The Nez Perce Tribe vs. elite-directed development in the lower Snake River basin: The struggle to breach the dams and save the salmon

Benedict J. Colombi
Dept. of Anthropology, Washington State university
July, 2006


In the lower Snake River basin, draining portions of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, members of the Nez Perce Tribe, environmentalists, and support organizations are currently struggling to restore wild, naturally-reproducing salmon runs, after the United States Army Corps of Engineers and Idaho Power Company constructed eight large dams from 1955 to 1975. The Nez Perce are challenged by powerful regional and national elites who resist tribal efforts to gain approval for breaching the dams to allow natural fish migration. These pro-dam political and commercial elites command a network of institutional structures that they use to collectively shape public policies. The dams have had negative social, economic, and environmental impacts in the lower Snake River basin. Drawing on Bodley's power elite hypothesis, that growth is an elite-directed process that concentrates social power and diffuses costs, this research identifies and assesses the relative and absolute power of the individual human agents and institutions involved in this political struggle over the management of a portion of one of the world's great cold water river fisheries.