Oregon's Biggest Casino Nets Big Fish

Jun 2, 2014

The spring chinook salmon fishing season is now underway in Oregon. Lots of Oregonians take salmon fishing seriously, but possibly none take it as seriously as the tribes of Grand Ronde, a group that's had a role in restoring the health of the fish that's become a symbol of the Northwest.

In a way, the journey of some salmon starts here....

(Sounds of casino)

...at Spirit Mountain, Oregon's biggest casino. Profits from the craps tables and roulette wheels help fund fish and wildlife restoration. The member tribes of the Grand Ronde once covered an area stretching from northern California to western Washington. Salmon was abundant.  Then came 1856:

"The tribe was picked up off of all their traditional lands, millions of acres, and force-marched onto a reservation in Grand Ronde."

Tribe spokeswoman Siobhan Taylor says in 1954 the tribe was terminated by the federal government:

"One of the reasons they were terminated was because of the valuable resource that they had that other powers wanted and that was timber. As a result of overly aggressive logging practices back then, habitat for our fish was decimated."

The tribe was  restored by the federal government in 1983.

Oregon's eight Indian casinos are  secretive about their profits, but an Eco-Northwest report says that as a group, they net about $142 million a year, of which 10% goes to resource management. Spirit Mountain is much more profitable than the average casino, but because of its relatively limited land area, a smaller percentage goes to resource management.  Still the Grand Ronde have spent millions of casino dollars in recent years on environmental protection. As tribe members see it, the improved health of salmon runs is helped by these dollars....that and prayer:

(Indian chant and drums)

Every spring, when the salmon start running,  Grande Ronde members travel to Willamette Falls near Oregon City, part of their historical lands, for the first fish ceremony.  The tribe has also helped with habitat work on the Willamette.  For them, the return of the salmon is reverential. David Harrelson is a tribe historian:

"Salmon are the life of the people and it is said that if salmon cease to exist, the people will cease to exist."

The tribe takes just one fish, puts it on an open fire, and gives small pieces to everyone.  Starting with just one allows more fish to return to their spawning grounds:

"It's about acknowledging the salmon and taking care of them, honoring them and giving them respect. That's why we return the bones of fish to the river after we eat that fish."

(Water sounds)

25 miles east of Lincoln City, the waters of Agency Creek run fast and clear across a weir for counting fish on the reservation. The finishing touches are being put on a riparian restoration project to improve the creek and the South Yamhill River where salmon spawn. Twenty years agao, there were hardly any salmon here. Now, up to a thousand return just to agency creek each year. Biologist Lindsey Belonga says the tribe chose a conservative way to restart the salmon cycle:

"The only way we pursued how to do that was taking the approach of 'if you build it they will come.' Restoring the habitat, placing large woody debris, having more conservative land management constraints on our land to improve that water quality."

Come fall, the Grand Ronde will be looking for salmon to return to Agency Creek:

"Elders come down. Tribal members come down. People come down on a daily basis to see if the fish have returned, and once the first fish is here it's a community celebration."

Back at the casino, the economic engine for the rebuilding of the  tribe, you might say is where the journey of the salmon really ends:

"Are you ready to order here? I'll have the salmon....

I'm Jacob Lewin, KLCC News.....

"Thank you, and would you like to add some soup to go along with that today?

Credit Michelle Alaimo / Smoke Signals