Opening the Gateway - The Margin

September 28, 2022

Opening the Gateway

The Upper Skagit Tribe Fights the City of Seattle to Protect Salmon and their Place of Origin

The design of the lowest dam removes the entire river from its channel for several miles, instead piping the river into a powerhouse several miles downstream before releasing the water back into the river channel.  David Moskowitz for The Margin

48.4253° N, 122.2792° W / Skagit River, WA

By Rico Moore

20 min read

Scott Schuyler faces the City of Seattle’s Gorge Dam. The air feels eerily silent and stale. His heart aches as sunlight that arcs and bends along a stretch of riverless canyon, casting shadows across sheer granite cliffs.

The concrete face of the dam holds back the mighty Skagit River’s flow, completely blocking salmon migration. Schuyler, an Upper Skagit Indian Tribal elder and the tribe’s policy representative, is visibly tense as he stands on a bridge that spans a stretch of the river dewatered by the dam’s engineering. Known to his people as the Gateway to the Valley of the Spirits, the gorge, which was once animated by the vibrant force of a roaring river that marked the place where his ancestors came to be, has been reduced by the city’s dams to a dry riverbed beneath a deep, murky pool. For millennia, Schuyler’s ancestors have come here to be spiritually restored. But because they don’t own the land, he and his fellow tribal members can’t access it without the city’s permission. Without the river’s power, the tribe’s sacred site hardly resembles itself.

The city’s dams are in the heart of the Upper Skagit’s traditional homelands. Since time immemorial, Schuyler’s ancestors have lived here engaging in ceremonies, maintaining their sacred connection to this place, and surviving by and with the salmon, all of which are now imperiled. The Gorge Dam, and two others above it, owned and operated by the City of Seattle’s City Light department, block salmon from 37 percent of the Skagit River basin. As such, the progressive city’s dams have affected the intergenerational relationship of mutual reciprocity Schuyler’s ancestors have shared with their place of origin and their sacred salmon. Schuyler’s tribe holds a treaty with the federal government guaranteeing that salmon will be available for them to fish and engage in ceremony with. But there is no law giving the tribe the authority to determine the fate of their sacred Gateway to the Valley of the Spirits. 

Staring resolutely, Schuyler’s eyes flash with light, as he breathes in what has become of his tribe’s sacred site. “Every religion has a belief system of how and where things came to be,” he says. “Ours just happens to be in the Skagit Gorge.” 

Scott Schuyler, Upper Skagit Tribe at the bridge below the Gorge Dam.    David Moskowitz

Schuyler has worked over a quarter of a century to get here. He made a pact with himself to address the cultural trauma inflicted by the city and its dams on five generations of his people. Although the tribe ultimately wants a free-flowing river, this currently means requesting the City of Seattle to study how to remove Gorge Dam and implement fish passage through its other dams. Currently, the city is seeking to relicense the hydroelectric project and its dams with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). For the Upper Skagit Tribe, this is an opportunity to push the city to honor their place of origin and ensure salmon aren’t lost because of its dams.

Schuyler adjusts his ball cap, black strands of his hair just visible below the brim, and digs in his feet. He turns from the dam, eyes shimmering, “We want people to understand our feelings about this.” As if speaking to Seattle’s elected officials, he asks, “How can you honestly believe that this is an acceptable situation? You have the power to address this.” The dams helped build the city, but left the Upper Skagit traumatized and with little in return, he adds.

The Seattle City Council has long championed Indigenous rights and sovereignty, dam removal for the sake of salmon, as well as protection of federally listed salmon species in city council resolutions. In particular, Mayor Bruce Harrell, who was a city council member from 2008-2019, sponsored or signed resolutions declaring Seattle a Human Rights City recognizing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). Applicable to the city’s Skagit hydroelectric project and the Upper Skagit Tribe’s efforts, Article 32 section 2 of UNDRIP declares: “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water, or other resources.” Yet current city council members and Harrell, who was elected mayor in 2021, have been publicly mute in addressing the century’s worth of cultural trauma inflicted on the Skagit River tribes, while simultaneously benefitting from the cheap hydropower produced by the dams.

