Many readers of The Open Notebook (including me) started out in research careers before slipping through a side door into science writing. But sometimes, it takes the skeptical gaze of a journalist who didn’t geek out in biology classes or physics labs to critically examine the scientific endeavor. The stakes couldn’t be higher; in fields from medicine to natural history, Western science has at best ignored members of marginalized communities and their valuable knowledge, and at worst truly harmed people. By questioning cultural assumptions about what counts as valid information, writers can cover scientific knowledge more accurately, equitably, and ultimately more usefully for our readers.
In October 2022, Indigenous affairs journalist B. “Toastie” Oaster wrote a High Country News feature about the fate of Pacific lamprey. This lushly written story explores how Indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest are working to conserve a culturally important species in the face of dam construction, mismanagement, and climate change. Oaster combined research into the region’s Indigenous history and ecological knowledge with talented storytelling. The result? A beautifully crafted narrative feature about the past and future of Pacific lamprey, told through the lens of Indigenous ecological knowledge, that challenges readers to think about science research—and science journalism—more critically. (I would like to pause a moment to point out that this HCN piece was Oaster’s first feature ever, and also was nominated for a National Magazine Award.)
“In my experience, scientifically minded people are skeptical, and I think that’s a real strength,” Oaster says during the Q&A following the annotated story. “And I think turning that skepticism on Western science is a good use of that mental faculty.”
Despite dams, drowned waterfalls and industrial degradation, the practice of eeling persists.
By B. “Toastie” Oaster, High Country News
Published October 1, 2022
(Reprinted with permission.)
The roar of the falls was an unrelenting thunder of white noise. It was the mid-1950s, and Celilo Falls, on the border between Washington and Oregon — the oldest continuously inhabited spot in North America — had yet to be destroyed.The story immediately places the reader at an exciting place—up close with a loud, powerful waterfall—while foreshadowing destruction. There’s beauty and mystery here. Sparkling headwaters flowed from British Columbia, Montana and Wyoming, streams gathering to form the Columbia River, which surged westward through the high desert and the rainy Cascade Mountains until it yawned into the brackish slurry of the Pacific estuary. Year after year, for countless generations, millions of fish stampeded back upstream, fighting the ocean’s current to gain the forested upper tributaries, whose sheltered, transparent waters and gravel substrate provided perfect spawning grounds.The language in this first paragraph perfectly demonstrates how this tightly written story relies on strong verbs, adjectives, and rhythm to keep the momentum going. We’re basically getting a history lesson, but it’s driven by word choices that enliven a scene where no one’s doing anything. Here, we get “forested upper tributaries,” “sheltered, transparent waters,” “perfect spawning grounds.” The rhythm engages the reader, particularly the repetition of hard p and t sounds, tiny trampolines propelling the writing forward.
The Great River’sThis is not the Western name of the river, yet it is capitalized, giving authority to the perspective of cultures who do know it by this name. This is a foreshadowing of the position the story engages throughout—it’s decolonizing history and ecology. annual rotation of anadromous fish included steelhead trout, sturgeon, coho, chinook and sockeye salmon, chum or dog salmon and the otherworldly Pacific lamprey — a glossy-gray, eel-like fish with seven round gills bored into its sides like the tone holes of a cedar fluteOf all the fish, the Pacific lamprey is pegged as “otherworldly,” with a detailed, lyric description, evoking a traditional instrument. It’s a sign of the lamprey’s special role in this story. Back then, whenever the adult fish returned, ocean-fresh and ripe to fill hungry bellies, the people gathered at legacy fishing spots, including Celilo Falls.At this point, the cinematic attributes of this intro come into focus. We’ve seen and heard a powerful waterfall; we’ve watched countless fish migrating upriver; and now, we’ve zoomed in on people gathering to fish at the falls. In journalism, with tight word counts and deadlines, writers often must start with a traditional lede and nut graf, then perhaps round out the intro with a relevant quote, making the stakes clear in a sentence or two. This story instead takes the time and space to do the narrative work of creating a world—a world that is, itself, what’s at stake.
Every season had a different run: the fall, spring and summer chinook, each with its own flavor; fall dog salmon and summer lamprey. On the timber scaffolds that etched the incandescent billows of the falls, fishermen tested their strength and bravery, fighting hound-sized fish with 20-foot-long dipnets until they’d hauled in enough to feed their families for a year, share fish with elders and trade with neighboring tribes. There were millions of salmon, so many that people said you could walk across the Great River on their backs; some elders boasted that they had. The fishers camped around the falls, their pickup trucks, canvas tents and hand-crafted houses set among rows of cabin-style apartments, where permanent residents lived in multigenerational households. As the fragrance of smoldering alderwood wafted from smoking sheds, mothers and grandmothers sliced sherbet-colored slabs of fish with practiced hands, or popped dried lamprey tail into the mouths of teething babies to soothe their gums with its pain-killing oil.This story goes beyond sight to build scene: The reader gets fragrance, colors, the soothing of sore gums. It’s a great reminder that lingering in the details with a reader can be pure pleasure. In this case, these details are about a time in the past, so the writer had to seek them out, rather than relying on their own observations. For reporters, reconstructing a vivid scene can mean long conversations with sources, as well as finding historic documentation or other records of past details. Children sledded down the nearby dunes on cardboard boxes, threw rocks, fetched firewood or filled buckets at the water pump.
A boy in bib overalls, Wilbur Slockish, hefted freshly caught fish into a wooden box, and covered it with a wet gunny sack to keep it damp.We zoom in again, from falls, to fish, to families, to one boy mid-activity. Here, at last, scene distills into story. They were so healthy and strong they stayed fresh even without ice. The river water was clear enough to drink. Downstream, the boy’s grandmother hung white mit’úla filets, or dog salmon, on racks to sun-dry, while his father traversed a precarious-looking scaffold that jutted over the turbulent rapids.Throughout the story, we return to the intertwined themes of danger and comfort; of power beyond humans; and of human communities. Different generations, and intergenerational knowledge, inhabit this story. The family traveled every year from their home in Wahkiacus, a town named for the family of Slockish’s great-grandmother, a famous Klickitat basket weaver. Umatilla folks traveled from the other direction to trade blankets and hides for Grandma’s dried mit’úla. The falls and surrounding area were a bustling marketplace.
