Freeing The Elwha: Lower Elwha Tribe Celebrates Dam Removal

Tribal singers welcome attendees to the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe's dam removal celebration dinner Sept. 17.

The thunderous beat of drums in the tribal gym sounded louder than usual: the beat harder, the men’s voices deeper, the women’s voices louder, the smiles bigger during the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s dam removal celebration Sept. 17.

For nearly 100 years the tribe waited to celebrate the moment – the demolition of the Elwha River’s two fish-blocking dams, which have violated the tribe’s treaty rights the moment they were constructed in the early 20th Century. The dams blocked all but the lower five miles of the river, decimating salmon populations.

Prior to dam removal, a week of celebration included storytelling, drumming, a fundraising gala for the tribe’s education program, interviews with elders and a two-day conference on river restoration efforts with scientists from all over the world.

“We’re numb. We’re excited. We’re enthused,” said tribal chairwoman Frances Charles on the eve of the Elwha dam demolition. “There’s no words for how we’re going to be feeling when we see that machine rock n’ roll and take that brick out of the dam. Our elders are going to be so joyful with what is taking place out there. They’re saying they just can’t believe we’re able to witness what is going to be taking place tomorrow.”

“I feel sorry that my ancestors and grandparents aren’t here to see the dams removed,” said elder Adeline Smith. “That’s the only sorrow I have. I wish they were here to see it.”

“My grandma and grandpa lived on the river,” said tribal member Byron Bennett, wearing a black shirt with the words, “It’s About Dam Time 9-17-11.” “Grandpa was one of the original signees of the reservation. He grew up on the river and was a proponent for dam removal.”

As the excavator tore into the Elwha dam Sept. 17, Bennett was said he was thinking of his dad and grandfather.

“The river is going to be given a second chance to restore itself,” Bennett said. “With this project and Mother Nature running her course, we will turn the river back. We are essentially turning the clock back 99 years on this project.”

For many of the younger generation, all they have known is the effort to remove the dam.

Tribal councilman Anthony Charles grew up fishing with his family in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the river. He is making sure his 11- and 13-year-old children get the same experience.

“I think the youth get the importance of dam removal. They may not understand but they get it,” he said. “For me, it’s all that our elders have been talking about it and it hasn’t happened fast enough.”