2023 Digital Video Storytelling, Long Form, Large Newsroom winner

Wy-Kan-Ush-Pum (Salmon People): A Native Fishing Family’s Fight to Preserve a Way of Life

About the Project

When the salmon are running up the Columbia River, Native people are there with them. They catch salmon for food, for ceremonies, and for their living.

Randy Settler grew up on the banks of the river. He drank, bathed and in its water, and operated his own boat from age 10. He also inherited from his parents and the generations before them the fight to preserve tribal access to salmon.

“Wy-Kan-Ush-Pum” takes us back to the beginning of that fight, 100 years before Settler’s birth, when tribes – under threat of violence – signed a series of treaties that ceded millions of acres to the United States. In exchange, they were promised rights to fish, hunt and gather foods in their “usual and accustomed places.” It didn’t work out that way: Dams, government policy, and environmental contamination all broke down tribal access to salmon. Scores of salmon populations are now extinct; others are on the brink.

The film is an extraordinarily beautiful rendition of Settler’s fight, one he is passing down to his nephew, Sam George, and to George’s 10-year-old daughter, Aiyana, the youngest member of the fishing crew. In Aiyana’s lifetime, salmon survival is predicted to decline by 90% due to warming ocean waters from climate change.

Over 16 months, Oregon Public Broadcasting and ProPublica teamed up to examine how salmon-related treaties have been violated repeatedly in the 170 years since they were signed – and to interweave present-day consequences for the family with the past.

The film captures fly-on-the-wall moments: joy of being out on the water; anger at what was taken; despair, knowing Aiyana likely won’t achieve her dream of being a fisherwoman.

In some ways, the innovations of this project were complex: Our larger team spent more than a year investigating the decline of salmon its impact on Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest. Many innovative techniques were employed in that work from testing levels of toxics in fish to collecting data on the numbers of fish returning to hatcheries.

All of that work informs the story we tell in the film, which was released at the end of the series. It doesn’t repeat the harder scientific findings, though they are just below the surface of the story. The focus of the film is personal and experiential. It highlights the traditional ecological knowledge of the Indigenous participants. And it helps an outside audience understand a tribal perspective and the significance of salmon in their lives.

Our team understood that to tell this story, we needed to do more than reporters typically would to gain the trust of tribal communities. And in that sense, our innovation was simple: patience and respect. We spent many days in the field listening to tribal members’ concerns and learning about their lives. As they met with sources, our reporters put down their pens and cameras to help their subjects feel comfortable enough to speak frankly about their lives and the decades of fighting for the right to fish.

Judges Comments

A moving story that brings viewers deep inside a little-seen community, highlighting indigenous voices and their humanity. It provided an intimate view of what this changing environment feels like with immensely captivating visuals that even feature animation of a painting by one of the characters.