WASHINGTON — Below the 45-foot model of a right whale named Phoenix, behind the case that holds a rare giant squid and not far from the remains of a prehistoric coelacanth that was caught off Africa is an exhibit highlighting Pacific Northwest salmon and the Nisqually Tribe's efforts to restore a wild run.
Though it may not be the flashiest display in the new, $49 million Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, curators say that it's a unique story about a fish that migrates thousands of miles against almost overwhelming odds before returning home to spawn.
There's also a human side to the tale. Salmon are the lifeblood of a Native American culture that stretches from Northern California to Alaska, and restoring the dwindling runs is an almost sacred duty. The northwest Pacific Coast became the most heavily populated Native American region because of the salmon.
"Without salmon, we would cease to be Indian people," reads a quote in the display from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
Picking the Nisqually to feature in the exhibit was an obvious choice because of the tribe's efforts to restore a wild Chinook run that was all but extinct. Its efforts serve as a model for similar projects throughout the region, said Jill Johnson, a Smithsonian exhibit developer who spent five years working on the new oceans hall. It's the largest salt marsh-restoration project in Puget Sound.
"This is the perfect story," Johnson said.
The exhibit is housed in four cases that are dimly lit to protect the artifacts. There are replicas of a Chinook that could weigh 40 or so pounds, and a smaller silver salmon. There are carvings of half-human half-fish salmon boys, salmon-shaped rattles, clubs, spears and harpoon points used to catch salmon, and a beautifully decorated paddle and headdress. Photos show Yakama Indians fishing on the Klickitat River and Tulalip Tribe purse seiners fishing on the sound. There are explanations of first-salmon ceremonies and other celebrations.
Hanging above the display cases is a 26-foot, hand-carved canoe from the Tlingit Nation in Alaska. On the bow is a replica of a raven. According to the story, a raven with a broken wing showed up when the canoe was being carved in Juneau.
Under the headline "Nisqually Tribe Takes the Lead" are pictures and text explaining the tribe's efforts to restore the salt marsh habitat that's vital to the Nisqually River's salmon runs.
"The Nisqually Indian Tribe from Washington state plays a crucial role in the recovery of the endangered Chinook salmon," the text reads, adding that the tribe, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has restored more than 800 acres in the river's estuary where juvenile salmon rest before starting their saltwater journey.
Photos show tribal members working with federal biologists to identify and count juvenile salmon, and students from the tribal school returning salmon carcasses to the river, which helps restore nutrients to the water.
Every year, the efforts of a different tribe will be featured, but the Nisqually are first.
"We asked our anthropologist to find a tribe to illustrate the efforts of the Native Americans to rebuild the salmon runs, and the Nisqually Tribe was chosen," Johnson said.
Two tribal elders were on hand when the exhibit opened in September.
Cynthia Iyall, the Nisqually tribal chairman, said that the exhibit was important because it reminded tribal members of the importance of the salmon and the river they live next to. The exhibit explains to the outside world that the tribe's very existence has been tied to the salmon runs for thousands of years, she said.
"The salmon is hugely significant for our tribe," she said. "It's what maintains our people."
In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Nisqually River delta, in south Puget Sound between Tacoma and Olympia, was the scene of some of the angriest clashes between Indians and fish and game officials as tribes fought to assert their fishing rights.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the city of Seattle wanted to build a garbage dump along the estuary, and Weyerhaeuser wanted to construct a log export facility, said David Trout, the tribe's natural resources director.
The major problem, however, was a series of earthen dikes that early homesteaders had built more than 100 years ago, which turned salt marsh into pastureland. The tribe and the Fish and Wildlife Service are removing the dikes now.
Where once the Nisqually Chinook run was virtually wiped out, roughly 1,200 wild fish returned this past year.
"It appears it has been working," Trout said.
Tribal officials said they were surprised when museum officials contacted them about the exhibit.
"I was checking my e-mail one day and there was this e-mail from the Smithsonian," said Jeannette Dorner, the tribe's salmon recovery-program manager. "I thought I should open it. We weren't even aware they were looking for a tribe."
Dorner has seen the exhibit, and said it was an amazing experience.
"I think they did a very good job," she said.
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