However, some city council members have taken action behind the scenes. On June 18, 2021, councilmember Teresa Mosqueda emailed a letter to City Light CEO Debra Smith urging her to study the removal of Gorge Dam. City Light leadership never responded to Mosqueda, according to her staff. A month later, in mid-July, FERC denied the Upper Skagit Tribe’s request to require City Light to study the removal of Gorge Dam. Then in early Aug. 2021, City Light committed to conducting an assessment that seemed to address the tribe’s request. But upon closer scrutiny, instead of agreeing to study how to remove the Gorge Dam, they agreed to study whether or not to study the decommissioning of the entire project.

“We are looking at whether the dam should be removed, and quite frankly, at this point, I believe there is a pretty solid case it should not be,” said Chris Townsend, City Light natural resources director and hydro licensing director. Townsend added that City Light believes this decommissioning assessment will show that the dams will be viable for the time being. “We are taking a risk that the assessment comes out and says, ‘Gorge isn’t needed,’ but right now we’re erring on the side of relicensing all three of the dams.” According to Townsend, the assessment will be included in City Light’s final license application to FERC, which is due in the spring of 2023.

On Aug. 5, 2021, a day after City Light announced to its partners that it would conduct the assessment, the city amended an official municipal bond statement, clarifying that if a lawsuit brought against the city was successful in requiring the removal of Gorge Dam or requiring fish passage through Gorge Dam, it would not “materially affect [the city’s] ability to meet its current load projections” or impair its ability to satisfy these municipal bonds. In other words, the city implied it can provide fish passage through or remove Gorge Dam, without impacting its power supply or economic responsibilities. Despite this statement, on Jan. 5, 2022, City Light CEO Debra Smith wrote to Mayor Harrell’s office that the Skagit hydroelectric project is a “significant source of clean energy vital to Seattle’s goals of a carbon-free energy future.”

FERC didn’t respond as to whether it was aware of the information contained in the bond amendment before or after it made the decision to not require City Light to study Gorge Dam removal. In records released by FERC under the Freedom of Information Act regarding Gorge Dam removal, the agency refused to release 60 records relevant to the request, citing a deliberative process exemption. An appeal of this decision is pending. 

Seattle City Council members (here meeting virtually in an empty public meeting space in downtown Seattle) and the mayor have declined to answer questions or comment for this story.    David Moskowitz for The Margin

At the first hybrid “in-person” Seattle City Council meeting on June 7, a handful of the city council members’ faces were projected on a screen as a giant timer ticked down from two minutes during the public comment period. After several attempts to get answers from City Councilmembers, I made a last-ditch effort and asked the city if they would commit to removing one or all of the dams, an action that appeared to be in line with their policies and wouldn’t materially affect their operations. Again, no response was given.


From the Peaks to the Sea

One of the main arteries of the Salish Sea, the Skagit River flows from the western edge of the Cascade Mountain range north of Seattle into Puget Sound. Fish passage, also known as a fishway, is a mitigation measure that allows migratory fish, such as salmon, to move upstream and downstream of blockages, like hydroelectric dams. Because salmon are born in the streams and migrate to the ocean and return to their birthplaces to spawn, access to the entirety of an ecologically intact watershed is essential for their flourishing and, in turn, their existence for the tribes and their treaty-guaranteed fishing rights.

If FERC reissues the license, it could be in effect for up to 50 years. The city’s last license was granted in 1995 and is set to expire in 2025. Since then, several species dependent on the river have been listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, including Chinook salmon, steelhead, bull trout, and Southern Resident killer whales. Three tribes, including the Sauk-Suiattle, Swinomish, and Upper Skagit, along with federal and state agencies, including the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Parks Service, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Washington Department of Ecology, and the Skagit County Board of Commissioners are keenly interested in the degree to which the project is affecting salmon. As part of the relicensing, City Light is conducting studies, which are supposed to evaluate its impact and determine how to mitigate it.

