As Vice-Chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe, Shannon Wheeler has been greatly involved in a number of restoration and salmon advocacy projects throughout his time in office, but his commitment to the fish has gone on much longer than this. He explains that he has been a fisherman most of his life aware of the declining salmon populations and that the Nez Perce’s work on issues like salmon recovery have gone back decades “whether it’s within our fishing communities or at tribal meetings or in the courtroom.” They’re advocating for the breaching of the four lower Snake River dams and therefore the greater migration of salmon. He states that he came to know the deeper stories of the salmon, what they do for the tribe, where they are located on a fishing stream, and their greater relationship with the surrounding ecosystem from trees to eagles. He learned the interconnected nature of all things around him, the uniqueness of each individual species, and their connection to one another.
Vice-Chairman Wheeler underscored the significance of salmon to not just himself or even the Nez Perce at large, but to the land around them; the entire landscape. The Nez Perce view themselves as tied to the landscape, and it to them. They deeply understand the migratory patterns of the salmon, when they leave the headwaters and when they return, but what he additionally emphasized was the role salmon play in the open ocean itself. Their role in their spawning habitats, but also that for the greater ocean habitat throughout the Pacific Northwest and the Salish Sea itself. Chinook salmon are not just tied to the Columbia and the Snake rivers, but to all the other organisms throughout the area, namely orca. When advocating for the survival of salmon, he is not just advocating for his grandkids or even “seven generations down, but also for the landscape that I know, the landscape where the salmon are at, everything that is there, including the orca.”
First elected to council in 2016, he began work within the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, advocating for salmon escapement. As he gained insights into salmon migration and yearly population changes he began to see how he could play a role in helping with salmon recovery. In recent years he is grateful for non-governmental organizations and elected officials throughout the region, principally Representative Mike Simpson (ID), Senator Murray, and Governor Inslee that understand the issue and have begun work to help solve it. He is hopeful that their work will continue and bear fruit for all those that rely on salmon and their spawning habitats, the Snake and Columbia.
Vice-Chairman Wheeler sees this issue through a variety of lenses: cultural, social, environmental, and economic. He reasserts the obligation of the federal government to uphold treaty rights regarding salmon as essential to solving this problem, while also acknowledging that there must be work done to compensate for dam breaching. He is well aware of the importance that the dams hold economically for transportation and irrigation and recognizes the need to find sustainable and just alternatives. He notes that their aim is to not disrupt the important role that Washington plays in the region, but “we [want] to build a better, stronger, smarter future for the next generations so that the next generations can do the work and not have to worry about the issues we’ve created for them.” Underlining this brighter future is one where irresponsible development is dealt with, which requires redressing the damage to the ecosystems and tribes that the dams have wrought.