Wilbur, on the brink of adolescence, was still too young to fish; his 18-year-old cousin had nearly drowned in the rapids, and his grandmother had forbidden him to go near the scaffolds. For now, he processed fish in the mists around the falls, which kept the camps cool even in the August heat. After a while, he took a break to play with his siblings and cousins. At night he fell asleep lulled by the roar of mighty Celilo.
Fishing these falls was a rite of passage, like getting a driver’s license, but Wilbur Slockish never got to fish them. In the end, it was Celilo Falls that drowned. In 1957, when Wilbur was 13, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Dalles Dam across the Great River, submerging Celilo Falls in a brazen act of colonization. Wilbur’s father didn’t want him to see this happen, so he took the family away to live in Toppenish. Other families were forced to abandon their homes as the lively, ancient bazaar and the natural wonder that created it both disappeared beneath a reservoir. The sound and mists of Celilo became a memory.The world-building screeches to a halt in this paragraph. Just as we’ve fallen asleep next to a waterfall that’s a bustling marketplace and a center of family activity, the falls gets destroyed by outsiders, scientists who work for the federal government, revealing a central tension in this story. The people leave the place. And the reader’s ready to find out what happened, how, and why.
LAST JULY, A GAUZY HAZE hung over the emerald expanse of Meldrum Bar Park in Gladstone, Oregon, refracting the midsummer sun on the season’s hottest weekend so far. The Yakama Nation Pow Wow Drum thumped out a tune as a chain of dancers snaked across the grass in an eel dance.We leap to present day; we’re not at any waterfalls, but there’s an eel dance, so the Pacific lamprey is still central to the story. “It takes about 500 years or longer for a fact to turn into a legend or myth,” Wilson Wewa said, peering upward through the soft wrinkles around his small thoughtful eyes. Wewa, an elder and tribal councilman of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, said his people have legends about the time long ago, when animals traveling north were blocked by the great ice sheet covering what’s now called Canada. White academics have long believed that no humans lived here back then. “How would our people make a legend like that if they weren’t here?” Wewa asked, not raising his voice over the music.Immediately, the scene further explores the tension between Western science and traditional ecological knowledge, and whose knowledge is considered valid. For the first time, there’s a direct quote in the story, and it’s challenging non-Indigenous ideas about Indigenous history. The speaker doesn’t raise his voice over the music—this non-act reveals his dignity. Sometimes it’s what sources don’t say or do that tells the reader essential things about them. I love that this is the first direct quote, because it’s showing us a narrative way to structure good feature writing. In short, fast-moving news stories, direct quotes from main sources can do a lot of work. They provide facts, establish credibility, and lend color to stories. But an overreliance on quotes can also be a crutch for journalists who don’t quite trust their own critical thinking about a topic, and can even interfere by bogging the story down. In storytelling such as this feature, entire scenes or important ideas can precede source quotes; only the strongest, most meaningful direct quotes are included, creating a world that readers enter and explore, and care about long after they are done reading.
Wewa, who wore a button-down long-sleeved shirt and jeans despite the heat, noted that some Western scientists are beginning to acknowledge that Indigenous peoples’ long history on this continent is more than myth or legend. The legends aren’t just stories; they’re stratified memories.
The stories of the people of this land, Wewa said, come from a time when animals were the people in charge. When humans were created, animals made agreements with them. Consider humans’ ancient agreement with dogs: We feed and shelter them, give them affection and care, and in turn, for innumerable generations, they have hunted our prey and guarded our homes.Having revealed a narrative world, the story now reveals a conceptual world that may be unfamiliar to non-Indigenous readers. What another story might call a “symbiotic relationship,” this story calls an “ancient agreement.” These careful word choices throughout decolonize the history and survival of animals including Pacific lamprey.
The people of the Columbia Basin have a similar agreement with salmon. It’s the most honored animal, the first to sacrifice itself in a contract of reciprocal care: The people would care for the salmon and its waters, and the salmon would feed the people. There’s a similar agreement with the oldest inhabitant of the watershed — and one of the oldest creatures in the world — the Pacific lamprey. Or, as most Northwest Natives call them, eels.To really illustrate the idea of an ancient agreement for readers, the story gives examples of familiar creatures—domestic dogs and wild salmon—to contextualize the ancient agreement with a strange and elusive creature, the Pacific lamprey.
Lamprey have lived on Earth for 450 million years. To them, dinosaurs were a passing fad, and the North American continent is a fairly recent development.Science writing can get bogged down with scales or measurements that become meaningless in their extremity. A little bit of voice and humor helps the reader get a sense of just how old this species is. Lamprey swim out to sea as juveniles, looking for hosts like salmon to parasitize until they are mature enough to swim up some other river to spawn. Adult lamprey are calorie-dense and slow, protecting their hosts and cousins, the salmon, by acting as a predation buffer in another gesture of reciprocal care.
Though lamprey play a key role in Pacific watershed ecosystems, they remain understudied outside of tribal fisheries. They’re the target of misplaced disdain, in part because they’re easily confused with sea lamprey, an Atlantic species that caused ecological havoc in the Great Lakes after a 19th century shipping canal allowed them to invade. Pacific lamprey are a different species, in a different ecosystem; they belong here, just like the people they sustain.Sometimes, clarity requires letting the reader know what the story is not about—in this case, an Atlantic species of lamprey—or disabusing readers of misinformation.
