Tribal ceremony returns with year's chinook run

The annual chinook salmon migration back to the Deschutes River has taken on old and new cultural and artistic twists as late summer segues into early fall here in South Sound.

Any day now, the Deschutes River salmon should start milling around the Fifth Avenue Bridge. They will come much to the delight of people who can catch a close-up glimpse of chinook salmon – also called king – as they finish the final leg of their saltwater journey and slip through the fish ladder at the dam to be captured and spawned at the Tumwater Falls Hatchery.

When they enter Capitol Lake this year, they will be greeted by eight brightly colored glass mosaic salmon, gracefully perched on poles jutting out of the water next to the Heritage Park bulkhead near Water Street and Fifth Avenue.

The leaping salmon are an August, monthlong display of public art created by LisaNa Red Bear, an Apache woman, Olympia resident and graduate of The Evergreen State College, who, as an artist and mental health counselor, specializes in the healing component of art. She, along with several other artists, are participating in the city’s third annual display of temporary public art sponsored by the Olympia Parks, Arts and Recreation Department.

If Red Bear’s goal was to make people feel good when they see her leaping salmon, she and I both think it’s working.

People walking and jogging through Heritage Park stop and gaze at the airborne salmon, which are designed to represent all five species of Northwest salmon – sockeye, pink, chum, chinook and coho.

“I see people smiling and posing their family members in front of the salmon for photos,” the artist said. Perhaps even more significant than the art is the event Red Bear has pulled together for 1 p.m. Saturday at this altered, but timeless, place where the Deschutes River has met South Puget Sound since the last Ice Age ended some 13,000 years ago.

Members of several South Puget Sound tribes, including the Squaxin Island, Nisqually and Puyallup peoples, will gather to sing, dance and share stories in what’s being called the Return of the Salmon Dance.

For centuries before the white settlers arrived – their presence became permanent in 1845 – indigenous people gathered near the mouth of the river to fish, gather shellfish, trade and socialize.

As the southern terminus of the watery highway known today as Puget Sound, Budd Inlet was a point of departure for travels to the south to the Columbia River and west to the Pacific Coast.

After talking to local tribal elders, Red Bear thinks this will be the first such multi-tribal gathering near the mouth of the Deschutes River since presettler days.

Much has changed.

The river water has been dammed behind the Fifth Avenue Bridge since 1951, metered out with the ebb and flow of the tides. The original estuary peninsula that jutted into Budd Inlet and formed the beginnings of downtown Olympia was expanded by about 434 acres through dredging and filling operations that began in the late 19th century and continued over 100 years.

Shellfish harvesting in lower Budd Inlet is an ancient memory, eliminated by pollutants from the industrialization of the Budd Inlet waterfront, garbage dumping on the tideland in the early decades of Olympia and disposal of human waste – untreated until 1951.

The summer chum runs that drew Indian families to the Deschutes River are long gone, replaced by a hatchery run of chinook salmon that are stymied by Tumwater Falls when they return to the river.

Residents and elected officials are locked in a contentious debate over whether to remove the Fifth Avenue Dam so the Deschutes River can once again flow freely or maintain the lake as a giant reflecting pool for the Capitol.

“I didn’t even know about the lake-versus-estuary debate when I started the project,” Red Bear said.

“The concept behind the art is really about an Apache woman from the arid Southwest honoring the Pacific Northwest tribes and natural resources, including the mighty salmon.”

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife forecasts a return of about 10,700 chinook to the Deschutes River this year, down slightly from the 13,000 that returned last year but within the range of 8,000 to 15,000 fish in recent years, said Hal Michael, a district fisheries biologist with the state agency.

The fish typically show up from late August to late September.

“Some fish should be showing up at the dam,” Michael said. “But the lake is so warm, most are waiting for cooler water.”

The return of the salmon always is a sight to behold. And so will the gathering Saturday of South Sound tribal members in one of their historic gathering places.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444