For This Tribe, Saving a River Means Saving the Sturgeon

As an adult, Ms. Miller earned a degree in fisheries resources at the University of Idaho. She spent time working in other tribal, state and commercial hatcheries along the basin, juggling her work in conservation with the responsibilities of caring for her family.

“Our natural resources are sacred to us,” she said. “It’s up to us to oversee them.”

But although leaders of the Yakama and Lummi nations have called for the removal of three dams on the Columbia, Ms. Miller instead sidesteps the issue.

She considers the dams the greatest threat to the sturgeon habitat — along with pollution, climate change and urbanization — but has sought out a workaround. By releasing the 3,000 sturgeon as juveniles, rather than babies, she is bypassing the earliest part of their life cycle, when they are most vulnerable to predators.

“This is sovereignty in action,” said Paul Ward, the program manager of the Yakama Nation Fisheries, speaking of intertribal white sturgeon recovery efforts across the basin. “This is taking control of our future.”

Protecting the river system is part of her heritage, and her national connection to natural resources. Her great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, both chiefs, were part of a group that spoke out against the construction of the Bonneville Dam. She keeps a photograph of them above her desk.

It is also part of her family trauma. Her grandfather was forced into a boarding school, away from the Columbia. When he came back, he no longer spoke Yakama. She grew up hunting and fishing, but finds traditional species fewer and farther between. Her children do not know the taste of some foods she grew up eating.

“We’re still here and still doing this work,” Ms. Miller said. “These animals, these fish, they give their lives to sustain us. It’s our responsibility to protect them.”

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