I drive through the Skagit River valley to the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe’s reservation to interview Schuyler. Rainclouds drift above the distant mountains. Above them, snow-capped peaks rise from the mist that purls in strands of rain to the valley below. Only droplets remain on the leaves, shaped in myriad shades of green, pulsing with wind.

Salmon permeate Schuyler’s office; even his walls are the color of smoked salmon. Across the room from his desk, a metal statue of a salmon racing upriver adorns the wall. It glints in the light coming in through the open door. Schuyler looks at it as he describes how salmon are intertwined with his people and have been for thousands of years.

Schuyler sits behind his desk, speaking through a face mask designed to protect us from Covid-19. I sit across the room from him. Art made by his children is pinned to a cork board above his left shoulder, including the handprint of his daughter, Janelle, who soon after high school graduation, wrote an impassioned letter to then Mayor of Seattle Jenny Durkan, asking her to recognize the suffering the dams have caused her people and to remove the structures. Mayor Durkan, no longer in office, never replied.

Young activists like Janelle Schuyler, Upper Skagit Tribal member and Scott Schuyler's daughter, have taken their fight to Seattle. With the three dams on the river up for relicensing the Upper Skagit are calling Seattle City Light to study the removal of the lowest dam and the create fish passage across the entire stretch of the river.    David Moskowitz

Salmon are born in the cold waters of rivers, streams, and lakes, grow up in estuaries, then spend their adult lives in the sea and ocean. Finally, mature salmon return home to their birthplace to spawn, reproduce, and die, becoming the land that birthed and nurtured them. This cycle was unbroken for millennia and was intimately shared among Indigenous people. The Upper Skagit, Swinomish, and Sauk-Suiattle Tribes successfully protected and stewarded the salmon of the Skagit River.

Much of Schuyler’s daily life involves protecting salmon and preserving his tribe’s treaty-guaranteed fishing right to harvest them. He’s fished salmon for over 40 years and passes his knowledge of fishing and fish preparation on to his community. “It makes everything more purposeful. I fully understand the value of having strong salmon runs for our people to utilize. For many of our fishermen, it’s an important food source to this very day, not just an economic opportunity, but all of this depends on the availability of healthy runs of salmon,” Schuyler said. “We definitely are the salmon people.”

Growing up on the Skagit, Schuyler recalls fond memories of spending time with his family and relatives at their fishing camp. “We spent more time talking and gathering around the fire, and when it was time to fish, we would fish, but there was always time for family,” he said.

When the state of Washington began to regulate, and even criminalize the tribe’s right to fish, Schuyler’s family left the Skagit River valley pursuing agriculture in King County, Washington. Following the 1974 Boldt Decision, when the tribe’s treaty rights were essentially affirmed, Schuyler’s family returned to their homelands. Schuyler didn’t know the history of the city’s dams until he was in his late 20s or early 30s. In the 1990s, he began learning about the impact the dams had on his people and their history. It was then he first came face-to-face with Gorge Dam. A moment that would forever change his life, Schuyler was filled with emotion, “a range of pain and anger, followed by a resolve to do anything I could.” His mother, Doreen Maloney, had worked for the Upper Skagit Tribe on the 1995 relicensing of the city’s dams. The tribe didn’t have the resources to ensure their interests were honored. Not wanting this to happen again, Schuyler and his fellow tribal members worked to develop adequate resources for the current relicensing, hiring experts including fisheries biologists, geologists, anthropologists, and lawyers.


Indian Power

Long before the city dammed the river for cheap power, a different kind of power existed. “We have what’s called Indian Power,” Schuyler said. “Right now, the river is not clean – not pure – the impurities being hydroelectric dams,” he said, adding that as the river goes through the hydroelectric system, it’s defiled. As a result, a core part of their religious belief system – the ability to draw on this Skagit power – is greatly diminished.

