A few years ago, Chuck Williams and I drove up to the Olympic Peninsula for a salmon bake near the mouth of the Skokomish River. It was a gathering of old friends, veterans of the salmon wars. I was bringing the salmon, six large chinook iced-down in the back of my Subaru, and Chuck was primed to do the baking. He’d also brought a bucket of huckleberries and a bag of wapato, the so-called “Indian Potato” he’d harvested from a fragment of his family’s historic property near Beacon Rock in the Columbia River Gorge.
Chuck was royalty in a tribe, the Watlata (or Cascades), that no longer exists in the eyes of the government. His people lived in what is now Oregon City, near Willamette Falls, and along the Columbia River near that river’s cascades, two of the most productive salmon fishing sites in the world. Chuck’s relative Chief Tumulth signed the Willamette Treaty of 1855, which was almost immediately violated by white settlers. When Chief Tumulth moved to defend the tribe’s treaty rights, he was arrested and hung on the orders of Philip Sheridan. Most of the Cascade tribal members were then rounded up and removed to the Grande Ronde Reservation, 80 miles to the West and far from the great salmon runs that had sustained them for 6,000 years. Today, the Grand Ronde Reservation has dwindled to a population of less than 60 enrolled members.
But Chuck’s family held out, gleaning a living on a patch of grassy land and marshes on the north side of the Columbia River in what is now Franz Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Then, in 2001, the George W. Bush administration, fearful that the river tribes might cause problems by asserting their treaty rights to the salmon and sturgeon of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, simply revoked their status as a tribe. “First they took our land, next they took our leaders,” Chuck told me. “Then, finally, they took our tribal identity itself, making it seem as if we never existed.”
Our intersection was David Brower, the archdruid, who we had both worked with at Friends of the Earth. Brower made Williams his chief advisor on the national park system and charged him with turning the Columbia River Gorge into a national park, a 20-year battle that was fatally subverted by the hydro-power companies and the Portland elites, who wanted to build mansions on the Gorge’s rims. Chuck was one of the country’s best environmental photographers. For years, he lived in his gallery/house along the Dalles. His photos of the Columbia River Gorge, its lost cultures and mauled landscape, are collected in his heartbreaking book, Bridge of the Gods, Mountains of Fire.
By the time Bill Clinton arrived in the early 1990s, Chuck had turned his attention to the plight of the Pacific salmon, whose stocks were plummeting across the region from rapacious logging, livestock grazing and, most devastatingly, the chain of dams choking the life out of his ancestral river.
Over the course of 20 years, Chuck and I met up probably once every two week, either in his house and gallery in The Dalles or here in Oregon City. We’d plot strategy, tell tall tales, gripe about politics and engage in some pungent editorializing on the dilapidated state of the planet. So when he invited me to join him on the trip up to Skokomish, I happily agreed to pick him and drive him north.
After our feast, a friend of Chuck’s lent us two sea kayaks and promised that the weather was perfect for an evening cruise on the Sound. It took a few minutes to squeeze Chuck into the kayak. He was a large man, afflicted with diabetes and other chronic illnesses that often went untreated because of the vicious vagaries of the US health care system. But he was a whiz with a paddle once he got situated and soon we were cutting our way across the dark, still waters of Annas Bay toward the Great Bend of the Hood Canal. As a huge orange moon, Chuck called it the Sturgeon Moon, crested over Mount Rainier to the east, the once placid waters around us began to roil and our kayaks rocked violently. Then suddenly three, no four, dorsal fins, large and luminous in the moonlight, breached the surface no more than 30 feet from our boats, and subsided as quickly as they had appeared. Orcas. Chuck turned to me and chuckling nervously said, “Evidently we’re trespassing. The orcas aren’t my clan. Do you know the way back?”
That was my last trip with Chuck Williams and every moment is burned into my memory. As Chuck’s health declined we traded barbs by email and phone. The last time we spoke, he said, “Hey, St. Clair, remember the night of the orcas? They let us live. Will we do the same?”
What Chuck and I didn’t realize then was that those orca were sick, starving, in fact. Unlike other populations, which feast on seals and other marine mammals, 80% of the diet of the of orca of Puget Sound consists of a single species: chinook salmon, mostly from the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Four years ago, there were 85 orca in Puget Sound. Now the population has shrunk to 76. The only hope of saving the rest is to restore the salmon runs and the only way to do that is take down the four fish-killing dams on the Snake River: Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor.
“Our culture suffered two deaths,” Chuck told me. “First, the white plagues, which killed 90 percent of the people. Then, the dams, which killed 90 percent of the salmon, which had made us who we were.”
In a parable for our time, one endangered species is dependent on another. The question is do we have the will to do what it takes to save both species and by doing so help reanimate a human culture that is also vanishing from the Earth.
Oh, Didn’t Mac Ramble…
What I’m reading this week…
Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom by Sarah A. Seo (Harvard)
Siege: Trump Under Fire by Michael Wolff (Henry Holt)
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep (Knopf)
What I’m listening to this week…
The Complete Capitol Singles: 1971-1975 by Buck Owens & His Buckaroos (Omnivore)
Legacy! Legacy! by Jamila Woods (Jagjaguwar)
Heroes and Gods by Rashaan Patterson (Shanachie)
The Triviality of Our Faults
Ernie Pyle: “It may be that the war has changed me, along with the rest. It is hard for anyone to analyze himself. I know that I find more and more that I wish to be alone, and yet contradictorily I believe I have a new patience with humanity that I’ve never had before. When you’ve lived with the unnatural mass cruelty that mankind is capable of inflicting upon itself, you find yourself dispossessed of the faculty for blaming one poor man for the triviality of his faults. I don’t see how any survivor of war can ever be cruel to anything, ever again.” (Here is Your War)