their cultures.[1][3] Their economy, spiritual and physical wellbeing, intertribal relationships, and subsistence living practices are all based on the salmon.[1] These Nations and Tribes were and continue to be made up of fishers, hunters, and caretakers of the land and water. Their relationship with the CRB is reciprocal and in the face of colonial development both the river and the people have suffered.[6]

The Columbia River Treaty

In 1948, devastating floods along the Columbia River resulted in the deaths of 41 US citizens and the destruction of communities on both sides of the border, leaving immense property damage and thousands homeless.[7] The Canadian and US governments had already began researching solutions for flood control and growing power demands in the Basin four years prior to the 1948 flood, and by 1961 they had finalized and signed The Columbia River Treaty (CRT) to be ratified at the Peace Arch in 1964.[7] This treaty included almost no concerns for ecological values and the rights of Indigenous peoples were ignored.[1] The CRT facilitated the construction of several dams on the river on both sides of the border, which blocked salmon migration routes and resulted in the flooding of over 110,000 ha of land[8][3]. This caused significant loss of tribal and First Nations territory, as well as near eradication of the salmon, the keystone species of their cultures[8][3].

Canadian CRB residents began coming together in the 1990s to seek recognition for the harmful impacts of the CRT.[7] According to a representative of the Secwepemc Nation, Nathan Mathew, the CRT remains a point of contention, stating that “One of the first perspectives that we have is that the creation or signing of the original Columbia River Treaty and the implementation of the terms with respect to the building of the dams and the changes in the water courses comprised the biggest infringement on our way of life or the rights that we have to exist in the Basin”.[8]

Fish passage halted by the Grand Coulee Dam

The largest hydroelectric blockage on the Columbia River is the Grand Coulee dam in Washington, whose construction stopped salmon and steelhead access to over 1700 kilometers of upstream migration habitat in the upper river basin and Rocky Mountain headwaters. Paired with the neighbouring 1979 Chief Joseph dam, the Grand Coulee has reduced salmon and steelhead runs to less than 5% of their previous numbers in the upper CRB at the expense of the Columbia Basin Tribes and First Nations. Before damming, salmon and steelhead runs of 2.6-3.7 million fish enriched the upper CRB upstream of the Grand Coulee site[1]. Construction of the Grand Coulee dam began in 1933 and finished in 1942. The flow of water, and consequently salmon and steelhead runs, was blocked in 1938.[9]

The Grand Coulee Dam, photographed in 2011.

Salmon and steelhead populations had been declining prior to the Grand Coulee dam due to overfishing, pollutants, and irrigation diversions[9]. The Bureau of Reclamation built the dam with intentions to conserve the fish populations that would disappear by creating hatcheries and relocating the salmon runs through the North Central Washington Upper Columbia River Salmon Conservation Project. However, there was little support of these efforts as non-tribal public interest aligned with the dam’s economic promises, not with fishery conservation[9].

Fish passage mechanisms over the 350 foot concrete wall from the top of the dam to the downstream flow were deemed impossible by the Washington Department of Fisheries (WDF). The WDF attempted trap-and-haul methods starting in 1938 to transport migrating salmon from the Rock Island dam (downstream of the Grand Coulee) to release in the Wenatchee, Okanogan, Methow and Entiat rivers. This was because spawning was known to occur mostly upstream of the Grand Coulee, and the WDF was attempting to divert the salmon migration to other spawning habitats. Overall, this strategy was ineffective due to previous habitat degradation in the Wenatchee, Okanogan, Methow and Entiat rivers[9].

Salmon and steelhead runs were officially lost upstream of the Grand Coulee dam. The Canadian Government expressed that because no commercial fishery existed on the Canadian Columbia River, salmon passage was not required at the Grand Coulee dam. Stakeholders investing in upper Columbia River salmon conservation efforts, such as the Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NPCC)and the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT) express frustration that Canada chose hydroelectric economic gain over the once-abundant salmon resource[9]. The UCUT assert that indigenous communities drastically harmed by the Grand Coulee dam were not consulted nor compensated for their immeasurable loss of land, resources, and culture that is bound by salmon[1].

