Pandemic has forced the cancellation of events everywhere. But in Indian Country, not congregating comes with added cost—and risk.
By Kevin Abourezk
Every spring, inside the Celilo Longhouse at Celilo Village on the edge of the Columbia River, traditional elders, food gatherers, and members of the public prepare to feast on the first Chinook salmon of the season. Ahead of the annual celebration, the sound of traditional songs and drums fills the air, as celebrants roast fish over open fires.
This year, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the village decided to hold the First Salmon Feast, while limiting attendance to reduce the public health risk. Several people who attended the feast on April 13 later tested positive for COVID-19, including Celilo Village leader Bobby Begay, although it wasn’t confirmed that any of these people had contracted the virus at the longhouse event.
Less than two weeks later, Begay, 51, died from complications due to the virus. A leading fish technician for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Begay had a reputation as an effective advocate for cultural and environmental protection. Friends and colleagues described him as a force of nature: upbeat, welcoming, and keen to build bridges between Native American communities and outsiders.
The tragedy of this year’s feast brings into focus the terrible choices tribal communities everywhere are now facing. On one hand, canceling events may save lives and is necessary in the fight against a pandemic that has already devastated lives and livelihoods across the globe. Yet, for many Native American communities, such gatherings are critical; they reinforce a sense of cohesion and identity.
Some Native Americans fear that ceasing these practices could even jeopardize treaty-protected rights. Wilson Wewa, a 64-year-old tribal council member with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and Northern Paiute spiritual leader, recalled how his grandfather and other tribal elders used to say that ‘all it will take is the stroke of a pen to take away our reservation, and then we’re going to be just like white people.’
No Good Options
The First Salmon Feast holds tremendous cultural significance for the Native Americans who call the Columbia River home. Hosted near the former site of Celilo Falls, the feast draws hundreds of visitors each spring, who come to enjoy music, food, and the ancient custom of honoring the fish that are so central to Native American heritage in this area of the Pacific Northwest.
Four years ago Se-ah-dom Edmo, 43, attended the feast. During the gathering that spring, she was so moved by the message of ritual and togetherness that she came away from the event inspired to leave her job, which had become less and less satisfying. “It was only because I was there [at the feast] that I was able to get to that place, hear those things, and make them real in my life,” she said.
Edmo decided that very day to shift her career path. Today, Edmo, who is Shoshone-Bannock, Nez Perce, and Yakama, is Executive Director of McKenzie River Gathering Foundation, a Portland-based nonprofit that funds grassroots racial and social justice work throughout Oregon, including Native American cultural preservation efforts. “I gave myself pretty much an ultimatum at that salmon feast that if I still had that [former] job by the time I turned 40, it was my own fault. It has meant a whole world opened up to me.”
Edmo’s story is a testament not only to the draw and inspiration of cultural events like the salmon feast but also to the broader impact such events have on Native American communities and the people who are their lifeblood.
But pandemic, and particularly the cases of COVID-19 connected to the First Salmon Feast, has led to the cancellation of many cultural gatherings, at least for the near term. (The sovereignty of tribes means that they are not subject to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s orders and instead can make independent decisions regarding public health.)
Chuck Sams, who serves as incident commander for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation during the coronavirus pandemic, said CTUIR leaders canceled all traditional feasts and gatherings and recommended the cancellation of all sweat lodge ceremonies as well. It was one of the most difficult decisions that CTUIR leaders have had to make, Sams said.
“We had a number of tribal elders and traditional community leaders who said now is not the time to be selfish,” he said.
In addition, the CTUIR implemented numerous measures to further public safety, including restricting public gatherings to 10 people or fewer and recommending that residents remain in their homes. The Tribe also monitored traffic into the reservation and encouraged outsiders to avoid the area. There have been no new positive coronavirus cases on the Umatilla Indian Reservation since a nontribal employee at the Wildhorse Resort & Casino tested positive in early March.
Partial reopening is now underway on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, with the casino’s restaurant, movie theaters, and golf course open for business, and there is talk of reopening the hotel. Sams added that any decision to reopen the casino floor will be based on testing and the advice of public health officials. “We’re all going to base this on epidemiology and data,” he said.
