KETTLE FALLS, Wash. (CN) – Upper Columbia River tribes finished an eight-day journey Saturday that traced the route salmon haven’t run for 80 years. That afternoon, ten canoes paddled by members of five tribes rounded the route’s final bend, their boats gliding high above the submerged falls that were, for millennia, one of the most important fishing spots in the region.

The canoes launched June 4, the anniversary of a very different event. On that day in 1940, the same tribes gathered for the Ceremony of Tears. Nearly 80 years ago, tribal elders stood on cliffs where drums echoed Saturday. They spent three days mourning the imminent loss of Kettle Falls—their ancestral fishing grounds and a place of political détente where both friends and enemies once shared the river’s bounty. The falls were soon engulfed by the rising waters behind Grand Coulee Dam.

Shelly Boyd, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, said there’s a direct line between the Ceremony of Tears and the canoe journey tribes hope will bring attention to their efforts to get the salmon home to the headwaters of the Columbia River.

“Our people knew to come together and pray and I feel like they were praying for us to do this kind of thing in the future,” Boyd said.

Due to the work of a unified group of five tribes, large-scale reintroduction of salmon to the upper Columbia is on the table in two separate government processes – one federal and one negotiated between the U.S. and Canada. But the tribes say they won’t wait another year. In partnership with the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, they will conduct a small, experimental release of adult salmon trucked above the Coulee this August.

“We hope and advocate for the council and both nation states to fund this,” said John Sirois, Colville member and committee coordinator for the Upper Columbia United Tribes, which represents the Kalispel, Coeur D’ Alene, Spokane, Kootenai and Colville Confederated Tribes. “But the tribes are done waiting. It’s been 80 years.”

Since the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams’ construction in the 1930s and 1940s halted salmon runs like a pair of concrete guillotines, tribes have urged the government to return salmon to the hundreds of miles of habitat above. It’s the crux of a fight for cultural justice by tribes whose arguments against cutting off the salmon runs were ignored.

But tribal leaders say returning salmon to the upper Columbia will benefit everyone. With rivers and streams warming under climate change, access to the Columbia River’s coldest northern waters will only grow more vital, and salmon born here could be a missing link in the effort to prevent the extinction of orca whales off Washington’s coast, which are starving for a lack of salmon.

Back when they had a clear path from the ocean to the headwaters of the Columbia 1,200 miles away, Chinook salmon needed a lot of muscle to make it that far. They were so big – routinely over 100 pounds – that the commercial canneries proliferating at the mouth of the Columbia in the early 1900s dubbed them “June hogs.”

Salmon the size of a young hippopotamus were just one type wiped out by the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam. Today, the summer Chinook produced at hatcheries near the Chief Joseph Dam are their closest living relatives. And those are the fish that tribes will use to repopulate the upper Columbia.

“The genetic legacy of June hogs is still with us,” said Casey Baldwin, fisheries manager for Colville Confederated Tribes, “so more habitat with more spawners of this run will put more large-bodied Chinook in the ocean. That certainly has a lot of potential to help orcas.”

Stewardship efforts are not new in this region. The Confederated Tribes of Colville sued the federal government in 1951 over the construction of Coulee Dam, which they argued had destroyed fishing and with it their way of life. The suit took 46 years to resolve, when Congress approved restitution payments.

Colville also used its studies of pollution in the Columbia to get the Environmental Protection Agency to order Canadian mining company Teck Metals to clean up the lead and zinc it dumped in the river. When the company refused to comply, Colville sued, securing a win in the Ninth Circuit that the Supreme Court refused to disturb.

Tribes have the right as sovereign nations to co-manage fisheries under a 1974 decision by U.S. District Judge George Boldt – a major precedent that transformed Indian law across the country. Boldt ruled that the treaties tribes negotiated with Gov. Isaac Stevens in the 1850s guaranteed their right to hunt and fish “in their usual and accustomed places” and means tribes are entitled to half the harvestable catch of returning salmon.

But tribes were sovereign managers long before the Stevens treaties, Sirois said.

“A lot of these resource manager rights predate the Constitution,” Sirois said. “These nations have been here forever and are going to be here forever.”

This month, the Upper Columbia United Tribes announced findings in its study of salmon reintroduction above the dams here. According to the group, large scale reintroduction is practical and would provide economic and ecological benefits to everyone in the Columbia River basin, showing potential for 40,000 summer Chinook and 76,000 sockeye salmon to return each year.

That report is now under review by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. If the council moves forward with reintroduction, Bonneville Power Administration will fund the next phase: experimental releases of fish. That is expected to cost millions. So far, the tribes have paid for the majority of the work.

Also happening now is a once-in-a-generation chance to revamp the way the U.S. and Canada jointly manage the 1,200-mile Columbia River. First signed in 1964 and up for renegotiation in 2024, the Columbia River Treaty paid for the construction of the river’s three major dams in Canada, which control flooding in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. Canada restrains spring surges from the Canadian Rockies at reservoirs behind the Mica, Arrow and Duncan dams, and in return it gets half the money from power generated at dams in the United States after the water’s release.

Talks are underway, and already there are stumbling blocks. U.S. negotiators say Canada gets ten times what it should for electricity generated in the U.S. But Canada says it should be paid for ecological problems caused by holding that water, and for making possible swaths of development in what used to be vast floodplains surrounding Portland. It also says U.S. dams should take over flood control.

Tribes on both sides of the border say it’s crucial that the agreement includes ecological objectives like spilling the right amount of water over Canada’s dams to ensure survival of reintroduced salmon – but their participation in negotiations is not guaranteed. Canada has extended “observer status” to First Nations, but the U.S. has refused to include tribes.

Jill Smale, lead negotiator for the U.S., said in a statement that though the State Department “values the expertise, experience and input of the tribes,” it decided to include only federal agencies on its negotiating team in order to “conclude a successful agreement in a timely manner.”

Early talks about renewing the treaty didn’t mention improving the river’s ecology – just flood control, hydropower generation and money.

“It was the leadership of the tribes and First Nations to spearhead that effort,” Sirois said. “It was clear that our voices were left out the first time. They will not be left out the second time around.”

Still, without formal status as observers or participators, tribes are left to wonder.

“How will it translate?” Sirois asked. “How strong will they advocate for it?”

Eventually, assuming the U.S. and Canada come to a new agreement, Congress will vote on whether to approve it. But first, the new treaty will go to the Foreign Relations Committee. There, committee chairman and Idaho Republican Jim Risch will decide whether to introduce the agreement for a vote. Risch declined to comment for this article, but he told the Idaho Statesman he won’t introduce the agreement if it includes ecological improvements.

Regardless of the outcome in the federal and international processes, tribes are determined to get salmon above the dams in August. But a few hundred fish per year won’t unlock the potential of the Upper Columbia. It won’t give declining salmon access to the cold northern waters of the Canadian Rockies. And it won’t restore a key food source missing from the diet of starving orcas.

With three avenues to bring salmon home to the Upper Columbia, this is a moment of opportunity to revamp management from its Canadian headwaters all the way to the ocean, according to DR Michel, Colville member and executive director of Upper Columbia United Tribes. And this time, he says, those decisions should benefit all.

“The river isn’t just a machine to spin those turbines at the dams,” Michel said. “It’s a living thing. It provides way more economics and opportunities than we focus on.”