Ecological impacts of hydroelectric development

Dead salmon during spawning season in the Columbia River Basin, 2007.

Since the 1930s, the implementation of 56 major hydroelectric dams has altered the basin’s diverse landscapes to meet hydroelectricity, flood control, and irrigation demands. Referred to as a riverscape to describe its complex “mosaic” of freshwater systems navigating diverse environmental gradients and geomorphologies, the CRB’s severe fragmentation by dams has diminished salmon and steelhead populations via habitat alteration and increased water temperatures[10][11].

Construction of these permanent dams has not only created massive obstructions to migrating fish populations in the upper CRB, but the constant development on the river has released ecologically harmful materials and chemicals into the water as well as disturbing the riverbed. These modern concrete dams have wreaked havoc on fish populations worldwide, and continue to pose challenges to populations in recovery. Levin & Tolimieri[12] used a modified BACI (before-after-control-impact) sampling design to understand the effects of the dams in the Upper Columbia River basin on the chinook salmon. Their analysis on the salmon data over thirty years (1960-1990) suggests that the dams are a “potential force preventing recovery of endangered salmon populations”[12]. Through their research, Levin and Tolimieri found the damage to the salmon populations was more severe in the Upper Columbia River, as the fish face each additional dam when traveling up stream. Furthermore, of the dams in the Upper CRB alone, “fewer than 10% have structures that support fish movement and migration”[12], making spawning grounds extremely difficult to access.

In addition to the dams, the Fraser River [you do not explain why the Fraser River is mentioned here] has experienced an “average increase in peak summer water temperature of >1.5C over the past 40 years”[13]. The increase in water temperature is attributed to the increased global average temperature with climate change and has been contributing to the decrease in fish populations making it to their spawning ground[13]. Groups of sockeye salmon have been tracked entering the Fraser River , but failing to make it to their spawning grounds; Jacob et al. (2010)[13] presume that the salmon are dying due to stress caused by the warmer water.

An example of these ecological effects on humans is St’at’imc fishing in Lillooet and Pemberton, which has suffered greatly from the decrease in salmon populations[13]. Many people have opted out of fishing due to the low numbers of fish, and leave them for the Indigenous peoples who live further north and rely more heavily on the run for their source of food[13]. St’at’imc fishing practices the giving of thanks for the return of the salmon. This important annual tradition comes in different forms to different communities, such as spawn festivals and celebrations. However, as fish populations decline and delay, traditional practices of drying salmon have become less viable as the fish migrations are delayed into the later fall when temperatures drop. [13]

Tenure arrangements

The Columbia River's transboundary course

Land tenure pertaining to salmon restoration initiatives throughout the CRB is complex, as the river flows across the US-Canada international border and through many different lands of Tribes and First Nations.


BC land ownership is roughly divided accordingly: 94% of territory is provincially-owned Crown land, 1% is federally-owned Crown land, slightly less than 5% is privately owned, and 0.2% is treaty settlement land, which has been ceded by First Nations through the BC Treaty process[14]. However, the 1982 Canadian Constitution Act recognizes Aboriginal title as a communal property right among indigenous groups to jurisdiction, occupancy, and use of their traditional lands[15].

The Columbia River Salmon Restoration Initiative involves an agreement between the provincial and federal Canadian governments and the Syilx Okanagan, Ktunaxa, and Secwépemc First Nations. These three first nations hold Aboriginal rights and title to the upper CRB[16]. Despite this Aboriginal title, private land owners and the BC and Canadian governments hold sovereign power over these lands and rivers that flow through them.

The United States

In the US, the The The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC)'s Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit (Spirit of the Salmon) initiative involves the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. These tribes ceded their lands in 1855 to the United States Government, and now occupy reserve lands[17].

