Ghosts of Salmon

EWU’s Paul Lindholdt introduces a new generation to a park’s hidden history. 

Few places in the nation can match the cultural and historical significance of the small patch of verdant land lying slightly upstream from the confluence of Latah (Hangman’s) Creek and the Spokane River.

Paul Lindholdt, author and English professor at EWU, has long worked to ensure that his students — and others in the wider community — more fully appreciate the significance of this pretty peninsula, today known as People’s Park. As part of this effort, each spring he takes students in his honors course to the site for a First Year Experience alongside the river.

The field trip includes on-site discussions of material from The Spokane River, a 2018 book that Lindholdt edited and contributed to — material that touches on a range of issues related to the environmental and human history of Spokane’s once spectacularly rich river ecosystem. (Lindholdt donates all profits from the book to Spokane Riverkeeper, an advocacy group whose experts contribute to the class.) 

No issue resonates more for the students than the story of People’s Park. The park takes its name from the World’s Fair hippie encampment created there. But its true significance lies in a much deeper history, one that centers on the almost-unimaginable abundance of salmon that once ascended the river as they journeyed toward their ancient spawning grounds.

That history is deeply entwined with the region’s Native peoples, particularly the ancestors of today’s Spokane Tribe of Indians, who expertly managed fishing and catch distribution at the site for thousands of years. “In 2005-2006, EWU’s Archaeological and Historical Services did a dig at People’s Park,” says Lindholdt. “It uncovered 60,000 artifacts. Radiocarbon dating found some of them to be more than 8,000 years old.”

These artifacts, the students learn, indicate that present-day People’s Park is the oldest continuously occupied site in what is now the state of Washington. According to Lindholdt, salmon were so plentiful prior to the 1911 construction of Little Falls Dam that the three bands of the Spokane Tribe could share their namesake river’s bounty with Native people who came to trade from hundreds of miles away.

The haunting loss of those fish, and ongoing environmental challenges in the Spokane watershed, hold sobering lessons for students. What we do today matters, Lindholdt says. Our actions — or lack of actions — can have consequences that continue to resonate down the ages. 

“An old saying from environmental studies is: ‘Think globally and act locally,’” he says. “Community engagement on the local level might translate into greater awareness today of global climate change.”