Exploring truth and reconciliation through salmon on the Columbia

Along the banks of the Arrow Lakes Reservoir, on a lake that is not a lake, we gathered with a group of educators to explore themes of water, renewal, and how to teach a generation of students to respect this place we call home. 

The Columbia Basin watershed provides a rich and varied natural classroom. Each year we bring a group of keen educators together to learn about this watershed through our Teach the Columbia curriculum package. 

Teach the Columbia is a resource designed to bring watershed learning into basin classrooms. This fall’s educator field course focused on Indigenous-led efforts to bring the salmon back to the Columbia River.

In Canada, salmon reintroduction is advancing through the collaborative efforts of the Ktunaxa, Secwépemc, and Syilx Okanagan nations, and the governments of Canada and British Columbia. In the U.S., the Colville, Spokane and Coeur d’Alene tribes, are leading a US$200 million salmon reintroduction initiative, backed by the American government .

The long-term vision is to return the salmon to the Columbia for social, ceremonial and sustenance needs, and to benefit the region’s residents and ecosystems as a whole.

Exploring this topic through Teach the Columbia lessons and other resources provided a case study for how Truth and Reconciliation can be advanced by following Indigenous priorities and designing governance structures that support Indigenous leadership.

“What stood out to me was how involved Indigenous nations are in the governance structure for the Columbia River Salmon Reintroduction Initiative, at all levels, and in various ways,” says participant Naomi Ford, a learning support teacher in Revelstoke. “It impacted me because in the past, with regards to [decision making about the Columbia River], this has not at all been the case, and I find this shift so hopeful and honouring.”

Our participants also learned some basic n̓səl̓xčin̓ (an Interior Salish language) from teacher and Teach the Columbia leader Cara McGuire, who has been learning for two years through a new course offered at Selkirk College.

Watershed learning

The field course included canoe skills and paddling experience, enabling participants to connect with the watershed experientially as well as academically. Taking our canoes through the Hugh Keenlyside Lock felt symbolic of the struggle to bring salmon back to their native headwaters. The vast concrete walls are a barrier to salmon whose instincts honed over millenia draw them upstream despite decade-old dams that block their path.

This year’s field school location – on the Arrow Lake Reservoir, an artificial lake created to hold water primarily for downstream flood control and hydropower generation — also provided an opportunity to see firsthand how the Columbia River Treaty impacts our region. A significant drought combined with B.C. Hydro’s required water release to the U.S. as dictated by the treaty led to drastically low water levels this year. 

Participants left the field course with a keener sense of this watershed, and the groups passionately working to return salmon to the headwaters of the Columbia again some day. When asked what these educators might bring back to their own classrooms, Theresa McGeragle said, “Hope that salmon reintroduction is a real possibility.”

Poetry in motion

To deepen participant engagement with the land, West Kootenay artist Emily Nielsen led a unique poetry workshop, including writing a collaborative poem together by each person writing a line that included an end word which matched up with the start of someone else’s line. Here is the beautiful collaborative poem created by the 2023 Teach the Columbia field course participants:

Water, water finding its way down 
from mountain. Mountain peaks high in the sky, watching over 
and protecting their flowing rivers. Rivers run into
and through the lake. Lake, creek, stream, glacier, river, delta, reservoir, 
trapped water. Water’s voice hushed until our echoes
quiet; its song as big as the mountain. Mountain rising, still
and calm, hugging the river. River rushes and tumbles as spring
awakes, carrying mountain’s starry dreams to the lake. Lake, created
for the benefit of consumerism, blocks the natural movement
of water. Water flowing, always moving, creeping inching,
like the mountain. Mountain frozen then thawed,
returns to the river. Rivers undulate like writhing bodies.
Bodies of water, life, limbs, lungs, lake. Lake, t̓ik̓ʷit; river, sa?títkʷ;
reservoir: is this the evolution of water? Water trickles but halts,
calling life from the mountain. Mountains lift, crumble and drain,
giving life to the river. River silenced by a storage tank,
this is not a lake. Lake waves lapping
on the moonscape shore,
reminding me
despite all the changes,
it is still water. 

Participants also got to spend time with artist and performer James Pakootas and Salish language worker Bobbi Mollenberg, both Sinixt members of the Colville Confederated Tribes. The visit to the field course was part of Bobbi’s very first time exploring her anscestor’s homeland north of the Canada-US border; James visited for the first time earlier this year. Both spoke powerfully about what it meant to come home, not unlike the way that salmon are coming home through Indigenous-led reintroduction efforts.

For teacher Jenny Simmonds, this was a highlight: “Our visit with Bobbi and James definitely stands out. The idea of coming home impacted me in many ways and how everything and everyone is connected.”

We can’t wait to see how these inspired educators bring their learning to youth across this watershed. 

Teach the Columbia is a free curriculum package; it includes 11 lessons in four modules and spans geography and history, ecology and hydrology, engineering and economics, resource management and politics. The lessons are geared primarily for high school students but are adaptable for many grade levels and curriculum needs, and can be used individually or as an entire package. 

Wildsight thanks the Arjay R. and Frances F. Miller Foundation, BC Hydro, the Province of B.C. through the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, the Real Estate Foundation of BC, the Recreational Canoe Association of BC, and School District 8 for making the Columbia River Field School and Teach the Columbia possible.

Curriculum info

Teach the Columbia

Teach The Columbia is a curriculum package meant to help educators engage their students with many dimensions of the Columbia River watershed — past, present, and…Curriculum info 
The U.S. Government has pledged $200 million over 20 years to support a tribe-led reintroduction of salmon to the Upper Columbia River Basin. As Wildsight’s Director of Water and Climate, Graeme Lee Rowlands, writes, the U.S. announcement could be the start of an exciting new chapter for Canada.Salmon reintroduction