According to Upper Skagit oral literature, that power, S.gwǝdílič (Skwa-dee-litch), was the eldest of four brothers; among them were Fire and Knife. Long ago, S.gwǝdílič walked up the Skagit River with his brothers, giving everything a name: the mountains, the lakes, the creeks, the tribes, and their villages.

He put salmon in every creek. Knife taught the people to cut up and prepare the fish, while Fire taught the people how to cook them. Following this, S.gwǝdílič prepared to leave. “I’m going to be power now,” he said. S.gwǝdílič said the Upper Skagit would later find him, and then dove into the depths of the river beneath Skagit Falls.

Schuyler said the project, along with mining and other manmade impacts in the upper reaches of the river, detracts from the purity of S.gwǝdílič power, Indian Power, which in the Upper Skagit’s sense of being, is partially interlinked with salmon. “For every action there is an effect,” he said, referring to the hydroelectric dams. “Who bears the burden of the effect? Is it our tribal culture and our history that have to bear the burden of this? Is it the salmon?” Schuyler asked.

Schuyler points to his bookshelf at a riverstone-smooth fish club shaped like a salmon. He said it was found in what was once called the village of Sigwigwilse, now called Sedro-Woolley. To its credit, Schuyler said, the city recently returned ownership of many of his ancestors’ belongings that were found nearly a decade ago and taken from the Upper Skagit village of Daxwálib, now known as Newhalem, when the city excavated and renovated parts of its still-standing company town that provides for dam operations. Following media coverage of the return, a private citizen reached out to the tribe and returned the fish club, along with a hammerstone. The tribe’s ethno-historian called it a prestige piece, Schuyler said. “You can see where it was quartered at one time with deer sinew.” Although they haven’t figured out its exact use, they believe it was utilized during the processing of fish, perhaps for knocking out and then mashing salmon. As he holds it in his hand, I ask him of the significance of the stone salmon. “It’s channeling back to the past,” he said.

Scott Schuyler with prehistoric fishing club that his ancestors used as part of salmon fishing activities on the river.    David Moskowitz for The Margin

Even though Upper Skagit and First Nations oral literature proves that salmon swam into Canada, far above where the city’s dams were later installed, City Light has claimed that salmon didn’t historically ascend above where their dams were constructed. However, NMFS, the federal agency responsible for the protection of salmon, has disagreed with City Light’s assertion. In a 2007 recovery plan for the salmon of the Puget Sound and in filings for the relicensing, NMFS wrote that without the hydroelectric project and its three dams, salmon and steelhead spawning would occur above the project area and that it is important for salmon to be able to access the habitat above the dams to achieve recovery goals. The NMFS’ statement is significant beyond its scientific veracity, for the agency, which is housed within the Department of Commerce, has prescriptive authority to require – or prescribe – City Light to provide fish passage at the utility’s expense.

The tribes have strong legal standing in the matter of salmon: the 1974 Boldt Decision guaranteed the tribes’ right to fish in their usual and accustomed areas and have the opportunity to harvest 50 percent of the available salmon runs; the other half going to non-treaty fishers. Tribes would co-manage these fisheries with the state of Washington. Their right was guaranteed by treaty, rather than being granted by the state as a privilege as it was for non-treaty fishers. The Upper Skagit’s usual and accustomed area includes the Skagit River from Mount Vernon up into the headwaters of Canada. Further, in 2018, the Supreme Court let the ruling of a lower court stand in what is known as the Culverts Case, which found that human-constructed and maintained impediments to fish passage had diminished the salmon runs, which placed impermissible limitations on tribes’ treaty-guaranteed fishing rights.

