Lower Elwha Klallam tribe celebrates, works to help river recover
For the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, the Elwha River's restoration also is a cultural renewal.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Swimming in pools of the Elwha River as a child, Adeline Smith pushed salmon out of the way, so thick were the fish in the lower river. "It was nothing to see them everywhere when us kids were in the water, especially in the deep holes. We would scare them away."
Elwha Dam was finished just four years before she was born in 1918. It quickly began killing fish.
Smith, one of the oldest living members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, whose homeland included villages up and down the river, remembers as a kid running from pool to pool with her niece, the late Bea Charles, scooping up the silvery baby salmon stranded in puddles by operation of the dam. "They were just dying. We felt sorry for them," she said of the gasping fish. The dam walled adult fish off from 93 percent of their habitat upriver. With so little spawning ground left, the fish declined. Today the river's chinook, steelhead and bulltrout are listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The tribe intervened in 1986 in licensing proceedings to demand the dams be taken out, and worked with environmental organizations to force the settlement that became the 1992 Elwha restoration act.
With 989 members today, the tribe lost the most with the destruction of the fish runs — and was the slowest to reap the benefits of economic development from the dams. Power poles carried electricity to only parts of the tribal community as late as the 1930s, and the reservation didn't even have indoor plumbing until 1968.
Smith, now 93, has outlived three children and two husbands. Over the course of her life she welded submarines, worked as a riveter at Boeing, eviscerated chickens at a meatpacking plant, sewed jackets at a Seattle garment factory, and picked salal in the woods for 17 cents a bunch. She's seen and done a lot in her life. But the dams coming out?
"I never thought I would see the day," Smith said. "It's a great thing, even if a percentage of the fish come back."
Some things, though, may be gone forever.
As a child, she remembers her father telling her about Thunderbird's Cave — the place where a rainbow jumped back and forth in the river's mist as it crashed through a tight canyon.
There, Thunderbird, who could make the salmon come upriver just by flashing his eyes, dwelled in the upper reaches of the watershed, where only the biggest fish could go.
She fears the cave, and the tribe's creation site near where Elwha Dam is today, may be gone because of the dynamiting of the river channel when the dams were built.
But restoration of the river will continue a cultural revival for the tribe, which in 2007 published a book on the Elwha River and its people for use in its tribal community and in public schools. And the tribe is playing a lead role in the recovery of the Elwha ecosystem, from restoring habitat in the river to replanting native plants in the mud flats that will be exposed when the dams come out.
"It's a lot of change," Smith said. "And we are going to have the fish back."