As far back as the memory archive reaches, people have fished for eels in this watershed. Lamprey climb wet rocks with their sucker mouths, so waterfalls are good places to catch them. Celilo Falls was a dangerous place for eeling, so people went to places like Willamette Falls, Celilo’s younger cousin. In its heyday, it was an international destination for summer eeling. Elders remember elders who remember trails that connected the falls to central Oregon. Camps lined both sides of the Willamette and the Clackamas River, which branches off below the falls.The story draws from the memory archive, pulling from oral histories, while reminding the reader that this wasn’t so long ago, in terms of human generations. This challenges the popular misconception of Indigenous history as only in the past by reminding the reader of continuous families, stories, traditions.
Wewa and other elders are clear that their ancestors were not nomads. Families returned to permanent homes, making seasonal trips to where food thrived. This non-European approach to agriculture ensures that both people and ecosystems flourish. In its healthy state, the Willamette Valley was a food-producing white oak savanna, bright blue in springtime with flowering carpets of delicious camas roots. That’s where it got its name: “Willamette” is a French corruption of lámt, the Ichishkíin word for blue, Wewa said. “They ruined it.”It’s refreshing how few source quotes this story uses. The reader trusts the writing and the reporting, and the quotes that do appear are quite strong. Here, a short, flat sentence does multiple things. It’s a critique of the mangling of a word, but it’s also a sharp assessment of colonial destruction of a complex ecosystem. The word “They” also signals that this writer, this source, and some of this readership share an identity—they’re Indigenous—that not everyone shares.
For the millions of lamprey that returned from the ocean to spawn in the Willamette Valley, the first obstacle they faced was Willamette Falls. In the late 1800s, settler accounts described the 1,500-foot-long, four-story-high falls as “completely covered” in eels during the summer runs — three layers deep, in some places. Historical photos give an idea of how the rocks looked blanketed in eels, some latched onto each other’s backs, rendering the boulders as shaggy as mastodons.We love a good analogy. Mastodons remind the reader of deep history. Although an actual live mastodon would probably be terrifying to encounter, this description is somehow endearing. The next few sentences emphasize the historical context of the present day—a short end to a long relationship. In the 1940s, European settlers commercially harvested as many as 500,000 lamprey a year, but tribal harvests until that point had kept the population in careful balance. This is an animal as old as time, an agreement as old as humanity. But the last century — a microscopic sliver of time — could mark the end of lamprey.
Since industrialization, lamprey numbers have dropped by 90%, largely because of dams.This story doesn’t deploy many numbers, and when it does, they are powerful; 90% is quite stark for a drop in population. In science writing, sometimes details can bury the greater stakes. This kind of careful decision-making ultimately makes the significance much clearer. According to some Natives, public antipathy toward the species hasn’t helped. Willamette Falls is one of the last places where there are still enough lamprey to harvest. There, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and the Nez Perce Tribe — all of whom retain treaty fishing rights at Willamette Falls — boat upriver between industrial structures to harvest lamprey at the falls. These four tribes comprise the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), an organization that enforces treaty rights and promotes conservation of the basin’s aquatic life. Every year, CRITFC coordinates eeling trips with tribes.This story takes the time to get details related to tribal issues right, whether it’s treaty rights, tribal programs, or the names of each involved tribe. These details are important for accuracy, and for avoiding grouping diverse Indigenous peoples into a single, generalizing category.
Eeling teams consist of at least two people: one to hold the net, the other to catch the eels. Plucking them off the rocks is easy enough with cotton work gloves, which provide the best traction against eels’ dolphin-smooth skin. Or, if an eel is hiding in an underwater crevice, where the animals like to sleep during the day, the fishers use a gaff, a slender stick with a sturdy three-pronged fishhook electrical-taped to the end. With this, they can feel around in a pool, or reach into an overhead crack, and hook the eel with a quick snap.Throughout the story, strong action words enliven explainer sections, so that they feel narrative: plucking, hiding, sleeping, feeling, reaching, snapping. Plus, we get rich adjectives such as dolphin-smooth, which do so much work in so little space.
To work a waterfall, crews start at the bottom; eels will spook and stampede if they sense danger or smell blood in the current. Sometimes, eelers use this to their advantage, sticking a net or a trap at the downspout of a rockpool and scaring the eels into it from behind. When a dipnet is full, the crew transfer the catch eel by eel into burlap bags, then carry the pulsing, writhing sacks over the boulders to the boat.
WATER LAPPED THE DOCK at a dark 4 a.m., and a grumpy chill settled on the shoulders of the Yakama Nation Fisheries eeling crew as they waited for the outboard motorboat to ferry them upriver to the falls. While any tribal member can organize eeling trips, the fisheries department conducts its own trips to get eels for elders, those in need and ceremonial uses. The boat’s driver, a teddy-bear-faced man in his mid-50s with a bandanna tied over a loose knot of gray hair, lit a cigarette, apparently the only person unfazed by the cold or the early hour.In this scene, which continues for several paragraphs, the story shifts from explainer back to narrative. It reveals personalities through witty descriptions and pithy quotes. The braiding between explainer and scene is nicely deployed; good braiding is almost unnoticeable, as happens in this section.
“All this is pretty tame to me,” he laughed. He said he used to work “30-hour days” running a commercial salmon fishing operation at Lake Celilo, where Celilo Falls used to be. He reminisced about his glory days at Willamette Falls in the late ’80s and early ’90s, claiming, with a sly smile, that he caught so many eels, he’s probably the reason they’re in decline. Five thousand pounds in a day, he said. “I’ve been there, done that, 30 years ago, 40 years ago.”
The boat driver is Evans Lewis Jr., a veteran fisherman now serving as the assistant manager of the Yakama Nation Fisheries’ sturgeon hatchery. He’s the type who hangs around the moored boat talking shit and spinning yarns while the younger folks work. Lewis said he knows the best eeling holes from previous generations, where lamprey still gather by the thousands. He pointed out the best route along the boulders: Don’t hug the ridge, he said. Swing out in a wide arc, closer to the water line. He described techniques no one uses anymore: Drilling drainage holes in a metal trash can is easier, he said, than hauling gunny sacks of eels back across the rocks. “Nobody fishes like I do,” Lewis told me and grinned.Here, and in the preceding paragraph, the eelers come into focus as people who both work hard and joke about their fishing prowess. It’s not always easy to communicate personality and humor so adroitly. The writer’s close observations really shine.