With these powerful legal rights to fish for salmon, steelhead, and trout, the tribes are at the forefront of the fight. Although they can’t require the city to do anything to protect these species as part of the relicensing – something they believe is unjust – the federal agencies, who hold the tribes’ treaty rights in trust, are required by federal law to do so. Schuyler’s tribe has successfully pushed the city to accede to controversial concessions, including studying fish passage and dam removal, which the city previously refused to do. The neighboring Swinomish tribe has also remained engaged in the relicensing. Swinomish Tribal Chairman Steve Edwards said his people have always wanted a free-flowing Skagit River and will hold the city accountable to his tribes’ treaty rights. The nearby Sauk-Suiattle Tribe has also filed innovative lawsuits against Seattle, challenging the city on the alleged impacts of their dams on the salmon and their culture.


The Onslaught of American Colonization

When European and American settlers arrived in what is now called Puget Sound, salmon were abundant as a result of millenias-long stewardship by Native peoples. This all changed, however, with American colonization.

The population of settlers in the Puget Sound increased between 1839 and 1850 and following the passage of the Donation Claims Act that same year, the population of American settlers skyrocketed. To accommodate this sprawl, the territory of Washington was created in 1853 and Isaac Stevens, an ambitious soldier, was appointed its territorial governor and Indian agent. Carried out by treaties, which many believe were signed under duress, the tribes ceded their lands but retained their rights to fish, gather, and hunt in their usual and accustomed areas. Schuyler is a direct descendant of Pateaus, who signed the Treaty of Point Elliott for the Upper Skagit in 1855. These treaties are considered the supreme law of the land and have significant bearing on issues related to salmon.

As Schulyer looked at a photo of salmon surging upriver in his office, he reflected on his ancestor. “I carry a special obligation to preserve and protect this fishing right for our people being a descendant of Pateaus,” he said. “It’s part of my personal goal, always, to ensure that our people have something of meaning in a fishery.”

Historical photo of Upper Skagit families on the Skagit River.    Courtesy of the Upper Skagit Tribal Archive

After signing the treaty, Schuyler’s ancestors resisted both encroachment and deportation from their ancestral lands. “As the first settlers started coming into the valley, our people were actively resistant. There was violence,” Schuyler said, citing an interaction he said occurred around 1860 in which the US Army came to remove them from their ancestral lands and force them onto reservations with other tribes. “To our ancestors’ credit, we didn’t allow the army to eradicate or remove us because this is our land; you’re not going to catch us if we do not want to be seen.” Thanks to their tenacity, they remained in their home, but this would become increasingly difficult.

With the increase in settlers came consequences for the salmon and their people. Newcomers, specifically from Croatia and Austria, used the same fishing techniques they’d developed in Europe, contributing to a large commercial fishery at the beginning of the 20th century. This practice nearly annihilated salmon runs, causing the rapid decline of salmon returning to their home rivers to spawn and thus reducing the salmon available to the tribes to exercise their treaty-guaranteed fishing right. With the decimation of salmon runs, tribes and their cultures also came under existential threat, and they were inflicted with widespread trauma.


The Romance of Cheap Power

An air conditioning vent drones from the floor, a faint trace of diesel exhaust trickling in, and a jackhammer slams cement outside the window. I pour over troves of City Light documents in the city’s municipal archives, most of which deal with the impact of a single man, J.D. Ross. Ross arrived in Seattle and was appointed superintendent of the recently created lighting department in 1911. He was quite possibly the godfather of City Light’s dependence on cheap hydroelectric power. In 1917, as Schuyler’s ancestors were fighting for their very survival, unable to vote in U.S. elections, Ross traveled to Marblemount on the Skagit River and nailed notices to bridges in the area asserting the city’s plans to dam the river for hydroelectricity. Ross traveled to Washington, D.C. in a bid for the necessary paperwork and permits for the project, arguing it was essential for the efforts of World War I.

He returned to Seattle and eventually convinced the City Council to approve $1.5 million in bonds, or roughly $29.4 million in 2022 dollars, to fund construction of the dams. In 1918, the City Council approved the construction of the Skagit Hydroelectric Project, as a way of offering cheap power to attract large industrial ratepayers who would provide the city with revenue and boost the economy. Test drilling began in 1919 and the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the city’s permit later that year. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge formally started the generators at Gorge Dam with a golden telegraph key from the White House.

