Rebecca Miles and her family grew up harvesting their own food in North Central Idaho. They weren’t back-to-the-landers or urban DIYers. They were members of the Nez Perce tribe, where self-reliance and stewardship have been passed down for generations.
Fishing was a huge part of that self-reliance. Her family paid tremendous respect to the salmon and steelhead they caught in the local Snake and Salmon Rivers. Miles’s grandmother would scold her if she accidentally cut into the meat when cleaning her family’s catch. “We took pride looking at them and were grateful to the Creator.”
Tradition was only part of the reason. Times had changed since her ancestors fished the Snake River. Salmon numbers had dropped from as many as 16 million at the time of European settlement, to around one million in the 1980s. Massive federal irrigation projects on the upper Snake dramatically altered the river’s flow. Then, shortly before Miles was born, the federal government constructed four dams on the lower Snake, which had a devastating effect on salmon, steelhead and on the Nez Perce people.
The 1855 treaty between the Nez Perce tribe and the United States was supposed to ensure that fish – so vital to the Nez Perce people’s sustenance, culture and way of life – would always be available for Rebecca and other tribe members to harvest. Yet, as fish runs diminished, non-Nez Perce often attacked the treaty rights rather than dealing with the causes of the fish declines. As a child, Rebecca witnessed this racial tension firsthand.
“I remember being scared every time my brother and father went out to fish,” Miles said. “People were being harassed and arrested. The FBI was pointing rifles at people from the hills for fishing. It got really bad. Fishing was dangerous. But we had to have them or how would we make it through the winter?”
In the 1980s, the Nez Perce began to organize. They enlisted the help of biologists and lawyers to ensure that the tribe’s voice was heard on salmon restoration. In 2005, at 32, Miles returned to her homeland with degrees in criminal justice and organizational leadership to join the fight. Tribal elders said her leadership, like the songs sung at the longhouse she attends, contained the wisdom and the legacy of strong Nez Perce leaders over the generations. She was elected chairman of the Nez Perce tribe, and became the first woman and youngest person ever elected.
After negotiating a complex water rights settlement in the Snake River Basin above the dams, Miles and the Nez Perce formed alliances with conservationists, coastal fishing communities and the state of Oregon to address the impacts of the dams on the lower Snake and mainstem Columbia Rivers. Together, they succeeded in overturning federal plans for dam operation that put the status quo ahead of the needs of fish. They obtained interim protections for salmon, and when the Bonneville Power Administration sought an agreement that would have silenced Miles and the Nez Perce on the need to breach the four lower Snake River dams, Miles and the Nez Perce refused.
Both biology and economics support breaching the four lower Snake River dams; Miles and the Nez Perce also support investing in the local communities that would be affected. This vision for the future drives Miles and the Nez Perce to continue the struggle for the sake of the fish, their tribe and their neighbors.