While Western states rich in hydroelectricity such as Idaho and Washington enjoy lower energy prices in comparison to other states, those prices do not come without a cost — according to Native American tribes and environmental advocates.
The Nez Perce Tribe, or Nimiipuu, and environmental groups are spreading awareness about the cultural and environmental costs of hydroelectricity through a short film called, “Covenant of the Salmon People.”
On Aug. 23, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Idaho Sierra Club, the Idaho Conservation League and the Idaho Rivers United hosted a public screening of the film at the Linen building in downtown Boise with nearly a hundred people in attendance.
The 60-minute documentary follows members of the Nez Perce Tribe and their efforts to restore endangered salmon populations by pushing to breach the lower Snake River dams, all of which are located in southeast Washington. Breaching the dams would remove a barrier of the structures so water would flow around the dams making it easier for salmon to migrate.
The tribe has received congressional support from U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who in 2021 proposed the Columbia Basin Initiative, a $33.5 billion plan to breach the four lower Snake River hydroelectric dams and replace the energy generated by the dams.
And in 2022, a federal report by President Joe Biden’s administration found that breaching the lower Snake River dams is “essential” to protect and recover threatened salmon, the Idaho Capital Sun previously reported.
Salmon populations culturally intertwined with Nez Perce Tribe
The film also explores the cultural significance of Chinook salmon and the health impact that dwindling salmon numbers have on tribal members.
Before the creation of the Nez Perce Reservation, Nimiipuu people navigated land and waterways throughout Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana. Even after having been pushed to 770,000 acres of land based out of Lapwai, the film shows how a staple part of the tribe’s identity and diet remains threatened by hydroelectric dams.
The Nez Perce people have subsisted on chinook salmon for thousands of years, with tribal archaeological sites along Idaho’s Salmon River that date back more than 16,500 years. And today, the tribe, fisheries and the federal government must go through extensive lengths to maintain salmon populations.
Chairman Shannon Wheeler of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, told the Idaho Capital Sun that in Nez Perce culture, there is no separation between salmon and the people.
“We see ourselves equal to, and we owe an obligation to, the salmon,” he said. ”We owe what we have to the salmon. It’s like a mother — how could you ever repay a mother for all that she’s done? That’s a debt that we can never repay, and so we always try to advocate for them.”
Wheeler said that the film shows that hydroelectric dams are not sustainable for the future of salmon.
“For me, life is always more important than money,” he said. “The cost of keeping the dams has hidden costs that you may not see on your bill, but there are other costs that are happening associated with keeping hydro in the way that it is right now.”
Nimiipuu Energy: A step to becoming energy independent
The Nez Perce Tribe is working with other regional tribes to become energy independent and to restore salmon populations.
In 2022, the Nez Perce Tribe established Nimiipuu Energy, a cooperative to partner with regional tribes to use alternative energy technology such as solar panels and battery storage to offset energy production from the four lower Snake River dams.
According to a 2016 report from the Bonneville Power Administration, it would take 5,311 megawatts of solar to offset the four lower Snake River dams – a challenge that the Nez Perce Tribe has accepted.
The project requires partnership with regional tribes to use a virtual power plant, or a network of distributed power generating units and systems that can be interconnected through software management.
Since its launch, the Nez Perce Tribe has installed over 770 solar panels along with a Tesla battery for energy storage to provide energy in Lapwai. The project includes:
- 307 kilowatts (770 solar panels)
- 1 Tesla megapack (1.2 megawatt hours)
- 1 Tesla powerpack (0.7 megawatt hour)
According to the Nimiipuu website, the projects have all been installed by tribal employees who have done all the electrical wiring, switchgear installation, programming and site mapping for the solar and storage components.
The project will require 70-100 full-time employees over the next five years to complete additional projects, according to the Nimiipuu Energy website.
The next screening for the Covenant of the Salmon People in Boise is on Sept. 14 at Boise State University. To find additional screenings happening across the Northwest, visit the screening schedule here.