I find early photos of Gorge Dam’s construction, mostly pictures emphasizing the engineering feat of damming a free-flowing river. No discernible mention of salmon appears in records of the effort. I read through mid-19th century transcripts from City Light’s radio program, which mythologized hydropower and Ross himself. It framed the wild river as void of human presence and in need of civilization, freely ignoring the ever-present Indigenous people, for whom the river had always meant life.

In 1928, four years after Native Americans were given the right to vote, Schuyler’s ancestors and many other tribes were fighting for their survival. City Light embarked on a public affairs campaign by offering lavish tours of its dam sites to bolster political support for their cheap power. “In the evening, visitors were entertained with a community sing and with a beautifully lighted walk to Ladder Creek Falls. Ross brought in animals and non-native plants, including botanical specimens from President Roosevelt’s Hyde Park estate, to dress up the project.” More recently, in 2011, City Light has reembarked on these public affairs campaigns including the Ladder Creek Falls lightshows and tours.

In a tribute to Ross, included in one of the radio transcripts in the archives, the hosts conjure their myth. As with many myths, what is most important is what they erase.

…we look up from the first wide level of the Skagit River flowing in its jewel-toned beauty through the fir-shrouded mountains, to a crypt that is being cut into the side of Ross Mountain. And here, above the Skagit River that wears a bridle of his design, above the flower-strewn pathways that lead from the Gorge plant beyond Diablo and into the Ross Dam level, will lie forever after the body of J.D. Ross, the man whose mind conceived and brought into being – Power in its Actuality, Power in its Making, and Power in the Future.

Ross’ scheme worked and the city prospered through the 20th century. As the city and its City Light department began to flourish, Schuyler’s ancestors, along with other tribes in Puget Sound, were targeted for what remained of their lands and natural resources by policies of cultural genocide. Primary among those efforts by the U.S. government was the boarding school system. A recent report by the Department of the Interior exposed the entire program as, “coinciding with Indian and Native Hawaiian territorial dispossession.” At some of these boarding schools, the report found evidence of, “rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; disease; malnourishment; overcrowding; and lack of health care.” The report identified 53 marked or unmarked child burial sites. The stories of children being taken to these places from their families are common in the area. City Light and their Skagit dams could be viewed as direct beneficiaries of these acts.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress was working on the Federal Water Power Act of 1920, which serves as the basis for the FERC hydroelectric relicensing process, and thus determines the fate of City Light’s Skagit hydroelectric project, that of the Skagit salmon, and the Upper Skagit’s sacred gateway.

But the Federal Power Act prevented the Upper Skagit from having authority of the river they successfully stewarded for thousands of years. Schuyler’s Upper Skagit Tribe recently joined other tribes and nongovernmental organizations in proposing amendments to the act. “The tribe’s goal was to provide a change in the Federal Power Act giving tribes the ability to provide some levels of prescriptive authority, if not through the federal agencies, [then] by ourselves,” Schuyler said.

Gorge Powerhouse in Newhalem, Washington on the Skagit River. Seattle City Light manages streams flows on the entire lower river from this powerhouse.    David Moskowitz

The loss of land under treaties, federal legislation, the decimation of salmon resources, dams blocking salmon passage, and the forced removal of children contributed to a series of many traumas inflicted on the Upper Skagit and other tribes by local, state, and federal governments. The trauma has culminated with the tribe’s lack of prescriptive authority in the FERC relicensing process of the Skagit dams, which directly impact their sacred place of origin and to a presently unknown degree, the salmon their culture relies on.

Meanwhile, the city’s dam project continues to operate. The draft license application is due in December and the final license application is due in April 2023. City Light has a significant amount of research to conduct between now and then.


