The role of storytelling in the fight for salmon conservation

Photo courtesy of Shane Anderson

For Nimiipuu people of the Nez Perce tribe, salmon is not just a fish, but a way of life. 

Before the lower snake rivers dams were constructed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, salmon would return to Idaho in mass numbers; today’s numbers are dire in comparison.

In the 1950s, wild Snake River salmon numbers were around 120,000. Over the past 70 years, the number of fish has dropped almost 100,000 less than before the dams. In 2019, there were only 20,000 Chinook salmon coming through the Snake River. 

In the fight for salmon recovery, the role of media and storytelling is more than just vital, but necessary; Olympia-based production company Swiftwater Films is working to prove just that. In collaboration with Nimiipuu people, their film “Covenant of the Salmon People” will explore the relationship between Nez Perce and salmon. 

The role of salmon in the creation of Nez Perce

“In our creation story, the salmon had given himself to us first,” said Shannon Wheeler, vice chairman of the Nez Perce. “The creator had called all the beings together and let them know that the humans were coming to this land and we would be weak and feeble. Each of the animals had an opportunity to step forward and say why they would be needed. The first one to step forward was salmon, to offer himself to us.”

The role of the salmon has been significant since the beginning of creation for Nimiipuu people; it is at the crux of their foundation.

“Whether you call it a myth, or a legend, it’s our creation story. It’s an oral story that’s been passed down from generation to generation,” Wheeler said.

The Nez Perce tribe have also been called “The Salmon People.”

“When salmon gave himself to us, he was told that he would lose his voice and we would then have to become the voice of the salmon,” Wheeler said. “That’s been our interaction and commitment to the salmon and covenant to salmon — the way we are salmon people and why we continue to advocate for the recovery of salmon.”

The impact of dams on salmon and Nimiipuu culture

The Snake River dams have threatened this way of life for the Nimiipuu and threatened the livelihood of salmon. 

Dams such as Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor account for this threat. 

“The dams have created major barriers for and are major barriers for salmon,” Wheeler said. “There’s a lot of salmon that are the native spawners. They have this pristine habitat, and their survival rates are really good. Then, they start coming down to the river, and once they hit slackwater, that’s something that’s out of the ordinary for them and their normal migration.” 

[Photo from Shane Anderson’s film “Covenant of the Salmon People.”]
Photo courtesy of Shane Anderson

Though the hydroelectric energy produced by these dams is carbon free, it is not without consequence.

“It’s not environmentally free. It kills fish,” Wheeler said. “We’re sending down healthy fish, and the system creates unhealthy fish, and unhealthy fish are going to the ocean and have to swim for days and weeks and miles against currents, and their ability to survive has been weakened to a state that 50% of them don’t even make it to the ocean, and then the other 50% are probably wounded.”

Wheeler compares the journey of salmon from the lower Snake River to the ocean to a high performance athlete.

“Say, it’s a sprinter, and then he injures his ankle. Is he going to be able to perform at the levels that he is expected to or they’re expected to perform? Probably not,” Wheeler said. “And that’s just the race; that’s for a contest. This is a race for life, and when your life depends on it, and if you’re not 100%, the odds of you surviving grow less and less.” 

Storytelling in the fight for salmon

This past year, Swiftwater Films have been preparing for their November release of “Covenant of the Salmon People, ” a film made in collaboration with Nimiipuu people, the name used to identify members of the Nez Perce tribe. 

Swiftwater Films is a leading production company that specializes in documentary storytelling, run by principal director/producer Shane Anderson and his crew.

The film is a 60-minute documentary that explores the Nez Perce ancient covenant with salmon and their efforts to uphold that commitment as climate change and dam barriers destroy an integral foundation of their people. 

“I’d never seen a project that really showed what was at stake for salmon in an immersive experience,” Anderson said. “I wanted to take a natural approach to the film, not so scripted or staged but just filming their lives, a year in the life of the Nez Perce people, and that is what will really tell their story of salmon.”

In total, Swiftwater Films has spent over a year on the film and plans to be finished by November 2022. It will then make its circulation to film festivals. The crew has applied for Sundance, Big Sky, Sunvalley and South by Southwest Film Festivals. From there, it will go on to grassroots streaming.

“I hope this story can educate, inspire and evoke emotions for all people,” Anderson said. “The emotion can get lost when we talk about dams and salmon. I was emotionally moved by this experience, and it made the stakes higher for why we should honor the policies of Indigenous people.”

As a non-Indigenous filmmaker, Anderson stresses his gratitude to hold space for such vital stories, and said he wants to work hard to “honor their trust.”

Having made his start in the science field before transitioning to science-based storytelling, Anderson has seen the effects of media in the fight for environmental justice.

“Film is a tool. A lot of science work does not get into policy, and storytelling can bridge that gap between science and policy,” Anderson said. “I hope to capture the covenant.”

This film has been a partner effort between Swiftwater and the Nimiipuu people, including much of the story development from Shannon Wheeler. 

“We had to get a larger message out there and tell our side of the salmon the best way that we know how. We need to amplify this message, and film has been suggested,” Wheeler said. 

[Illustration of three salmon.]
Illustration by Alieha Dryden

From there they got the larger message out and began laying down groundwork and an overview of the storyline. 

“It’s a storyline about our obligation and our process of helping recovery and our process of ensuring that those who are responsible for the damages come forward and help us help salmon.

The fight for salmon is a fight for life.” Wheeler said.

Artistic mediums as a whole play a part in society that other outlets cannot. Documentary filmmaking has the power to bring empathy and understanding to the rather stoic statements of politics. It is in that space of compassion and visibility that change and accountability happen. 

“Salmon don’t have the luxury of time. They don’t have the luxury of changing the way that they live,” Wheeler said. “The federal government knows what they signed up for when they signed a treaty with us and accepted Article 3 of our treaty, ‘our right to fish and hunt’ — that included the obligation to the salmon … The U.S. has accepted our unwritten law and our obligation to salmon. They must now uphold their part of the bargain.”

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