The Racism, and Resilience, Behind Today’s Salmon Crisis

Jason Whalawitsa fishes for salmon at Icicle Creek at the Leavenworth Fish Hatchery in June 2021. Credit: Tony Schick/OPB

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with Oregon Public Broadcasting. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

Leavenworth is a charming tourist town, tucked in Washington’s North Cascades mountains and styled as a Bavarian village. I spent a weekend there, noodling around in souvenir shops, snacking on pretzels and soaking in faux-European culture. It wasn’t till after dark, when I headed to the banks of Icicle Creek just outside of town for an interview, that I saw a vestige of what the region once was.

Perched on a plywood scaffold over roaring waters, a Wenatchi father and son fished using long nets made by hand and under the cover of darkness so it’s harder for salmon to spot them.

Only a handful of their tribe still fish this way. Dams through the region’s system of rivers have electrified cities, irrigated crops and powered industry. But those dams also decimated salmon numbers and wiped out fishing grounds that were central to tribes’ ways of life.

“My people have had to sacrifice a lot of these things so everybody else can have that,” Jason Whalawitsa, the father, told me as he fished. “We pay for that with our culture.”