Returning Home to the Sacred Skagit

The relicensing has stressed Schuyler immensely. Following a heart attack, from which he was saved by the implant of stents, he no longer takes life for granted. “I’m concerned and worried that I'll never have the opportunity to go out and teach these kids about these particular species of fish and how to catch them before I’m gone,” he said. Schuyler fears a break in transmission of cultural information between generations of Upper Skagits and spends many of his waking hours fighting to preserve salmon, as well as passing down the traditional ecological knowledge of being people of the salmon to the youth. “We’re slowly fighting to regain that and struggling to survive and stand upright,” he said. “We want to maintain that ability into the future, but we can’t do it without the survival of the salmon species.”

But there may be a glimmer of hope. This past summer, Schuyler participated in a sockeye salmon fishery with his fellow tribal members. This species of salmon has returned in abundance since being depleted, largely because a hydroelectric project on the Baker River, an artery of the Skagit River, engaged in relicensing their dams directly with the Upper Skagit. As a result, improved fish passage infrastructure was installed, and sockeye salmon have flourished. As Schuyler fished for sockeye, as he’s done for the past two decades and as his ancestors have done, something came over him and he stopped. “I soaked in the surrounding sight and sounds of the river, the beauty of the mountains and the sky,” he said. “I don’t recall in the past when I just completely stopped everything just to breathe in and soak in everything that has blessed my life and the lives of our tribal members,” he said. “It was a profound moment for me just to enjoy being alive on the river in view of our mountains.”

After reflecting on the Upper Skagit tribe’s healing power, Schuyler adjusts his seat and offers me a hard candy. Because he’s been talking so much, his throat is dry, and he takes a candy, unwraps it, and slides it under his mask into his mouth. “I feel that our ancestors are guiding what we’re doing now and overseeing our efforts and offering encouragement for us to continue to do the right thing,” he said. “Long after I’m gone, I hope I’m there helping to guide somebody’s actions, whether it’s my grandson, or his grandson, down the road,” he said. Schuyler added that his children have never participated in a chum fishery, or even a wild spring Chinook fishery, which he said have been taken from his people.

Confluence of the Cascade River with the Skagit.    David Moskowitz for The Margin

Schuyler’s words for the salmon and his people join the air, just as words spoken by his ancestors before him. His words travel through the open door of his office and move across the Skagit River valley, through cedar boughs that have grown huge and old from the marine nutrients brought back from the sea in the bodies of salmon. “I hope the work that we’re doing right now is bringing some healing to the Upper Skagit because of what has all occurred here,” Schuyler said.

His words grow strong from the salmon he has caught, ceremonialized, shared with his elders and relations, and eaten. He is a descendant of a lineage stretching back thousands of years, and these words of care and reverence and respect for the salmon are as integral to the Skagit River as the rain that falls through the night, as the salmon who return home to the upper Skagit River to spawn. “Without full removal of the project, and a return to a natural state, our potential mitigation measures are just going to be temporary Band-Aids,” Schuyler said. “Ultimately, from the tribe’s perspective, we would like a naturally free-flowing Skagit River, a naturally functioning system.” He reflects on Gorge Dam. “If it can be built by a man, it can be taken down.”

Credits to:
  • Written by Rico Moore
  • Produced and Edited by Bryce Cracknell
  • Photography by David Moskowitz
  • Data Storytelling by EJ Fox
  • Art Direction by Stephen Downs
  • Fact-checking by Matthew Giles

Additional contributions by Megan Ahearn, Ed Boyda, Maria Edwards, Kacper Faligowski, Martyna Gołębiewska, Mason Grimshaw, Magdalena Kęsik, Łukasz Knasiecki, Ada Makowska, Scott Quill, Arek Romański, Mikołaj Szczepkowski, Jose Valenzuela, Michał Zagojski

Data + Resources

Data and methodology for this story can be found on GitHub. Data and methodology for all Margin stories can be found here.

Dam Data from the US Army’s National Inventory of Dams (NID). Dam removals are not visualized.

River Data from the National Weather Service.

See also

Rebuilding the Homestead

How Black Landowners in Eastern North Carolina Are Recovering Generational Wealth Lost to Industry Encroachment

35.8038° N, 76.8283° W Piney Woods, NC
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