Administrative arrangements

The Columbia River Treaty

Brief Overview

The Columbia River Treaty between Canada and the US is an international benefit sharing agreement for the joint management, regulation and development of the Columbia River for coordinated flood control and optimization of hydroelectric energy production for both countries.[7] The treaty received agreement from the Canadian and US federal governments as well as the BC provincial government; each of these governing powers have specific roles as part of the CRT.[7] The CRT has a minimum length of 60 years; this minimum length will be met in 2024 meaning it can be terminated provided 10 years written notice have been given.[7][18] The treaty may also be renegotiated at any time if there is mutual agreement.[7][18] However, it does not have a specific end date so without intervention by either country most of the treaty’s provisions would continue indefinitely.[7] The CRT required Canada to develop and operate three dams in the upper reaches of the CRB. These included the Duncan, Hugh Keenleyside, and Mica Dams. The agreement also permitted the US to build the Libby Dam in Montana.[7] Entities were assigned for both countries to implement the treaty measures, the US entities being the Bonneville Power Administration and US Army Corps of Engineers, and B.C. Hydro being the Canadian entity.[7][18]

Benefits and Impacts of The CRT in the Columbia River Basin

Benefits of the CRT include flood control provisions that have protected portions of the CRB from major flooding events on both sides of the border.[7] The dams implemented by the CRT also provide approximately 50% of the hydroelectric power in B.C. as well as about $120 million USD in revenue for Canada from the Canadian Entitlement downstream power benefits.[7] Additional benefits for both sides of the border include support for irrigation, municipal and industrial water use, navigation, and recreation.[18] There have also been many negative implications of the CRT, most of which befalling the Canadian reaches of the CRB. Some of these impacts include loss of First Nations cultural sites and approximately 650 square kilometers of productive valley bottoms, as well as the displacement of roughly 2,300 people due to flooding of lakes, riverbeds, and reservoirs. Ecological changes due to the CRT have also had immense impacts on habitat availability, fish and other wildlife and cultural values throughout the CRB.[7]

Restoration initiatives

The CRITFC's Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit (Spirit of the Salmon)

CRITFC’s ongoing Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit (Spirit of the Salmon) initiative started in 1995 and aims to restore salmon, lamprey, and sturgeon populations to the exclusive treaty Indian commercial fishing area known as Zone 6[19]. Zone 6 encompasses the ceded lands of the four member tribes, along the Columbia River between the Bonneville and McNary dams in Washington and Oregon. Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit is a movement about protecting tribal salmon culture, economy, and environmental values. It is a long-term example of a successful salmon restoration initiative on the Columbia River, and sets a precedent for success of the more recent UCUT initiative to restore native fish populations above the Grand Coulee dam.

Restoration and reclamation of salmon as a natural resource, which is known to the Columbia River Plateau tribes as their sacred First Food and the centre of their First Salmon Feast, is bound to their Creation story. In honouring the annual return of the salmon along the Columbia River, a series of feasts are hosted in sequence with the arrival of salmon to subsequent upriver longhouses. This ceremony exemplifies the tribes’ appreciation for the generosity of Salmon and Water at the time of human Creation[19].

Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit is based on adaptive management and recruits fisheries science, policy, and traditional ecological knowledge in fulfilling the goal of fish restoration above the Bonneville dam. In CRITFC’s 2014 update of the plan, they released promising successes:

