Watchlist: ‘Salmon People: A Native Fishing Family’s Fight to Preserve a Way of Life’

01.12.2023 Kamiah Koch Watchlist


By Kamiah Koch 

Social media/digital journalist

Oregon Public Broadcasting and ProPublica published a short documentary on Dec. 21, 2022, sharing the way of life for people on the Columbia River. 

The video follows Yakima Tribal members Randy Settler, LiaDonna Lopez Whitefoot, Samuel George and Aiyana George as they share the salmon stories passed down to them and compare those to the few salmon they see in the river today. 

“I swam in this river when there were hundreds of thousands of salmon,” Settler says. “It’s a different feeling you have when you have so much life using this river as a ways to get to their final destination.” 

The video uses old footage of fishermen on the Columbia River from the early 1900s as Settler describes the forced 1855 treaty. According to Settler, the governor at the time said if the Tribal leaders did not sign the treaty they would walk knee deep in their people’s blood. 

But Settler and his people survived. Settler, his nephew Samuel George, and George’s daughter, Aiyana George, are shown as multigenerational family still fishing on the river. 

“I also want to be a fisherman because I see my dad doing it and it seems fun,” 9-year-old Aiyana George says.

However, compared to the stories Settler tells of thousands of fish swimming in the Columbia River, the Columbia River salmon population has some of the worst survival rates ever recorded. Aiyana George is heard sharing excitement for her dad’s catch because he doesn’t always get fish.

“I hope there’s fish though, when she gets older,” Samuel George says about his daughter. “I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to fish.”

The video attributes the decline in the fish population to rising water temperatures and, most significantly, dams built along the Columbia River. This has put the burden of sustaining salmon in the Columbia River on the shoulder of hatcheries.

A statistic shown in the documentary states it is estimated that 80 percent of Columbia River salmon comes from hatcheries built to make up for the steady salmon decline.

The video continues with more stories of salmon told by Samuel George’s auntie, LiaDonna Lopez Whitefoot, while she dries fish.

You can hear those stories and the significance of salmon to people of the Columbia River by watching the video at or find it linked in the Smoke Signals “Watchlist” playlist on our YouTube channel.