Columbia River’s salmon are at the core of ancient religion

ALONG THE COLUMBIA RIVER (AP) — James Kiona stands on a rocky ledge overlooking Lyle Falls where the water froths and rushes through steep canyon walls just before merging with the Columbia River. His silvery ponytail flutters in the wind, and a string of eagle claws adorns his neck.

Kiona has fished for Chinook salmon for decades on his family’s scaffold at the edge of the falls, using a dip net suspended from a 33-foot pole — like his father did before him, and his son will after.

“Fishing is an art and a spiritual practice,” says Kiona, a Yakama Nation elder. “You feel exhilaration in your body when you dip that net in the water and feel the fish. Then, you’re fighting the fish. The fish is fighting you, tearing holes in the net, jerking you off the scaffold.”

He finds strength, sanctity, even salvation in that struggle. The river saved Kiona when he returned from the war in Vietnam. As he battled addiction, depression and trauma, the river gave him therapy no hospital could.

When he lies on the rocks by the rushing river and closes his eyes, he hears the songs and the voices of his ancestors. The water, he says, holds the history of the land and his people.

“It heals you.”

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Read more about the Columbia River and its ancient religious ties here: