The U.S. Promised Tribes They Would Always Have Fish, but the Fish They Have Pose Toxic Risks

A laboratory analyst processes salmon filets for testing at a lab in Washington. Credit: Kristyna Wentz-Graff/OPB

Salmon heads, fins and tails filled baking trays in the kitchen where Lottie Sam prepped for her tribe’s spring feast.

The sacred ceremony, held each year on the Yakama reservation in south-central Washington, honors the first returning salmon and the first gathered roots and berries of the new year.

“The only thing we don’t eat is the bones and the teeth, but everything else is sucked clean,” Sam said, laughing.

Her mother and grandmother taught her that salmon is a gift from the creator, a source of strength and medicine that is first among all foods on the table. They don’t waste it.

“The skin, the brain, the head, the jaw, everything of the salmon,” she said. “Everybody’s gonna have the opportunity to consume that, even if it’s the eyeball.”

Sam is a member of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. They are among several tribes with a deep connection to salmon in the Columbia River Basin, a region that drains parts of the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, Canada, southward through seven U.S. states into the West’s largest river.

It’s also a region contaminated by more than a century of industrial and agricultural pollution, leaving Sam and others to weigh unknown health risks against sacred practices.

“We just know that if we overconsume a certain amount of it that it might have possible risks,” Sam said as she gutted salmon in the bustling kitchen. “It’s our food. We don’t see it any other way.” 11-22-22

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