Portland General Electric has operated a hydroelectric power plant and dam on the west side of the falls since 1888. Each year, when the rush of spring rainwater and snowmelt slows, workers install boards along the rim of the falls to divert more water to their turbines. This leaves the rocks exposed — and thousands of lamprey climbing them.
Many that aren’t harvested will end up stranded in crevices and die. The tribes coordinate with PGE on the timing of the flashboard installation so they can start harvesting within a day. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife stipulates that harvesting is allowed only from Friday to Monday. The Yakama Nation, being sovereign, does not consider itself beholden to this state law, but it usually schedules eeling on weekends anyway, partly to avoid political conflict.This story does not focus on fights over Indigenous sovereignty or treaty rights, but it also does not ignore that such fights exist and are part of the world that these eelers must navigate.
Even with the flashboards in place, some water still slips through and slithers across the basalt shelf. The fat and mighty waterfall becomes a series of slender ones. Natural stone steps rise like Tolkienesque staircases alongside the plunging water. The boulders are covered in algae, and it takes felt-bottomed wading boots to keep from slipping all over the raw, uneven landscape.
A wiry, middle-aged Yakama Nation Fisheries technician with steely features beneath his ballcap brim, Rod Begay, told me he’s been eeling at Willamette Falls nearly every year since 1994. He couldn’t recall ever seeing any accidents. Other crew members agreed. Tribal members know to go slowly, deliberately across the rocks. It was apparent in their movements: Nobody was out there to show off or get an adrenaline rush. Nobody was Tom Cruise. “It’s safety first,” Begay said matter-of-factly. Despite the danger, the noise and the thin pink of eel blood on cotton gloves, the work feels peaceful, like most fishing.
The eels climb slowly and surely, too, resting in one place for a while before snapping into motion. To climb, a lamprey compresses its body and flails upward, gaining an inch or two of ground like a baby learning to crawl. After a succession of bursts, it pauses, pumping its gills and gathering energy. Lamprey can survive for about half an hour out of the water. In some crevices, dozens dangle like rock-colored ribbons, powering up for the next stretch. They can even jump along the underside of a ledge using their sucker mouths, if the surface is wet.The story proposes from the start that eels and humans are partners in a relationship. In moments such as this, the story—well, it doesn’t exactly “humanize” the eels. It eelizes them? It gives them dimensionality often reserved for humans in science stories. It’s another example of decolonizing Western scientific approaches, which typically avoid implying personhood in non-humans.
A team of three Yakama youngsters worked one waterfall. In sparkling earrings and a freshly cut fade, tribal fisheries technician and college basketball player Kupkana Leavitt was eeling for the first time under the instruction of Clint Blodgett, a fish culturist whose own first time was just last year. Standing ankle-deep in a pool partway up the cliffs, Leavitt jabbed a gaff into a crevice and poked around. Blodgett told him to hook more quickly. With a twist of the arm, Leavitt drew back the gaff, and there was his first lamprey, lashing and flailing on the hook. With his free hand, he wrested it from the end of the gaff and dropped it into a dipnet held by another teenaged first-timer, fish culturist Daeja Rosander, who looked bored behind her facial piercings but worked steadily nonetheless. Leavitt twisted a gunny sack shut and motioned to Rosander, who grabbed a zip tie from a stash tucked into her bootleg. It was kind of fun being out there, she said, but also kind of a pain in the ass. Leavitt said it felt weird to catch his first eels. “I’m still getting used to it.” They weren’t necessarily motivated by a love of eels or cultural traditions; they had to be there, they said, because of their jobs. That’s one way the older eelers get the younger generation involved: just make them fish. They’ll appreciate it later.This whole paragraph is funny; by describing the teens’ ambivalence, it also does something that’s important when covering any marginalized community: It avoids mythologizing or romanticizing the situation, or turning people into caricatures.
Begay worked a nearby cove with another longtime eeler, easily navigating intimidating sections of the falls. Farther south, where Lewis had said the best water hole was located, laughter rang out. Dave Blodgett III, Yakama Nation Fisheries’ technical services coordinator and Clint’s cousin, was rib-deep in a cold pool at the base of a waterfall, hooting and hollering as he dunked and resurfaced with eels in his gloved hands, clearly having way more fun than the teens. Later, he confessed it was his first time eeling, too. Until that day he’d only seen this operation from the paperwork side.
The cold water makes it hard to breathe at first, but it’s not as frigid as you’d expect. When you dunk in, you immediately feel slippery eel skin slithering between your legs and around the tops of your wading boots. It sounds easy: to catch a lamprey, just reach in and grab it. But underwater, they tumble like loose rope. They don’t have bones, and remarkably, they can swim backwards.The story isn’t using first person explicitly here—it’s not saying “The cold water made it hard for me to breathe”—but the first-person experience is implied. I really appreciate how this story overall plays with perspective and point of view. Often, journalism outlets shy away from anything that reveals a journalist’s subjective experience, and yet it is often exactly those experiences that draw readers in and bring them along on the story’s narrative and conceptual journey.
If you do get hold of one, they’re strong and easy to drop — not to mention scary-looking, seen face-to-face. It’s like wrestling a sentient phallus with vaginal dentata. But then again, it’s also just a fish: simple, sacred, ancient and perfectly evolved. Lamprey are not dangerous. Despite their appearance, they have a gentle nature. Their sucker latch doesn’t even hurt; it feels like a hickey. Most host fish with lamprey scars remain otherwise healthy.