  • The population declines of some salmon species have been stopped, and CRITFC accredits their conservation efforts for some of the increased salmon abundance.
  • Tribal conservation practices and cultural values have been publicized, and Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit has provided a framework for state and non-tribal salmon restoration initiatives.
  • Most hydroelectric dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers now require technologies to prevent juvenile salmon mortality in industrial turbines.
  • CRITFC has restored hundreds of miles of fish habitat through improving river connectivity and structural complexity.
  • Tribal collaboration with Oregon hydroelectric industry and the US The Environmental Protection Agency has improved regulations for toxin inputs to the river that affect fish and consumer health.
  • Scientific advancements and genetic laboratory work have improved tribal adaptive management plans involving extensive fish life cycle knowledge.
  • Tribal hatchery-based salmon reintroduction has been successful.
  • Increased salmon runs have allowed increased abundance and species diversity of tribal harvesting, creating employment opportunities and restoring cultural harvesting practices.
  • 30 tribal fishing access sites have been restored.
  • The ancient traditional fish harvesting and trade center, Celilo village, that was destroyed by dam construction, has been refurbished with new water systems, roads and a longhouse.

The UCUT's Fish Passage and Reintroduction into the US and Canadian Upper Columbia Basin

A major priority embedded in the UCUT's fish reintroduction plan above the Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams in Washington is their request that the upcoming CRT revision includes attention to ecosystem-based functions and indigenous values.

  • UCUT proposes an adaptive management plan focused on four main objectives:
  1. Meet First Nations subsistence harvesting needs and cultural values through restoration of summer/fall Chinook and sockeye salmon runs above the Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams.
  2. Evaluate the response of the fish runs, ecosystem, and habitat to Chinook and sockeye reintroduction in light of climate change.
  3. Increase fishing and harvest benefits for everyone along the CRB.
  4. Restore additional native fish species populations above the Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams.
  • The reintroduction plan includes four phases:
  1. Analysis of fish passage technologies at other hydroelectric dams, upper CRB donor stock composition and health, habitat assessments, socio-economic implications of fish reintroduction, alignment with First Nations values and interests, and ways to gain financial and social support.
  2. Pilot studies of small-scale, temporary fish passage mechanisms at Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams.
  3. Construct fish passage mechanisms and improve habitat upstream of Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams.
  4. Regular monitoring of progress and continued habitat improvements.

Phase 1 has been completed and reported by UCUT[20]. The results are promising for donor stock options, disease risk management, suitable habitats, and fish passage technologies.

The Columbia River Salmon Reintroduction Initiative (CRSRI)

The CRSI involves an agreement between Canadian provincial and federal governments and the Syilx Okanagan Nation, Ktunaxa Nation, and Secwépemc Nation. It aims to assess the feasibility of salmon reintroduction to the upper CRB by blending western science and indigenous knowledge. The initiative's long-term goal is to reintroduce salmon populations for traditional First Nations subsistence lifestyles and cultural ceremonies, as well as for ecosystem health[21].

The Government of Canada is represented in CRSRI by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and has "committed to a renewed relationship with Indigenous Peoples, one based on the recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership, as well as to the Principles respecting the Government of Canada’s Relationship with Indigenous Peoples"[21]. The DFO's work follows the Fisheries Act[22], Species at Risk Act[23], and Oceans Act[24] legislations in their salmon reintroduction analysis.

British Columbia is represented in CRSRI by the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD). Commitment to collaborative management and ecological governance is also stated by FLNRORD, which is guided by BC's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA)[25] and Wildlife Act[26] legislation.

Affected Stakeholders & Rightsholders

As declared by UNDRIP Indigenous peoples have inherent rights to their traditional territories,[4] however, the US, Canadian, and B.C. governments still exert sovereign power over much of this territory in the CRB. Working collaboratively with related organizations and governments the Tribes and First Nations of the CRB have hopes for successful reintroduction of salmon to the river basin.[8][27]

Indigenous perspectives

Goals and thoughts of representatives about this initiative:

“Our fundamental goal is to bring the salmon back to their historic range, the headwaters of Columbia Lake, to be able to enjoy salmon again in our rivers and lakes for food.” -Kathryn Teneese, chair of the Ktunaxa Nation Council[27]

“This was the essence of our culture and life that kept us healthy, not only physically but was the bond of our communities, today we have a duty to make sure the waters are healthy, so when the salmon return they will be able to reproduce and give us the sustenance that is crucial to our future generations.” -Shuswap Indian Band Chief Barb Cote[27]

A poem by Sherman Alexie, a Spokane-Coeur d'Alene Native American writer and artist:

The Columbia River Gorge in Oregon, US.

