A Tribal Perspective on the Clearwater River
Today’s guest blog about the #10 Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers- a part of our America’s Most Endangered Rivers® series- is from Jaime A. Pinkham (Nez Perce) and a member of the American Rivers Board of Directors.
In an 1863 treaty between the United States and the Nez Perce, our reservation was situated in Idaho where the Clearwater River Basin provides the core water supply to sustain our livelihood and that of our neighbors. The Clearwater River actually acquired its name from the Nez Perce— “Kuus x̆ay x̆aayx̆” (Kuus meaning “water” and x̆ay x̆aayx̆ referring to “clear”).
Not long ago, I was hiking with a tribal elder in the Columbia River Gorge. At one spot he asked me to turn around. He said I was standing at a “looking back place.” Pointing upriver he asked, “What do you see?” He wasn’t asking me to describe the view. His question was about a story braiding past with present, linking people with place.
My earliest memories of Kuus x̆ay x̆aayx̆ and its tributaries included swimming, fishing, and sweats. I also hunted and gathered foods and medicines on the adjoining hillsides much like my ancestors did long before written history. I was told our creation stories that are forever rooted all along the river bank, such as the “Heart of the Monster,” and the site where the Creator called all of earth’s creatures together to become qualified in preparation for the great change— the arrival of human beings.
In 1990, I returned home to work for the Tribe. Equipped with childhood experiences and legends, I used my professional skills to help restore and protect fish and wildlife. I engaged in negotiating water rights and collaborated with— and when necessary squared off against—public and private interests that also relied on the resources provided by Kuus x̆ay x̆aayx̆.
Today, I reside in St. Paul, Minnesota, and remain grateful to the Nez Perce and our allies for continuing to invest considerable financial, technical, and intellectual resources to revive Kuus x̆ay x̆aayx̆ to a healthy state. I try to return home every spring for a reunion. As the rivers twist and churn in spring time, the Chinook salmon return to the healing waters of their birth. Right before dawn at that transition from night to light, under the morning star, wading waist deep with my dip net extended, I’m reunited with the chill of the river. For when the salmon make their way home, so do I.
Designation of the Kuus x̆ay x̆aayx̆ as one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers® reflects that today’s work is far from over. Following in our ancestors’ footsteps, the next steps are ours to take. There is no time for rest and no room for inaction.
The work ahead will require humility. The wisdom of nature reaches beyond our imagination. We cannot rely solely on technological fixes; we must restore natural river functions. We can never fully mimic nature or take her place, but if we listen and learn we can do a better job of following her lead.
We can’t hide from our history. How we measure up will be viewed from the looking back place by the beneficiaries of our labors— our great-grandchildren. I pray their story will be braided with our story of overcoming divisiveness and collectively responding with respect and hard work. We still have time to prove we are qualified to save a life-giving river. The Kuus x̆ay x̆aayx̆— the Clearwater River.
Please join us in saving the natural Wild and Scenic character of the Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers from destruction by tar sands megaload shipments! Tell the Forest Service that preserving the Wild and Scenic Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers is important to you!