Lamprey Fishing Blessing Ceremony Has Tribal Sovereignty Undertone

Jun 3, 2014

You've no doubt heard people say they're "goin' fishin'." But how about going "eeling?" As in, fishing for eel.

For centuries, Native Americans from Boise to Wenatchee to the southern Oregon coast have harvested Pacific lamprey, colloquially called eels. Monday, the Warm Springs and Yakama tribes held a season-opening "blessing ceremony" at Willamette Falls. Correspondent Tom Banse reports the event happened against a backdrop of treaty rights tension over management of the dwindling fish.

Children and tribal elders alike danced the eel dance at Clackamette Park on Monday.
Children and tribal elders alike danced the eel dance at Clackamette Park on Monday.
Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network

Willamette Falls just outside Portland is one of the few remaining places in the Northwest where it is possible and legal to catch Pacific lamprey for personal and ceremonial use. Tribal members are about the only ones who go for it. The ugly-looking critter resembles an eel, but it is actually a primitive fish with a distinctive, toothy suction cup mouth. Evaline Patt is a Warm Springs tribal council member. She says lamprey used to be a staple in the diets of Columbia and Snake River basin tribes.

Patt: "It's a rare treat now. It's getting to be a delicacy."

Patt compares lamprey to oysters. Others say it tastes like fishy steelhead.

During a "blessing ceremony" for lamprey and fishermen held at the confluence of the Willamette and Clackamas Rivers, tribal schoolchildren led an eel dance, a sort of snaking Conga line more than fifty strong of all ages.

One of the fishermen there was Patrick Luke. He is a Yakama Nation biologist. Luke is still miffed about the ticket he received from Oregon fish and wildlife police at the nearby falls in 2011.

Luke: "Now they have got folks on the reservation that won't even come down here because they are afraid that enforcement will intimidate folks like they did in the past. I grew up living that way in the 1970's seeing the state policemen treat the Indian folks really bad."

Three years later, the Yakama Nation is still fighting Luke's ticket. Two other fishermen were also cited and had their catches seized that day for fishing without a state permit. The thing is, Oregon does not "co-manage" lamprey the same as salmon or game. "It is not a treaty right," explained State Police Captain Jeff Samuels. "It is definitely open to all," with everyone under the same rules, he said of the state's approach.

From the tribal point of view, they believe they shouldn't need the state's permission.

Luke: "They don't set our seasons. We have our own law enforcement that sets our own seasons."

At Oregon's Department of Fish and Wildlife, fishery managers are trying to finesse the issue so it doesn't escalate. The department's Tony Nigro says his agency is trying to reach an understanding that at least clarifies the rules.

Nigro: "The state has its policies and its legal positions. They aren't necessarily in agreement (with tribal positions) at this point in time. But we respect and recognize the differences. I think we've been fairly good at putting those differences aside, seeing if we can work cooperatively."

Nigro says Northwest states, tribes and the federal government have a common goal to keep Pacific lamprey off the endangered list. Populations of the migratory fish have declined dramatically in recent decades. The reasons are many including dams and water diversions. Lamprey have trouble swimming up fish ladders designed for salmon. Both sides see room though for a limited ceremonial and subsistence harvest within a larger recovery effort.

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