After working for a while, Dave Blodgett and his team took a 20-minute break to let the pool refill with climbing lamprey. He explained that in addition to keeping the culture of eeling alive, tribes are working to return eels to the upper tributaries. “We catch fish, we want to put fish back,” he said.
“The tribes will be the ones to get them there, as opposed to state and federal agencies,” he added. “The reason that there’s salmon in these rivers still is because tribes took over.” The crew hoisted sacks full of eels over their shoulders and carefully traversed the boulders back to the boat, where Lewis waited with a cooler.
During a moment of downtime, Lewis talked about Lake Celilo. After his younger brother drowned in a fishing accident there, Lewis sold all his equipment — including his boats and 150 gill nets — and didn’t fish for a decade. Most of the elders who fished at Celilo Falls are gone now, too. “Except for my uncle,” he grinned. He showed me a picture of his mom’s first cousin — a pretty close relative, in the Native world. Uncle Jerry was a councilman, Lewis said, and influential in the tribe. Lewis would go to him when he needed help. “He’s about my last uncle,” Lewis said. “I know I’m creeping up in age cause I’m running out of uncles. No more grandmas, grandpas anymore.” Maybe he’s becoming the kind of uncle he once needed, I said. He just took a drag on his cigarette and returned to the topic of work, and fish.Is anyone else reaching for a Kleenex, or possibly hugging an uncle, at this point? Once again, judicious decisions about what’s left unsaid in a scene description make a powerful point, in this case connecting family and relations with the broader survival of cultural traditions and of an ancient species of fish.
Lewis made sure the crew had gunny sacks, extra work gloves and cold bottles of water. Sometimes he’d shoulder a full sack across the boulders himself. One sack can hold 60 to 80 eels, and weigh as many pounds. The crew took out 16 full bags on a Friday, then returned at night, when lamprey are more active. Lewis counted 2,402 eels from that weekend. With around 1,500 Yakama elders and whole communities to feed, they’d be returning the next weekend for more. But even a haul of this size won’t deprive the upper Willamette tributaries of spawning lamprey. It’s not the harvest that threatens the species. It’s mostly dams.This is a nice transition from narrative to exposition, from fishing trip to zooming out to the question of dams and their effects on river ecology.
Lewis pointed to the west side, where the mainstem of the falls gushed through a flow-control structure in the dam, and a channel looped around to the base of the fish ladder. “We can’t go over there, but man, they’re 10-, 12-feet-deep, just full of eels,” he said with what may or may not have been a fisherman’s exaggeration — maybe in 500 years, his stories will be legends, too. The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission tribes have agreed not to eel on the west side of the falls, which provides the best lamprey passage from the lower basin to the Willamette Valley tributaries, to counterbalance the harvesting and to honor their agreement with eels. “So we can have future eels,” he said. “Root stock.”
A blue heron waited, silhouetted on a log near the fish ladder’s whitewater. A loose cloud of flycatchers dipped and darted, intercut by drifting gulls and flapping cormorants. Above them glided a few osprey, a swirling cone of vultures and the occasional bald eagle against a quilt of Northwest jersey-knit gray. Condors were noticeably absent. Sandpipers scurried through puddles. Geese nested in the wreckage of the old Blue Heron Paper Mill. Despite a century of industrial degradation, the falls are still a gathering place.
“Sea lions, they come in here,” Lewis said, pointing to the water lapping at the boat. “They’d be swimming around with about four or five eels in their mouths. They’re pretty crazy. Yeah, I’m surprised we don’t see any now.” The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has secured special federal permission to kill sea lions at Willamette Falls, because they gobble up so many endangered fish. To get here, the marine mammals journey nearly 100 miles through fresh water up the Columbia, then another 26 miles up the Willamette through downtown Portland and its Superfund site. Apparently, a bite of fresh lamprey is worth it.
Lewis prefers his eels barbecued over alderwood. And he won’t let anybody else prepare them for him. “If I’m going to eat fish, I’m going to cook it,” he stated flatly. A drifting segment of log clunked against the hull, as if conjured by magic. “Alderwood,” Lewis said, pointing. Rosander, shoulder-deep in the water, hoisted it up to him.
AFTER TWO WEEKENDS OF HARVESTING, the Yakama Nation hosted their lamprey celebration at Meldrum Bar Park. They set up shade structures on the grass and towed in a trailer-mounted barbecue for the fresh catch. Lewis was there, grilling segments of lamprey, and Daeja Rosander and Clint Blodgett sparred to pass the time. “She’s Daeja Stands-Around,” Blodgett said, chuckling.
“Shut up,” Rosander replied, half-smiling as she filleted salmon with practiced maneuvers on a fold-out table. She’s been preparing salmon since the fourth grade, she said.
Several tribal members had warned me about the eels’ flavor: They’re an acquired taste, they said, they’re not everyone’s favorite. It only built anticipation for my first bite. Lamprey tastes the way river sediment smells. The outer skin resists your teeth with a rubbery pop, like a juicy bratwurst. But inside, the texture is mealy, like liver or smoked oysters, and the flavor is similarly gamey. It’s apparent why lamprey are a divisive dish.The writer could have reported on how a source described eating lamprey; this first-person account is so engaging, though. It really works.
Yakama folks brought more than enough eels and salmon to feed tribal members and the general public alike — all free of charge, offered in the spirit of Native generosity and to raise awareness about Pacific lamprey.
Elders spoke about the eel’s importance. The contemporary resurgence in lamprey conservation is largely attributable to one Nez Perce elder, the late Elmer Crow Jr., who spent the latter part of his life visiting classrooms to get kids excited about eels. He’d encountered a solitary lamprey while fishing in 1972 and felt it was trying to tell him something. “How do we let something that’s 450, 500 million years old go extinct?” Crow said in the 2015 lamprey documentary short The Lost Fish. “Shame on us, the whole bunch of us, for not paying attention to what was going on.”
