Posted by: MC | February 3, 2013

Listening to Rivers

Fog on the Willamette 2-2-2013  mmc

Fog on the Willamette 2-2-2013 mmc

Last week I had the chance to catch up with a friend, Antone Minthorn (Cayuse), former Chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR).  He told me a story of the Umatilla River.  The focus of the story was Salmon – the fact that Salmon were not able to make it up the Columbia as far as the Umatilla River for more than 70 years while the combination of dams and irrigation practices had limited the Umatilla’s flow and raised the temperature of the water too much to support spawning.

There’s a lot to the story – matters of Tribal and Federal policy on water rights and electric power, matters of irrigation and grazing practices as they altered habitat.  In recent decades, many people had to be involved in thinking carefully together to make changes in the management of water flow so that enough water could be freed to return to the Umatilla.  Bear eagle.

Chairman Minthorn spoke of the years of negotiation and action that were necessary to make possible the return of the Salmon to the Umatilla in the late 1990’s.  He described seeing the Salmon back in the river for the first time in the 90’s.  He said that after that return, the bear and the eagles came back, too.

A CTUIR webpage  highlights the Tribe’s Salmon Success.  The account ends with these words:

Antone Minthorn, Chairman of the CTUIR Board of Trustees, has been a driving force behind these cooperative solutions. He summarized why he believes the Umatilla Basin Project has been so successful:

“Our tribal philosophy has been to negotiate rather than litigate. If we have to, we will litigate to protect our treaty-reserved rights, but, we have seen that we can create solutions which meet everyone’s needs by sitting down with our neighbors, listening to each other, and developing our own solutions. We want to apply what we’ve learned locally to help revive threatened salmon populations in the region. We believe the cooperative process between neighbors can be used as a model for success in the region and beyond.” 

A few days earlier I had the good fortune of talking by phone with Ryan Toohey, a lead scientist with the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council (YRITWC).  The Watershed Council exists as a cooperative entity of the 70 Tribes of the Yukon River to represent the interests those sovereigns have in the wellbeing of the water.  The Yukon runs through parts of Alaska and western Canada and is one of the globe’s major sources of fresh water.  Ryan Toohey told me about the ways the people of the river are taking action to return clean water to the Yukon.  Combining traditional and scientific knowledge and practices, the people of the Yukon’s Tribal Nations are systematically improving the health of their ancestral waters.

Again, the story is always told best by the people themselves.  Here is a quote from the homepage of the YRITWC website.

We, the indigenous Tribes/First Nations from the headwaters to the mouth of the Yukon River, having been placed here by our Creator, do hereby agree to initiate and continue the clean up and preservation of the Yukon River for the protection of our own and future generations of our Tribes/First Nations and for the continuation of our traditional Native way of life.   

You may have heard the stats.  While water covers 70% of the Earth’s surface, only 3.5% of that is fresh.  That means listening to rivers has always been vital to the experience of being human.  With the real threats of pollution, drought and population expansion the urgency of listening well to our rivers and lakes is arguably immediate.

Rivers have plenty to say.  Early yesterday morning, Portland’s very own Willamette River showed up in the way of masterpieces – artistry of the natural world that just can’t be topped.  I was headed for a meeting – walking from the east side of the river toward downtown in bright morning sun.  A mile or so from the river, I caught my first view of the heavy fog isolated directly above the water.  I could see the blue above downtown and the west hills, the bright blue above and behind me to the east.  As I walked onto the Burnside Bridge the angle of morning sun electrified a spot in the fog.  That chance sighting of water meeting water vapor meeting a February sunrise was breathtaking.  Awe is likely a good step toward listening.

The fresh water cycle is going on all the time.  It reveals itself in weather and waterfalls.  It also shows up in Salmon and Bear and Eagles.  It is evident in the procession of plants and of people.  If we wish to tend well to our lives and the lives of those we love, we must also tend thoughtfully to water.  It is time to be intelligent and active in matters of water locally and globally.  There are many reasons for this, but pretty essentially compelling is the fact that without water human intelligence and activity cannot exist.

So, now is the time to listen to the rivers, listen to each other and clean up  the water for ourselves and the generations to follow.

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