The Fish Market Preserving Native Fishing Traditions in the Pacific Northwest
The sisters behind Brigham Fish Market sell freshly caught Columbia River fish in Cascade Lock, Oregon. They're among the few Native fishermen who stay in the area year-round.
"Is that you?" a customer asks Terrie Brigham, pointing to one of the black and white photos that decorate the wall of Brigham Fish Market, the store she runs, and that her sister, Kim Brigham Campbell, owns. The photo shows the sisters as young girls, playing in the back of a truck with a sturgeon nearly the same size as them. Another one depicts their grandfather using an enormous net to sweep up a fish from a wooden scaffold that sticks out over the Columbia River as Celilo Falls rages in the background.
Standing on a nearly identical platform in early summer, Brigham cuts a similar figure, gracefully dipping the unwieldy hoop and net, with a handle almost twice as long as she is tall, down through the water while balanced just above the current. But the background is different.
Tourists meander from Cascade Locks to Thunder Island, pausing on the bridge to look at Brigham, 20 feet down the side of a cement wall, as she fishes. "When Celilo was drowned," Brigham starts, before correcting to "inundated," by the opening of the Dalles Dam, her grandfather, father, and uncles moved an hour down the river and built the scaffolds she still uses.
They fished for steelhead, sturgeon, shad, and salmon—Chinook springers, summer sockeye, and tules in the fall—the same fish she now catches, processes, and serves at Brigham Fish Market and Brigham Fish n' Chips, which opened late last year inside the Wildhorse Resort and Casino a few hours away in Pendleton, Oregon. She also catches fish for ceremonial and subsistence use by her tribe, the Umatilla. Before opening the markets, they mostly sold directly to canneries.
"We barely had to unload it off our boat and they'd take it right to the cannery and write us a check," Brigham says. Local customers would come directly to their house—and some still do—to buy right from them, while others simply shout from the parking lot down to the scaffolding, buying the fish as she scoops it up.
Brigham remembers sitting on the scaffold with her sisters as their dad scolded them to put in more effort. "It was summer; we were teenagers!" she says. But her resentment always faded as they earned cash for their catch. Eventually, she grew to like the fishing itself and the traditions she carried on, forming one of the first all-women boat crews with her mom, sisters, and aunt.
After getting married and divorced young, she moved to Pendleton to work at the casino—a single mom trying to get away from everything she disliked about her town and inherited profession. Years later, when her older sister got cancer, she moved back to Cascade Locks and returned to fishing, finding her love for it. "There are some days where I'm so fricking tired," she admits. "Then we get on the boat, I'm on the water, and it's like, 'Oh yeah, this is why I do this.'"
She navigates down a muddy dirt road, through puddles that seem to nearly swallow her truck, to two of the ten scaffolds she fishes. "I love her," Brigham says of the Columbia River, looking out from the seemingly rickety platform to the evergreen-blanketed hills on the Washington side. "But she's mean." A big post juts out over the river like a mast from a giant schooner, allowing her to fish with two nets from the same scaffold by getting one further out, while one stays close to shore. "If you don't respect her, she's going to make you do it real quick."
Trouble lurks even so. Her two younger kids are still in school and her oldest didn't follow in her fishing footsteps, but her sister's children did—her niece and nephew were on board one of the two times Brigham's boat almost sank.
"We took a wave that came over. Next thing you know we had two feet of water in the boat," she says. She worked to straighten the boat as the others grabbed buckets and started throwing water overboard. As soon as they got the water out, they went right back to fishing. That was the last time her niece stepped onto her fishing boat. "You can try to teach deckhands and some will just never get it. They'll just be a body that helps throw fish or clean fish or whatever," she says. But others—the rare few—just get it. "My nephew is a great deckhand." The next day, they headed back out.
To customers, the most immediately obvious difference in the fish at Brigham Fish Market is the price. They don't see the daily dangers Brigham faces on the water, or that she loads her catch directly from the boat or docks into the kitchen at Brigham Fish Market. The lack of understanding of the real value of their product, which translates to quality and flavor, can frustrate Brigham at the retail outlet she and her sister never really set out to open.
"The town was kind of dying," she says. Cascade Locks lost its high school in 2009, and as it tried to boost tourism, it lacked many places for potential tourists to eat. The Port asked if they might try a brick-and-mortar store, which they opened in 2014, selling fresh, smoked, and fried fish (with chips), mostly caught by Brigham and other family members.
One time, hearing that the fish was caught last night, a customer asked, "Don't you have anything fresher?" Brigham laughed, wondering when they expected her to have cleaned, filleted, and chilled it. "If you go to Safeway and it says fresh, do you know it's probably been sitting there for five days," she wonders. "If you get a fresh fish, you'll never go back."
But there are simply fewer and fewer fish each year. The numbers dwindle on Brigham's receipts through the decades. Brigham can't quite remember the old Native saying about which flower signaled the arrival of the spring salmon in pre-calendar times, because the schedule no longer corresponds. When an old photo pops up on Facebook, she realizes that seven years ago on that day she took photos of them catching fish; this year, she isn't even bothering to go out yet.
The Brighams are among the few Native fishermen who stay in the area year-round. She and her nephew do all of the fishing for their tribe's ceremonial and subsistence quota—as her father did since the '70s, until he decided to sit out the seasons for caution about Covid-19. "There were years it was 3000 fish," she says. The tribe would keep it in the freezer for ceremonies and feasts, then hand out fish to members of the tribe several times that month. Now the quota is just 425; they just try to get enough in the freezer for naming ceremonies and deaths.
Without Celilo Falls, the river slows, warming as it stagnates. "There's seaweed galore," she says, along with predators to smolt (young salmon): carp, sucker fish, catfish, and northern pikeminnow. "The thinking back in the day was, 'We can change this, we can make it better,'" says Brigham. "I get it, you want to feed more people, you want to feed your family, you want to ship salmon across the United States. Was it in the same train cars that had the polio blankets and the rancid bison?" She laughs.
"Indians never thought that way," she says. "This is what was given to us by creator and Mother Nature, and we need to take care of it as it is." She takes heart in the recent increase she sees in commerce around Native fishing, harkening back to Celilo's historic role as a trading post and "Wall Street of the West." She praises the growing movements to return the Pacific Northwest rivers to their natural states in order to increase fish populations. "But it's only taken decades," she says. "And the loss of how many migratory fish?"