For many thousands of years, native people of the Columbia Plateau have made the Spokane River their home due to the huge salmon runs that once thrived in the River. People today make the Spokane area their home as well due to the River and the resources it provides. Although those resources have drastically changed, the Spokane River remains central to the soul of our region.
Science tells us that people have been in the area for over 11,000 years, tribal people tell stories of being on this land since immemorial time, and their roots span back into mythic time. We also know that for over 8ooo years, continuous urban centers have flourished such as the confluence of Hangman Creek and the Spokane River.
The Spokane Tribe built their civilization around Coho and Chinook salmon that came back to our river in thousands. They caught fish in such abundance that in most years they traded it for the bison meat of the Great Plains tribes.
The Columbia Basin was once home to more than sixteen million salmon and steelhead that returned each spring. The Spokane River was home to a main channel of spawning chinook called the “June Hogs” because of their massive size, sometimes they weighed more than 100 pounds.
The Spokane Tribe and visitors from the Coeur d’Alene, Nez Perce and Palouse country gathered at the Spokane Falls to trap, dry and store many thousands of pounds of salmon. They were caught from platforms with dip nets near the falls, speared with leisters near intricate weirs built of rock and wooden posts, and netted in the shallows. In addition, trout were caught with elaborate lures such as the horse hair sniggle.
Every spring the fishing would begin with the magical and extravagant ceremony of the first salmon feast. The salmon chieftain would taste the first caught fish, and after a long ceremony in which the bones and head of the first fish were thrown back to the river, fishing for the entire community was authorized to begin. This was a massive effort on the part of all. Men fished while women busily prepared the fires and filleted fish. It was a communal time that unified the tribe and allowed massive extended families participated together in the joyous effort of catching, eating, and storing the coming year’s food.
Salmon were both a physical necessity that allowed native cultures to flourish and a spiritual hub that unified them. The salmon were a psychic and social connection between the natives and the landscape. In this way, the river was inseparable from the life, the mind, and the soul of the people.
In 1807 David Thompson, an enterprising Englishman, arrived to build a trading post near the Little Spokane River. Native people traveled up and down the river trapping for the growing fur trade. A multi-cultural world of French, English and other Native Americans came together to trade beaver pelts for axe heads and blankets with the local tribes.
Industry soon arrived in the region, taking advantage of the river and the cheap and reliable power it provided to a growing region. In 1882, the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived in Spokane Falls to make it the center of their operation. In this same time period, Mr. Glover, an early pioneer, gave Frederick Post 40 acres to build a grist mill above the falls. A small dam was constructed to power a saw mill in what is currently downtown Spokane. In 1884 water systems were built, and in ‘85 the first arc dynamo was brought in to generate electricity for 11 street lights. Three years later, a municipal sewer ran to the river. The little city took water to drink, power to build and cast light and a river to wash away their waste. Sawdust and raw sewage burst on the scene as the first real pollution issues for the Spokane River.
This began to change with Expo '74 which drew international attention to the city and the River. No longer was the River a municipal dumping ground. People started to view the River for its environmental benefits. Today there are seven dams on the river generating power and controlling river flows, and several larger dischargers with pipes dumping into the river. However, permits for discharge into the River are tightly regulated, leading to a cleaner River.
Pollution, hydroelectric development, and grazing caused the salmon population to die off and precipitated a crisis for the native people. However, these same tribal people have endured and are leaders in salmon recovery today. They hold a visions of recovery and are leading the push to reintroduce Chinook salmon to the Columbia Basin, including the Spokane River.
The city of Spokane is here because of the river. Whether you enjoy mountain biking trails, fly-fishing, walking your dog on the Centennial Trail, or riding to work across Riverfront Park, the power behind our presence is the Spokane River. Many of us are drawn to live in the Spokane area because of the Spokane River, and its health is crucial to the region.