The Powwow at the End of the World[28]

“I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall  

after an Indian woman puts her shoulder to the Grand Coulee Dam  

and topples it. I am told by many of you that I must forgive  

and so I shall after the floodwaters burst each successive dam  

downriver from the Grand Coulee. I am told by many of you  

that I must forgive and so I shall after the floodwaters find  

Chief Garry of the Spokane Indian tribe.

their way to the mouth of the Columbia River as it enters the Pacific  

and causes all of it to rise. I am told by many of you that I must forgive  

and so I shall after the first drop of floodwater is swallowed by that salmon  

waiting in the Pacific. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall  

after that salmon swims upstream, through the mouth of the Columbia  

and then past the flooded cities, broken dams and abandoned reactors  

of Hanford. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall  

after that salmon swims through the mouth of the Spokane River  

as it meets the Columbia, then upstream, until it arrives  

in the shallows of a secret bay on the reservation where I wait alone.  

I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall after  

that salmon leaps into the night air above the water, throws  

a lightning bolt at the brush near my feet, and starts the fire  

which will lead all of the lost Indians home. I am told  

by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall  

after we Indians have gathered around the fire with that salmon  

who has three stories it must tell before sunrise: one story will teach us  

how to pray; another story will make us laugh for hours;  

the third story will give us reason to dance. I am told by many  

of you that I must forgive and so I shall when I am dancing  

with my tribe during the powwow at the end of the world.”

The Canadian Columbia River Inter-tribal Fisheries Commission (CCRIFC)

The CCRIFC aids First Nations in Canada with government and industry interactions in pursuing their collective goal of salmon reintroduction to Canadian CRB waters[29]. The main parties involved are the Ktunaxa and Secwepemc Nations. The CCRIFC has low relative decision-making power regarding salmon, as they have minimal government ties and deal with Crown lands. The Ktunaxa and Secwepemc Nations do have Aboriginal title rights, however the Canadian and BC governments have sovereign power over these lands.

The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC)

The CRITFC manages fisheries policy and facilitates fishing access for the Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla, and Nez Perce tribes[17]. They aim to protect tribal treaty fishing rights, restore native fish populations to the Columbia River, and communicate salmon culture to the public and member tribes. CRITFC has moderate relative power due to their strong federal and provincial government ties.

The Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT)

The Upper Columbia United Tribes have influence over approximately 14 million acres of aboriginal territories and actively manage about 2 million acres of reservation land, including vast expanses of freshwater habitat and 30 dams and reservoirs.[30] UCUT is the collaborative effort of 5 member tribes, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Indians, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Kalispel Tribe of Indians, Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, and Spokane Tribe of Indians.[6] This model of leadership sanctions the communication and cooperation of member tribes to resolve their common issues and concerns, while permitting the sharing of resources and efforts to rehabilitate key wildlife habitats, species, and ways of life in the whole region.[6][30] The UCUT has moderate-low relative power, as the member tribes exert control over their reserve lands, however they have less government ties than CRITFC, giving them less sovereign power.

Interested Outside Stakeholders

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NPCC)

The NPCC is a major supporter and funder of the UCUT salmon restoration initiative through its Fish and Wildlife Program. The council publicly disapproves of the Canadian disregard for salmon and ecosystem values at the time of the Grand Coulee dam construction, which reveals its alignment with the affected tribes and First Nations of the Columbia River[9]. The NPCC is a large transboundary non-profit organization, giving them moderate power without strong government ties.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

The NOAA of the US Department of Commerce works with CRB Tribes in the US through their 2007 Upper Columbia Spring-run Chinook Salmon and Steelhead Recovery Plan. The NOAA has high relative power, as it is US government-run and funded. The US has sovereign power over the ceded lands in question.