His son, Jeremy FiveCrows, who works as communications director for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and FiveCrows’ mother, Lynda Crow, who is Elmer’s widow, told me about Elmer Crow’s legacy. FiveCrows said his father’s use of the word “us” instead of “you” was “very deliberate,” even though the Nez Perce could hardly be blamed for lamprey’s current peril. His mother nodded. “We all have a responsibility, if you’re here, to the lampreys,” FiveCrows said. They’d just marked the nine-year anniversary of the day Elmer Crow drowned while saving his 7-year-old grandson’s life. His death, like his conservation work, was an act of service to future generations.
Wilson Wewa recalled when a busload of elders visited Willamette Falls in the early ’80s. One elder, a quiet woman who kept to herself, sat for a while in silence overlooking the falls. Wewa asked if she was OK. She showed him a flat place on one rock and said it was where her family used to clean eels. As a little girl, she’d wash the rock with a bucket and watch the eel blood drain into the crevices. This was where she camped every summer before factories encircled the falls.
Wilbur Slockish, who was 13 when Celilo Falls drowned, is an elder now, and Klickitat River chief. He said he doesn’t eat Willamette eels because of the water’s industrial degradation. Years after Celilo disappeared, Slockish encountered Shoshone Falls while on a road trip. The roar reminded him so much of Celilo that he spread out a blanket, lay down and listened for over two hours, drifting in memories of the sound that lulled him to sleep on those boyhood summer nights. “Man, I missed that sound,” he said. “It wasn’t as loud as Celilo,” and it lacked the familiar mist. “But it kind of helped me remember it.”
Eventually, a park ranger stopped to check on him. “I’m just listening to these falls,” Slockish said.
“You must be from the Celilo area,” the ranger replied.When we think about structure, this anecdote could have come right after we first met Slockish as a boy, rather than bringing Slockish back sections later. But by coming here, after the reader has a deeper sense of the systems and history being explained, this scene is much more meaningful.
Dams like the one that drowned Celilo Falls are among seven major threats to Pacific lamprey. A restoration guide, compiled by state and federal agencies in collaboration with tribes, lists the threats: dams and degraded river-water quality, along with dredging, dewatering for irrigation, culverts and fish screens, riverbank degradation from development, and habitat conditions at the estuary. Dams are generally considered the worst. There are more than 250 in the Columbia watershed. Only some have fish ladders, most of which were built for salmon and aren’t navigable by lamprey. To help with their passage, tribal fishery crews hand-deliver mature eels past the dams to the upper tributaries to spawn. It’s a laborious effort they hope will keep the species going until dams are removed — a long-term intergenerational goal.Gently, the story transitions to a forward-looking perspective. What’s next for the Pacific lamprey and its people?
GRAVEL CRUNCHED UNDER THE TIRES of a flatbed truck on a frisbee golf course at the edge of the upper Yakima River. It carried two massive blue coolers that held 120 mature lamprey, captured below the lower Columbia’s Bonneville Dam and transported upstream for release. It was World Fish Migration Day, and Yakama Nation Fisheries was hosting an event to educate the public. They invited families to central Washington to release hatchery-reared adult lamprey to spawn. The fisheries crew placed a PVC half-pipe chute to guide the eels down the riverbank like a waterslide.
Little by little, families trickled in for the festivities, moving from table to table to learn about the science of freshwater ecosystem conservation, or to do some fish-themed arts and crafts. Organizers gave out lamprey coloring books, lamprey water bottles, keychains made of keratin lamprey teeth, and temporary tattoos that look like oral discs. The day culminated in the release. Native and non-Native children crowded around, wriggling their hands into adult-sized cotton work gloves as they waited for a chance to hold a real, live lamprey and drop it down the chute into the river.
Lamprey are incredibly fecund, laying between 100,000 and 230,000 eggs, and with any luck, some of these eels’ offspring will mature, swim out to sea, and return upriver to make little rock nests with their sucker mouths, intertwine their bodies, and spurt out the droplets that will become the next generation. Some will end up on the grill or the drying rack to feed the elders and soothe the babies, fulfilling their ancient agreement with the people.
A sprinkling of raindrops sent people scrambling for jackets and zipping up hoodies, as a procession of clouds drifted upstream, supporting the whole process with its own regenerative cycle that will one day carry the next generation of juvenile lamprey out to sea. On the surface, it might seem paradoxical to release some eels at the Yakima while cooking others at the Willamette. But it’s another reciprocal relationship, a time-tested conservation strategy that prioritizes harmony and balance — this ancient practice is futuristic, too. Lamprey, our underwater elders, connect us to the legends and memories of the past and to the hopes we hold for the future.
After the children released their eels, they returned to the flatbed for more. “They’re really slippery,” one kid said, as others shrieked and laughed, sharing and taking turns. When these children are elders remembered by elders, which agreements will endure? Will those generations have evolved more perfectly to live, like the lamprey, in harmony with their siblings and cousins? Maybe by then Celilo Falls will have returned. Or perhaps Willamette Falls will have drowned, too, lost in the mists of memory and legend.By coming back to children learning about the fish, and to questions about the future of the falls, the story completes both a narrative and a conceptual arc. It’s both engaging and satisfying. True to the narrative storytelling of this feature, we end on a scene and a possibility. And we zoom in reverse from the prelude, starting with a moment of kids with fish, and ending with the falls.
A Conversation with B. “Toastie” Oaster
(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
Maya L. Kapoor: Do you consider yourself a science writer?
B. “Toastie” Oaster: I do not.
MLK: What kind of writer are you?
BTO: I consider myself an Indigenous affairs writer. There’s a lot of overlap, because a lot of Indigenous affairs involve environmental reporting.
MLK: One of the things I enjoyed about this piece is that it’s breaking some of the conventions of science writing and science journalism. And so the fact that you don’t identify as a science writer, I think, helps bring some critical perspective to the piece.
