By Carmen Peone
What does fishing have to do with writing? Fishing has been around since the beginning of time. And so have oral legends and storytelling. Fish used to be the main staple of food for the twelve bands that make up the Colville Confederated Tribes living in northeast Washington.
That is until Grand Coulee Dam was built in 1942, excluding a fish ladder. Since then, salmon have ceased the 700 mile migration to the Kettle Falls to spawn. Young warriors would stand out over the falls on wooden platforms with large nets catching those salmon that were too weak to jump the fifty foot falls prior to the dam’s construction.
Legends, including how Coyote brought salmon to the people from the mouth of the Columbia River to the Arrow Lakes band of the Colville Tribes, have been passed down from generation to generation for centuries. And now, they come in written form. Sons and daughters of elders are currently recording legends so the flames that keep culture brightly burning in the hearts of the people remain alive. Tradition and culture is fading into the past as young people are interested in the technology of the future. So as you can see, fishing and writing go hand in hand. The written word is replacing oral storytelling in order to remain alive.
The Colville Tribe is sinking its hooks into the past, dragging tradition along, breathing new life into an almost forgotten practice. The practice of the fence style fishing weir. I have managed to dredge this custom from the bottom of the river, helping the tribes bring it into the forefront with a new young adult fiction book titled Delbert’s Weir.
Four years ago, Tribal Fish and Wildlife erected an aluminum fence style fishing weir and stretched it across the Okanogan River. They are now catching thousands of salmon each summer, filleting and freezing the meat for tribal members and their families. It may not be wind dried like the old days, but it is a way of providing traditional food to the people. The fishing weir is the inspiration of my book Delbert’s Weir. The weir in my book is actually made of cottonwood, the traditional wood used in this area. My character uses horsehair to tie the poles together, while in the old days Indian hemp or the inner fibers of cattail stock or tule where used. Both fibers were also used to make fish nets.
In one scene, Delbert shares with his two friends the legend of how Coyote brought salmon from the mouth of the Columbia to the Arrow Lakes People. They sit in the rain, hunkered down by the fire under the branches of fir trees, tired, injured, ill, half starved, listening for a crumb of hope. Anything to fill the hunger pangs of the past and present. Today, those hunger pangs are stilled by the vision of the Colville Tribe and their fishing weir, and it’s all written down for the multitudes to read.
Carmen Peone is the author of four young adult novels: Change of Heart, Heart of Courage, Heart of Passion and Delbert’s Weir. All of her books tie into the Native culture of the Arrow Lakes band of the Colville Tribes. She works with youth at the local school that resides on the reservation.