For thousands of years, Northwest tribes have used the Columbia River as a regional center of commerce. For the first time this summer, they’re building a new venue for their ancient tradition – a native-owned seafood shop.
A silvery shad slips into an icy bath. Its tail flashes twice as it descends deeper into the chilly water. The fish was netted from the Columbia just moments ago. It’s so fresh it’s still kicking.
Selling these shad and salmon are Terrie Brigham and her sister Kim Brigham Campbell. They're both members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. And they’ve dipped nets into the Columbia right here since they were about eight years old.
They climb down a ladder to perch on precarious wooden platforms clinging to the sides of the concrete locks. And with fishnets on javelin-like poles called dip nets they wait for their prize.
I ask Terrie Brigham if after all these seasons it’s still exciting to feel a fish hit her dipnet.
“Oh, absolutely, absolutely," she says. "It’s a competition between me and my sisters. Who can catch the first one. Usually, when I’m fishing and I hand it over to my sister Kim, within a couple of minutes she catches a nice fish.”
The Brighams have sold fish here to walk up customers and commercial buyers for years. But now they’re taking the next step. They got loans, they cashed in a 401K and struck a land deal with the nearby port. It all means they’re finally able to build a brand new store on the main road of Cascade Locks.
Kim Brigham Campbell, her sister Terrie and their father will provide most of the fish for the store. But they predict they’ll need to buy from other native fishers’ too.
Brigham Campbell shows off a spot lined out for a cooler that’s so big it will hold a year’s catch. It is the size of some apartments I’ve lived in.
One reason the Brighams can open this store is that prices for Columbia River fish have gone way up. Demand is high because of the local food movement, and top retailers are buying fish direct.
Meanwhile, a lot of tribal fishers are taking food handling classes to improve the quality of their product. James Kiona is a long-time fishing monitor for the Yakama Nation. He says more and more native fishers are coming to the Columbia to cast a line and draw a living.
“There is some fighting, but the majority of the time there isn’t," Kiona says. "But there is just more fishermen now. The river is getting smaller and smaller.”
But for these two women and their longtime-fishing families, this store represents more than just a livelihood for today. For, Terrie Brigham this shop draws a taught line between the past and the future.
“It’s the river," she says. "I live in Pendleton right now and every time I drive down this way I see the river and its home.”
The Brighams seafood store opens around August.