BTO: It’s interesting to hear you say that, because I wrote this specifically not to be science writing. I’d written about lampreys once before for HCN, and it was a more sciencey article. But the reason I did the feature was because I didn’t feel satisfied after that. There was something that I felt the science could not answer—which became the driving question behind the feature—which was, what is so culturally important about these animals? Why do these tribes love them so much? We sometimes tend to think if something is culturally important or something is considered sacred, especially by Native communities, we have this, like, anthropological distance from that. Like, ‘Oh, they consider it sacred!’ But they don’t just make that shit up, you know what I mean? Sorry—they don’t just make that stuff up. There’s a reason. And I felt like, if we can see lamprey the way that these tribes see lamprey, we will fall in love with them, too. And writing from a traditional science-journalism perspective couldn’t get to the cultural heart of that. And so when I started the feature, I wanted to go in a different direction. I wanted it to be more focused on things like mythology, and to be a little bit more literary in style.
If we’re thinking from a strictly scientific perspective, or even a strictly journalistic perspective, then we’re dealing in verifiable facts. But stories like this, not everything is going to be verifiable. Like, we can’t verify that it takes 500 years for a fact to become a myth or a legend—that’s just something this elder said. But it’s not in there to be a provable piece of data; it’s in there to be a thought-provoking idea. And allowing for that as a writer, and having editors that allow for that, makes space for these different kinds of stories.
MLK: So many times in journalism, when there’s a big story, there’s a precipitating event or a thing that’s about to happen. This didn’t seem to have a time peg in the way that a lot of journalism does. What would you describe as the stakes of the story?
BTO: Lamprey conservation and some of the conservation issues around the waterfall, Willamette Falls, and some of the politics around that—those have been ongoing issues for a long, long time. It’s just that the world hasn’t been paying attention outside of tribal communities. So it’s not news in that it doesn’t have a time peg, but it’s just underreported.
MLK: I love the section explaining that ancestors of the Indigenous peoples in the story were not nomads, but instead had permanent homes and made seasonal gathering trips as a form of sustainable agriculture. This story makes it clear that Pacific lamprey has a long and significant history with the region’s people, without becoming a mystical story about Indigenous nations and their connections to nature. How did you avoid swerving that way? Were you thinking about that or concerned about that, as you constructed this story?
BTO: Yes. That’s always a big concern when writing about Native communities. Even though I’m Native, I’m outside of these communities; I don’t belong to these tribes and I haven’t grown up with their stories. I think part of it is just validating what they’re saying, you know? Like, instead of saying, “Lamprey are considered sacred by some tribes,” just say, “Lamprey are sacred.” Who’s the authority on what’s sacred? If a tribal elder tells (me) a story, in retelling that story, I’m trying to be careful with words like myth and legend. Because there’s a certain set of words that we use to describe cultures that are traditionally considered inferior, versus Eurocentric cultures. Once you become aware of that language, which is the anthropological language, you just avoid it. Like, if somebody’s telling you an oral history, it’s what happened. There are ways to present it that are more validating.
MLK: The Eurocentric science tradition is really about discovery and verifiable evidence. Do you have any advice in terms of how science journalists can broaden their understanding of what “science” means or what “evidence-based stories” means?
BTO: I think that in the case of this story, we’re looking at conservation techniques that have been developed over thousands of years. And we don’t have written evidence for that, and for Western science, that would be a problem. In cultural writing, that’s not a problem. Blurring that line between cultural writing and science writing allowed me to bring in Indigenous science that probably won’t be honored by Western science until it’s dissected and written about in English and Latin. That, again, is part of the reason I didn’t want to approach this from a traditional science perspective, even though it is a science story. It’s just, it’s a tribal science story. It’s a different kind of science. It’s about the thousands of years of time-tested ecosystem management. That is 100 percent science, but doesn’t fit the Western science mold.
If I had to give advice to journalists who are more traditional science writers, it would be to just think about the limits of the scope of Western science, and some of the harms of Western science, and to start thinking and writing outside of that, and talking to people who are outside of that. That’s one of the interesting things about talking to tribal fish scientists or tribal wildlife biologists; these are people that have Indigenous cultural traditions that have been honed over time, but who have also gone to get degrees in Western science, so that they can work on that level too. You’ll have the most interesting conversations with them about Western versus Indigenous science. That’s a great way to start undermining some of the assumptions of Western science.
MLK: One other thing that is emphasized right from the headline, and that I think is a critique of Western science, is the idea of nonhumans and humans having a relationship, or having an “agreement.” Was that something that emerged as you were working on this? Or was that an important idea when you first pitched it?
BTO: That’s something I’ve thought about before, and wanted to write about before. So it was already in my mind when I went into the story, and then when I encountered folks talking about agreements, that’s just kind of what came to mind: Well, what does this mean, “agreements”? Because this is something we talk about in Native communities, and everybody just kind of is like, “Yeah, we have agreements with animals. That’s how it is.” But outside of Native communities, that doesn’t register. People don’t get it. And the way that people deal with not getting it is to have that anthropological distance and say, ‘Native people believe they have agreements.’ Well, no, they don’t believe they have agreements. They have agreements. … It’s just a trick to kind of convey to non-Native readers the legitimacy of some of these things.
MLK: I’m a non-Native reader; how would you explain to me what the term “agreement” means to you?
BTO: I would explain it as reciprocal relationship that maybe is more or less symbiotic. I would just go to dogs as an example. I think it’s pretty easy to understand from the way that our species—humans and dogs—have evolved together and coexisted. Maybe we never made a formal agreement through language or a document or something, but the relationship that we’ve developed with these animals is reciprocal. And that kind of reciprocal relationship can exist with even fish.
MLK: In writing the story, did you have an imagined audience in mind?
BTO: It was really tricky, because I’m always trying to write for both Natives and non-Natives.That’s one of the real challenges of this job. I can’t prioritize one over the other. So I was definitely writing this lamprey story for Native readers, because I wanted Native readers to feel warmth in their heart, and I wanted them to feel like they wanted to jump up out of their chairs and cheer, and I wanted them to feel seen and validated and all these things. But of course, I also wanted to inspire empathy and understanding in non-Native readers.
