LOWER ELWHA KLALLAM, Wash.—Interior Secretary Ken Salazar reaffirmed the Obama administration’s commitment to Indian country September 17, saying one of the president’s “highest priorities” is that Interior work on behalf of American Indian interests and “make sure that they get their rightful place at the table.”
Salazar’s comments came during a celebration to mark the beginning of the demolition of two dams on the Elwha River. It’s the largest dam demolition project in the United States to date. The hydroelectric dams – the Elwha, built in 1912, and the Glines, built in 1926 – inundated Klallam village sites, resource sites, and fishing and hunting areas. It also cut endangered salmon off from 70 miles of their historical upriver habitat; the builder of the dams did not add fish ladders.
As Salazar spoke, as many as 73 chinook salmon swam in a pool at the base of the first dam, unable to get upstream. Chinook salmon return from sea to spawn on average after four years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, making those salmon at least the 25th generation that hasn’t been able to get to its traditional waters.
“The salmon are still trying to find their way home,” said Al Charles Sr., who was on the Lower Elwha Klallam council when the 1992 Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act was approved by Congress.
Elwha River salmon populations are dramatically smaller than the estimated historical population and two species of salmon are considered to be extinct in the river, according to the Elwha Research Consortium. Lower Elwha Klallam has long contended that the decline in salmon population is a violation of its treaty with the U.S. government, which preserves Klallam’s “right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations.” Salmon is an important part of the traditional diet of Northwest Coast Native peoples, and is also important in ceremonial and spiritual life.
The removal of the dams is expected to cost about $27 million and take three years. The entire project, including restoration of the river, is expected to cost $350 million.
“When he brought me in to be secretary of the Interior there were a number of priorities that we agreed upon,” Salazar said of President Obama. “One of those priorities was to make sure that we were standing up for tribal issues which had been so long neglected in these United States, for over four centuries. Another priority was for us to move forward with a new conservation agenda for the 21st century.
“Today, here in Lower Elwha River, we deliver and I’m proud of that.”
Later in his remarks, Salazar said, “So much of what we are doing here today, so much of what we have heard in the blessing by (Klallam elder) Ben Charles … or the great statement that we have heard from other tribal leaders and their songs, has to do with how we in this country honor our First Americans. We all know that the First Americans were here long before we came. They were here since time immemorial. Some of us here may ask ourselves, well, how long have you lived here in this country, and you can say a generation or two or three or four. In my case and in my daughter Melinda’s case, we can say about 400 years. But that’s nothing. That’s nothing in comparison to the time that Native Americans have inhabited these lands we call the United States of America. And yet for four centuries this country looked the other way, if not in persecution and in oppression, they never recognized the treaty rights and other rights that were inherent in all those treaties for Native Americans.
“So Barack Obama, who has the title, the honorary name of Black Eagle from the Crow Tribe in Montana, said to me, ‘One of my highest priorities is that you work on behalf of Native American interests and make sure that they get their rightful place at the table.’ ”
Salazar was joined on a stage within sight of the Elwha Dam by Gov. Chris Gregoire, Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, Lower Elwha Klallam Chairwoman Frances Charles, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor, local congressman Norm Dicks, Assistant-Secretary of Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk, National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, and actor Tom Skerritt.
Salazar credited Echo Hawk, Pawnee, with working hard “to make sure that we create the kind of relationship that respects the sovereignty relationship of Indian tribes.”
Salazar added, “We work hard to create new economic development opportunities for Indian tribes, we work hard to deal with tribal law and order issues, which are difficult in Indian country, we work hard to create new education opportunities for Indian country. And I can tell you whether it’s the settlement of Cobell or the huge cases that we’ve dealt with on water, there’s a lot more to come, so we look forward to continuing in that partnership.”
Salazar also recognized the women leaders on stage – the governor, two senators and the Klallam chairwoman – saying Washington was ahead of other states in electing women to leadership.
“If only the rest of the world could be like Washington (state) … we might be able to solve all the issues, including the issues of war and peace,” he said.