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Return to the River Salmon Festival Highlights Conservation, Community in Walla Walla Basin

May 23, 2024

Sarah Moffett, Education Coordinator for the Tri-State Steelheaders organization, helps Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian reservation (CTUIR) member Qumsali Red Elk Wainanwit prepare to release her fish. Moffett asked each student to name and send their fish off with well wishes during their release during the 2024 Return to the River Salmon Festival held in Walla Walla May 18th.

The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) joined a host of tribal, local, and state agencies and programs to participate in the Return to the River Salmon Festival held May 18. The festival was organized by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) and the William A. Grant Water & Environmental Center at Walla Walla Community College.

The annual event celebrates the return of salmon to the Walla Walla Basin, highlighting the importance of conservation and community involvement in ecological restoration.

Attendees enjoyed a variety of interactive and educational activities including hands-on displays, obstacle courses, relay races, painting, drawing, and water testing experiments.

The Return to the River Salmon Festival was a joint event organized in large part by the CTUIR. CTUIR Department of Natural Resources had several booths there focused on culture, land, water and wildlife. Above, Jeremy Redstar Wolf, employee and enrolled member of CTUIR, explains the Water Resources Program’s ground water display during the May 18 event. Photos by Jill-Marie Gavin, CRITFC Communications

The National Park Service hosted a new booth inspired by the Plateau Tribes’ cultural heritage. The booth provided a space for attendees to paint and decorate parflêches —traditional foldable hides used for storage— made of paper. Markers in traditional colors were provided and photos of real parflêches, also known as “Indian suitcases,” were displayed for inspiration. This activity not only engaged participants but also educated them about the cultural practices of the CTUIR tribes the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla.

Throughout the festival, there was a strong theme of inclusion of tribal history and traditions among all participating vendors, reflecting the growing relationships and outreach efforts by the CTUIR in the region. Students from the Walla Walla community showcased their advanced knowledge of the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes through insightful questions that delved deeper into specific cultural history.

Years of lobbying efforts of the region’s tribes have been successful in promoting the accurate teaching of tribal history in public schools and the development of tribal curricula. In 2017, the Oregon Legislature enacted Senate Bill 13, known as Tribal History/Shared History, directing the Oregon Department of Education to create K-12 Native American Curriculum and provide professional development for educators. Similarly, Representative Debra Lekanoff (D-Bow) sponsored House Bill 1332 in Washington to require all school districts to incorporate a tribal sovereignty curriculum into their social studies programs. This bill, which passed in the House on March 8, 2023, and is now advancing to the Senate, mandates student instruction requirements by grade level and authorizes grants for compliance.

CTUIR’s Department of Natural Resources hosted several booths dedicated to cultural heritage, water resources, land, and restoration projects, offering the community opportunities to learn about ongoing efforts to preserve and restore the natural environment.

A standout attraction was the watershed presentation featuring a model of the 2020 flood level of the Umatilla River. This simulation demonstrated the impact of flood activity on residential areas within the floodplain, offering valuable insights into flood management and prevention strategies.

A National Parks Service employee shows a parflêche example during the Return the River Salmon Festival held at Walla Walla Community College May 18th. The booth had materials for youth to create and decorate their own parflêche out of paper. There were markers available to decorate the items with traditional colors and shapes of the Columbia River Plateau Tribal peoples.

Another highlight was a creative video game coded by students from Whitman College’s gaming and outreach program. The game, focused on the Mill Creek Restoration Project, allowed players to navigate a handheld fish controller through the creek, showcasing the significant restoration efforts undertaken to support threatened summer steelhead and bull trout. This game gave players a visual way to experience the collaborative efforts between Washington Water Trust, CTUIR, the City of Walla Walla, and local landowners in rewatering 31 miles of Mill Creek and enhancing upstream habitat.

One of the most popular activities for families at the event was releasing young salmon into the river. Students were asked to name their fish, give the fish their best and most positive thoughts, and then were led down to the river to gently release them into the stream. The release was held to symbolize the festival’s core mission of salmon reintroduction and habitat restoration. “This event provides a wonderful opportunity for the community to engage with and appreciate the critical conservation work happening locally,” said Drew Trogstad-Isaacson, interim director of the Water and Environmental Center.

CRITFC remains committed to supporting such initiatives that foster community engagement and environmental stewardship. The Return to the River Salmon Festival not only celebrated the return of salmon but also reinforced the collective effort required to ensure the health and vitality of the Walla Walla Basin and the broader Columbia Basin for future generations.

Adding historical context to the celebration, it’s important to remember the significance of the Walla Walla Valley in the history of the region’s Indigenous peoples. In 1855, three of the CRITFC member tribes’ treaties with the United States were signed in this valley. Treaty Rock stands on the Whitman College campus, commemorating the location where the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla; the Yakama; and the Nez Perce treaties were signed. This historical backdrop adds depth to the festival’s focus on tribal heritage and reinforces the ongoing connection between the past and present efforts in cultural preservation and environmental stewardship.

By Jill-Marie Gavin, CRITFC Communications