Dan Martinez, emergency manager for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, said his tribe decided to allow traditional spiritual leaders to determine for themselves whether to continue hosting cultural ceremonies. To date, most have decided to cancel.
The Spring of Cancellation
The tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation have seen 22 positive COVID-19 cases (as of May 28), all within the past month, and tribal officials believe that as many as 10 of those same individuals attended the Celilo event. “We think it might have been spread from that,” Martinez said. “Pretty much all the events have been canceled as a result of these issues,” including the June 26-28 Pi-Ume-Sha Treaty Days Powwow.
Martinez made clear that he and other tribal members with whom he has spoken do not fault anyone for deciding to go ahead with the April 13 feast. “We let them do what they need to do in order to honor the fish,” he said. Others have been critical of the decision and worry that gatherings will continue. Yakama Tribal Council Executive Board Chairman Delano J. Saluskin told the Yakama National Review that, in spite of widespread understanding of the threat posed by the novel coronavirus, “many ignored the advice of the medical professionals and our government.”
Wewa, of the Warm Springs Tribal Council, said it is particularly difficult for the tribal people in the region to cancel ceremonies that honor the animals and plants that are such important sources of food and so central to Native American culture. The Celilo First Salmon Feast heralds the start of each year’s fishing, hunting, and gathering seasons. The event is held when large numbers of salmon begin the journey up the Columbia River to their spawning grounds, and it is a longstanding custom that tribal fishermen are not allowed to start fishing for salmon until after the feast. Other springtime celebrations include a feast to honor animals such as deer, elk, buffalo, and bighorn sheep; another ceremony for the nearly two dozen root foods harvested by the tribes; and an event dedicated to fruits like huckleberries and chokecherries.
Most tribal communities in Oregon have longhouses, which serve as spiritual centers and the sites of these annual feasts and other gatherings. Wewa emphasized just how much the COVID-19 pandemic has tested the cultural beliefs of Oregon’s tribal people, forcing them to decide whether hosting their ceremonies is worth the risk of spreading disease.
“It presents a hardship on us now,” Wewa said. “I think our people have adapted through this spring cycle so far, but I know there were some hard-hit longhouses.”
Some Native American families have begun holding smaller feasts within their households, reviving past traditions that existed before tribal communities constructed large communal buildings to host their ceremonies. Meanwhile, funeral ceremonies have continued, although they are now shorter and incorporate social distancing measures to reduce the risk of disease transmission. For the most part, though, this has been the spring of cancellation.
Wewa and others also worry about the overall toll of not congregating. “It has made impacts, I think, to the spiritual and psychological and emotional well-being of our people to accommodate being safe for our community and for our families,” he said.
Beyond these near-term ramifications lurks another concern: Could ceasing such ceremonies and treaty-protected practices end up jeopardizing those very rights? It is the use-it-or-lose-it scenario that many Native American communities are all too familiar with.
“Our fear is always that the federal government could come back and say, ‘Well, you guys aren’t protectors of the natural resources, or the wildlife, or the water, because you guys didn’t do anything with your ceremonies,’” Wewa said. “‘You guys didn’t have your ceremonies during the COVID [pandemic], so why should we allow you eagle feathers? Why should we allow you to have a sweat in the prison? Why should we allow you to wear braids in school?’”
“That truly is my fear,” he said. For Oregon’s Native American communities, COVID-19 doesn’t only threaten the body. It also threatens the soul.
Kevin Abourezk serves as Managing Editor for Indianz.com, a Native American news website, and has spent 21 years as a professional journalist, including 18 years as a reporter and editor for the Lincoln Journal Star. He is an enrolled citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.
Underscore.news is a nonprofit journalism organization based in Portland, Oregon. Supported by foundations, corporate sponsors, and the public, our reporting focuses on underrepresented voices and in-depth investigations.
Lead photo: Bobby Begay, fishing on the Columbia River in 2001. Photo/Jim Richardson, National Geographic