Canadian and United States governments

The federal and provincial Canadian governments, and the US government are sovereign powers directly involved in the signing and renewal of the CRT. Their interests lie in hydropower production, flood control, and ecosystem stability. The Canadian governments are involved with the CRSRI, and the US provides NOAA funding for salmon restoration planning and indigenous collaboration. These nation-state governments have high relative power, as they own the CRB lands and have the sole power to create legislation surrounding ecosystem functions and indigenous rights.

Hydropower industry

The hydropower industry involves dam owners and associated powers. Examples include BC Hydro and the Bonneville Power Administration, whose interests lie primarily in economic gain through CRB development. The hydropower industry has relatively high power, as it drives the Canadian and US economies and thus has political sway.


Governance and relative power in the original Columbia River Treaty

The 1964 Columbia River Treaty (CRT) exemplifies the problematic state-led narrative of discourse and scholarship that represent most transboundary environmental agreements[3]. The dominance of the state-led narrative surrounding the original treaty exemplifies the power imbalance of that era between the forceful Canadian and United States governance systems and the Columbia Basin Tribes and First Nations.

State power exemplified in the Columbia River Treaty

The CRT reflects state values in its era, including economic gain, flood control, and hydroelectric power production. Additionally, the CRT and subsequent development of the CRB was used as a nationalist tactic of both countries to assert their power in the Cold War era[3].The lack of ecological consideration by the US and Canada in the CRT allowed them to disregard indigenous value systems that are based on land relationships and responsible stewardship.

Indigenous voices were thus silenced in the original CRT. The document only references the colonial naming of the ‘Columbia River’, excluding all indigenous names for the river. The silencing of these names is synonymous with attempted erasure of indigenous voices in North America. The state-led CRT narration amplifies binational (US and Canada) governance and consolidation of power within the state through indigenous dispossession of land[3]. The narrative of dominant literature regarding the CRB since the CRT serves to reproduce and strengthen state power over indigenous power[3].

Negotiations between the American and Canadian nations are central to current political and scholarly discourse about the CRT modernization, while indigenous perspectives are often excluded. This is because the US and Canada currently hold sovereignty over transboundary decision-making. However, indigenous voices are gaining momentum in treaty modernization discourse. Examples of these voices are those of UCUT and CRITFC, in their pursuits of fish restoration throughout the CRB.

Indigenous narratives of the Columbia River Treaty

Indigenous voices have been excluded from CRT literature and discourse due to a lack of recognised indigenous rights at the time of the CRT creation and signing, the absence of ecological considerations in the CRT, and political racism[3].

Leaping salmon at Celilo falls on the Columbia River in 1906.

The CRT caused much harm to indigenous people who had been living throughout the CRB since time immemorial. For example, Celilo falls in Washington was destroyed by damming after the CRT was signed. The falls marked a traditional site for fishing and trading on the Colville Indian Reservation. This was a sacred place where tribes and First Nations from throughout the CRB would gather to trade salmon, steelhead, and other resources[3].

North of the international border, the traditional lands of the Ktunaxa, Sinixt, and Shuswap First Nations are upstream of the Grand Coulee dam and were significantly altered by reservoir and storage facility creation (including the loss of salmon, the keystone of their cultures). Still, First Nations were not included in CRT negotiations affecting the upper basin[3].

South of the international border, Tribes include Colville, Coeur d’Alene, Yakama, Nez Perce, Cayuse, Palus, Umatilla, Cowlitz, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Shoshone Bannock tribes, and the Chinook tribe (unrecognized by US federal government). All of these tribes were negatively affected by hydropower development, and none was consulted in creating the CRT[3].

