Columbia River, Its Salmon Culture and Human Impact

Subject: Environment
Pages: 5
Words: 1165
Reading time:
5 min
Study level: College

History of Columbia River and salmon culture

The formation of Columbia River is estimated to have started approximately between 12 and 17 million years ago (Miocene). It is roughly between 700,000 and 2million years ago that the river started taking its present course (during Pleistocene) (Hall, 2007). The river is the largest river in the Pacific Northwest. It rises from the Rocky Mountains of the British Columbia in Canada and flows northwest then south into Washington then to Oregon and discharges its water into the Pacific Ocean.

The river is about 2,000km in length having a drainage basin the size of France. River Snake is its greatest tributary. The river has a heavy flow accompanied by relatively steep gradient which makes it suitable for hydroelectric generation. The culture of the people around the river connected Columbia River both spiritually and physically. The river started eroding the surrounding land and more impact were realized during the final ice age. The river flooded as well as the destruction of steeps leading to a strong wall existing today.

About 15 million people rely on the river. The river has provided the local with salmon for a very long period of time. All the locals were responsible for protecting the environment so that they could still enjoy salmon. Although salmon had economic value, the Indian Colvilles usually celebrated salmon harvest through certain rituals. According to the beliefs of the Native Americans, salmon were coming back through spiritual forces, as they were less expected back (Hall, 2007). Many aboriginal tribes in Canada still celebrate the first harvest of Chinook salmon every year since Chinook is the most common salmon that spawn in the river.

Current aboriginal involvement within the river

Columbia River plays a significant role in the lives of the aboriginal communities in Canada. It is a source of water, fish especially salmon and other resources. Some of the aboriginal tribes who live around and utilize the Columbia River resources include the Metis people in the Kootenay Region, the Sinixt people in the Upper Columbia Basin, the Skoyelpi (Colville) who are neighbours to the Sinixt people, Ktunaxa, Shuswap, Kalispel, Oreille and Flathead.

Salmon has economic importance for these tribes since it has been and is still used for trade and as food. Salmon had spiritual as well as cultural significance in some cultures, especially the Indian Colvilles (Hall, 2007). Salmon remains the richest as well as the most important wild food source for the aboriginal communities that live in the Columbia Basin. Thus, they have continually exploited Columbia River to harvest their important wild food, salmon.

The aboriginal communities also use Columbia River for logging timber that they transport to the sawmills established in the region to exploit the temperate forests in the basin. They also use the river for recreation purposes, for instance, tourism (Hall, 2007). The communities have also recognized the economic importance of the Columbia River have increased their involvement in the conservation of the river and its natural resources which include Salmon fish. The aboriginal tribes, states and the federal government are partnering to restore as well as to improve the water and land quality of the Columbia River Basin.

The cultural importance of the river

The river has not only economical, ecological, political but also cultural significance. The return of salmon year after year ensured that traditional knowledge and values are shared from one generation to another. Knowledge about fishing techniques was passed from one generation to another. Additionally, philosophies especially concerning respecting all form of lives were also shared. It also noted that salmon had been incorporated not only in the cultural setting of the native tribes but also into their spiritual and religious lives.

Majority of churches, as well as longhouses in ceded areas, largely depend on salmon for religious services. It is worth noting that the return of salmon called for a celebration, the ‘first food feast’ (Roe, 2004). The natives could dance, sing and pray before they feast on traditional meals made of salmon, elk, roots as well as berries. The beautiful scenic features along the river have also some cultural link to the native people of British Columbia. This has prompted them to protect the environment.

Human effect on the river

Mankind has played a significant role with regards to Columbia river leading to many effects. One such impact is a settlement where the human population has encroached the river basin. Pollution has also affected the quality of the river as effluent from industries are discharged to it either poison the salmon or deprive them of oxygen. The natives have continually used seines and gillnets at the estuary as well as the lower river for fishing.

In the middle river, they have mostly used set nets, dip nets in addition to hooks. Increasing climate change that has resulted from human activities leads to the melting of ice on mountains and this, in turn, increases streams and river flow as well as water temperatures. Sediments from agricultural activities such as farming and timber harvesting leads to sediments being drained into the river; this contaminate the waters.

Artificial fishing which is characterized by the use of chemicals in feeds as well as treating disease has also found their way into the river leading to mutation. Additionally, algae growth and development is encouraged by such activities which later kills the salmon through poisoning as well as through oxygen deprivation.

Dam constriction has also led to the destruction of breeding grounds for the salmon and other aquatic lives. Withdrawal of water from the river for various uses have negatively impacted on the volume of water hence reducing the numbers of salmon. Man has also introduced alien species which have proved to be better competitors in terms of ecological colonization this has reduced the number of salmon.

British Columbia’s Economy and the Columbia River

The river is the most developed in term of power generation. About 400 dams are constructed generating power for domestic and industrial use (Roe, 2004). Some are sold to countries such as the United States of America earning about $250 million. Dam construction provided job opportunities (permanent and temporal). Salmon from the river has provided locally with food as well as fishing as an economic activity.

The river has offered a rare opportunity in supporting farming, ranching as well as agri-tourism. The forest along the river also supports economic growth as it has ensured that timber and other wood products are available and can be exported. Logging companies in the region offer job opportunities. The river supports tourism which later earns the region lots of money, people get employment as well as enhancing cultural diversity, sharing knowledge among other issues

Water from the river is also used to support industrial activities and irrigation activities. There are situations where the river has been used for transportation purposes, especially when dealing with logs. However hydroelectric power generation led to some people losing their homes as well as traditional hunting grounds (Roe, 2004).


Hall, S. (2007). The columbia River. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston.

Roe, J. (2004). The Columbia River: A historical travel guide. Michigan: Fulcrum Publications.