Before the treaties were signed, the tribes enjoyed the bounty of a land blessed with abundant resources upon which their culture depended. Some of the most important were the rich assemblage of anadromous fish populations in the rivers of the basin. Salmon populations were numerous and represented five species: chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), coho (O. kisutch), steelhead and rainbow (O. mykiss), sockeye and kokanee (O. nerka), and chum (O. keta). The Columbia Basin supported the Pacific’s largest run of chinook, or king salmon, known to weigh as much as 125 pounds and measure more than five feet in length (Brown 1982). Other important native anadromous species included the lamprey (Entosphenus tridentatus [FORMERLY Lampetra tridentata]) and white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus). Other fish species were also utilized.
This lifestyle, and the fisheries upon which it depended, were reserved by the tribes when they signed treaties with the United States. While yielding control of vast tracts of land, the tribes retained ownership of the salmon runs so vital to their culture. These treaties, though challenged often, have been reaffirmed repeatedly as legally binding documents in numerous court decisions.
Now the salmon are disappearing. The lamprey cannot be found in much of their former territory. Sturgeon are less abundant and populations have become fragmented. What could not be done legally in the past, is now being done in practice by the widespread mismanagement of natural resources. The treaties are being ignored and broken.