Part of the way that I tried to do that with non-Native readers was in the opening, which is a flashback to the 1950s around Celilo Falls. We’re not going back to a time of buckskin and war bonnets. We’re going back to a time of pickup trucks and overalls. Those are things that [non-Native] people can connect with, and be like, “Oh, I remember the 50s, I remember my pickup truck and overalls. I was a kid then too. I have memories from my boyhood, too,” and suddenly, they’re not othering these Native people, they’re relating to them. I tried to use imagery throughout the piece like that, or language throughout the piece that would keep non-Native people seeing themselves in the story.
MLK: What helped you to really get the rich detail that is in the introduction?
BTO: That was really challenging. (High Country News features director) McKenna (Stayner) and I worked really hard to build that scene up, mostly from an interview and a follow-up interview with Slockish, who’s the main character of that scene and comes back into the story later. Just getting his details and letting him kind of ruminate on his memories. … And then we had to follow up on certain things like, what kind of fish was grandma hanging to dry? And, where was that, exactly? Some of those things, we had to go back and verify. And then a lot of the other gaps were filled in just by historical information about Celilo Falls. There’s a lot already written about it. And there’s some photographic accounts, and written accounts, of the waterfall before it was submerged. So some of it’s informed by that, too. I should also add, we did actually have a second elder, now that I’m thinking about it, who I interviewed about Celilo Falls. It was another elder from the Yakama Nation, but he was real little when the falls were drowned. And so his memories were a little bit farther back, but he did help fill in some of those gaps too, where we were interviewing Slockish. There’s not that many people that are still alive that remember Celilo Falls, so we were really lucky even to find two.
MLK: So tell me about eeling. How did you get yourself invited on an eeling trip? And how did it go?
BTO: It was so fun. I kind of feel like this whole story actually was just built around me wanting to go on an eeling trip, because after I’d written that first, more sciencey story about lamprey, I wanted to try this, you know? But that’s a cultural event. It’s treaty protected. It’s not something that you just go to, and it’s certainly not something that you just invite yourself along for. So it took a little while of building up relationships in the communities, and becoming a familiar face and a trusted name to people at Yakama Nation Fisheries.
MLK: I thought the young people eeling that day, who were not that into it, were hilarious, and I would love to hear your thoughts on including them.
BTO: I thought that was funny, too, and it was one of those details that the anthropological gaze, again, would miss. Because you’re just talking to a couple of teenagers, you know, and they don’t want to be out there on the rocks on a hot day on the weekend. They want to be hanging out with their friends. I wanted to include it because it was colorful and maybe not what you’d expect from like a Super-Sacred Native Story.
MLK: How did you keep sources comfortable throughout not just the reporting process, but the fact-checking and editing? Is there advice that you have, or things that you learned along the way, about how to treat your sources?
BTO: I had sources on this story who were just really, really open and willing to share. So one of the things that I found myself doing more often than not was just asking people (and) not assuming that because they shared something with me that it’s publishable, and making sure that I follow(ed) up with them and (was) like, “Hey, you know, you told me this story about your family. Is that okay to make that public?” Or, “You told me a traditional story from your oral history. Is that confidential to the tribe? Is that culturally sensitive? Or is that something that the public can know about?” Just making sure that I was going back and reminding them that even though we were having these kind of relaxed conversations, that I’m going to publish some of this, but I’m also accountable to them—I’m not going to just take all these stories and run.
Now, that wouldn’t necessarily be the case if I was reporting a contentious piece where we were investigating a tribal government or something like that. That might be different story. But for a piece like this—where it’s a vulnerable community, marginalized people, there’s not an accountability component regarding them—then it’s important to make sure that those relationships are authentic and clearly defined, and that the reporter acknowledges that they’re in a position of power, and wielding that really responsibly and with great care for the people that (they are) engaging with.
MLK: How can science writers think in a more nuanced way about what science is and how to cover it?
BTO: In my experience, scientifically minded people are skeptical, and I think that’s a real strength. And I think turning that skepticism on Western science is a good use of that mental faculty. In the Native world, it’s not that hard to do because we’ve been measured, and our ancestors’ bones are in universities, and we’ve been dissected, and our stories have been picked apart and degraded and violated. So often from a Native point of view, Western science is violence. For me, it’s not that hard to look at Western science with a skeptical eye. But I think for science writers, maybe it’s a little more challenging to just take that skepticism and turn it back on some of the foundational assumptions of Western science, you know? Part of the overarching goal of (this) story was, in a way, a critique of Western science. Maybe not science writing so much, but Western science.
I hope readers are taking away that this relationship that is the foundation of this time-tested system of conservation, is something that Western science has not caught up to yet. When you look at Indigenous science, Indigenous conservation on this continent, and Western science and what Western science has been able to achieve in conservation on this continent, Western science is, like, the little kid in the room. And Indigenous science is the elder in the room, but Western science has maybe not quite understood that about itself yet. That’s kind of the picture that I was trying to paint: There’s a system here that already works. And it’s just not been validated or properly understood.
B. “Toastie” Oaster is an award-winning journalist, reporting for the Indigenous affairs desk at High Country News from Chinook lands in the Pacific Northwest. Their work has also appeared in Foreign Policy, ICT, Street Roots, and elsewhere. They’re a member of the 2SLGBTQIA+ committee at the Indigenous Journalists’ Association, and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. This story was a finalist for a 2023 National Magazine Award in feature writing. Follow them on Mastodon at @email@example.com.
Maya L. Kapoor is an award-winning science journalist who covers climate change, biodiversity, and environmental justice. Maya is on the board of The Uproot Project, an organization for and by environmental journalists of color. She has a master’s degree in biology and an MFA in creative writing. She’s an engagement manager with Covering Climate Now.