Indigenous rights violations and a lack of consultation and collaboration

The below-listed rights of First Nations and Tribes in Canada, the US, and internationally have been violated through the hydroelectric development and salmon losses in the CRB[1]:


Federal law: “The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed” in section 35 (1) of The Constitution Act of 1982[31]. These rights are protected from unjustified government interference and involve salmon harvesting for subsistence[1].

Provincial law: The 2014 Tsilhqot'in Nation v British Columbia Supreme Court Case concluded that the provincial government cannot unjustifiably infringe on aboriginal rights without meaningful consultation[32]. This includes “incursions on Aboriginal title, that would substantially deprive future generations of the benefit of the land”[32]. BC has a duty to consult and accommodate the affected First Nation when infringing upon its rights.

In developing the Grand Coulee dam in 1934, the Canadian and BC governments did not consult nor accommodate the UCUT who depended on salmon harvesting on their traditional lands[1].

United States

Federal law: The United States federal trust responsibility legally binds the federal government to “moral obligations of the highest responsibility and trust” toward Indian tribes[33]. The US is responsible for protecting natural resources on which subsistence and culture of Indian tribes depends[1]. US treaties, executive orders and congressional agreements also protect rights of Indian tribes to the CRB’s natural resources.

International law

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) states that indigenous peoples have rights to participate in decision-making that affects their traditional lands[4]. Neither Canada nor the US exemplified the above principles in developing the CRB with hydroelectric dams and depleting salmon populations. Neither Canada nor British Columbia consulted or collaborated with the affected tribal and First Nations governments in implementing the transboundary Columbia River Treaty in 1964. Thus, this treaty is in violation of indigenous rights in today’s law.

Indigenous involvement in the CRT modernization

Columbia River Basin Intertribal governance bodies include CRITFC, UCUT, the Northwest Indian Fish Commission, the Coast Salish Gathering, the Yukon River Inter-tribal Watershed Council, and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. Indigenous involvement in transboundary negotiations has increased since the original treaty due to:

  • Assertion of inherent rights (such as rights to indigenous ways of life including access to traditional land and resources such as salmon), leading to increasing acquired rights (politically negotiated rights, such as legal fishing and hunting rights on traditional lands)[3]. Examples are: the Idle No More movement (Canada) and Standing Rock protests (US).
  • The creation of federal policies and laws through court cases in the US and Canada has resulted in acquired rights to land, title, fishing, and equitable legal process[3].

Current Negotiations and Modernization of The CRT

In November of 2011 a two-year long Treaty Review of the CRT was initiated by the B.C. government. An evaluation of the possible continuation, renegotiation, or termination of the treaty was carried out. Consultation with local government officials, First Nations, Hydro-dam facility operators, and the public was carried out alongside a series of environmental studies.[7] The B.C. government ultimately decided to pursue amendments within the existing framework of the CRT.[7] A similar multi-year review of the treaty was occurring in the US which also recommended modifications to the existing treaty.[18] Negotiations between Canada and the US to modernize the Columbia River Treaty (CRT) have been ongoing since 2018.[8] The treaty has largely been condemned as outdated due to the lack of consultation of Basin residents and indigenous Tribes and First Nations at the time of implementation, as well as a desire from the US to reduce the financial compensation given to Canada for power generation benefits.[8][7]

In June of 2020 Canada put forward a comprehensive proposal covering a number of issues including the two main concerns of the existing treaty, flood risk and power management, as well as new ecological considerations.[8] The addition of ecosystem function and cultural values as a third division of the treaty negotiations and modernization has been an indigenous-led effort.[8] Three indigenous nations, the Ktunaxa Nation, Syilx Okanagan Nation and Secwepemc Nation, joined the treaty negotiations as observers in 2019; given the absence of consultation with CRB Tribes and First Nations for the 1964 treaty, their input has also added vital perspectives and context for the modernization of treaty terms.[8] The above nations have also taken on a leadership role in the research of cultural and ecosystem values of the river, in order to restore damages brought on by the original CRT.[8]


With increased acknowledgement of inherent rights and increased acquired rights for Columbia River Basin Tribes and First Nations, the power imbalance of the original CRT era has begun to shift. Largely through forming intertribal governance groups such as UCUT and CRITFC, indigenous people of the Columbia River are now part of the treaty modernization discourse.

The Columbia River Salmon Reintroduction Initiative is a promising example of co-leadership (a multilateral approach) in environmental governance. The initiative's synergistic model of indigenous governments working together with the Canadian and BC governments to resolve salmon issues shows a less unequal distribution of decision-making power than is shown in the original, state-led CRT. The initiative is completely led and governed by indigenous members of the Syilx Okanagan Nation, Ktunaxa Nation, and Secwépemc Nation. However, the fact that funding for this initiative comes solely from the Canadian federal and provincial governments and Columbia Basin Trust confirms an unequal power dynamic and may be a cause for concern when conflicts arise between the indigenous leaders and non-indigenous sponsors.

In contrast, fish restoration initiatives such as the UCUT's Fish Passage and Reintroduction into the US and Canadian Upper Columbia Basin are funded primarily by the involved Tribes and First Nations. This independence awards these initiatives more freedom in their governance, however their lesser support by Canadian arms of government could result in less decision-making power in transboundary environmental agreements such as the modernization of the Columbia River Treaty.

Different relationships between indigenous-governed intertribal fish restoration initiatives and federal and/or provincial governments come with varying trade-offs. Strong state government ties are helpful as they often provide direct funding for the initiative, as exemplified in the Columbia River Salmon Reintroduction Initiative. This direct relationship and collaboration between indigenous and state governments towards a common goal could also pave the way for increased involvement of indigenous voices at the decision-making table when salmon resources are in question. However, the dependence of this initiative on state funding likely gives its indigenous leaders less power than in self-funded initiatives like that of the UCUT.


Transboundary governance

The responsibility for dismantling the historic power imbalance between the settler and indigenous voices regarding transboundary decision-making lies with the Canadian and US governments. This is because the settler governments have built the current binational ecological governance approach and are thus responsible for its injustices towards indigenous peoples. In order to dismantle binational governance of the CRB, this framework should be replaced with a multilateral approach.

A multilateral approach that includes indigenous voices as sovereign, as well as the US and Canadian state sovereigns, is a promising and ethical framework for transboundary environmental decision-making. For the CRT renewal, a multilateral approach with indigenous insight could offer valuable environmental perspectives, such as traditional ecological knowledge and ancient oral histories of the CRB, that would otherwise be absent from the discussion.

Initiatives that embody indigenous governance and knowledge systems while also collaborating with nation-state powers, such as the Columbia River Salmon Reintroduction Initiative, are good examples of modern collaborative management. Indigenous value systems should be prioritized in salmon-related decision-making, as they are ancient in practice and hold the knowledge needed in the face of climate change.

Climate change mitigation

Looking to the future, there must be a clear plan in order to help recovering fish populations in the Upper Columbia River.  Mitigating the effects of climate change in our rivers will be a difficult task that has no definitive course of action. However, the cement dams in the river will cause more harm to the recovering fish population as they continuously block fish migration and movement to their spawning grounds. Building transportation systems for fish at all dams will help balance the needs of the stakeholders and make migration easier for the fish. Although the government and hydroelectric companies will argue they have the greatest monetary stake in the infrastructure, the First Nations and Indigenous peoples who rely on the water and the fish, are at massive risk of losing not only a vital food source, but a massive part of their culture and heritage.

Legislation such as the Fisheries Act[22], Species at Risk Act[23], Oceans Act[24], and Wildlife Act[26] should be followed closely alongside UNDRIP[4] and DRIPA[25] by all parties involved. In order to manage ecosystems as climate continues to change, strong environmental and indigenous rights policies are absolutely necessary.


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