'Salmon People' dives deep into the past to save the salmon - Salish Current
August 5, 2022
‘Salmon People’ dives deep into the past to save the salmon
Chris O'Neill

Isabella James fields questions after the teaser trailer of Children of the Setting Sun Productions “Salmon People” project at the July 31 Sacred Earth Fair in Bellingham. With the project, the nonprofit production company seeks to unify Indigenous communities along the coast, researching their history and experience and documenting their lives. (Christopher O’Neill photo © 2022)

August 5, 2022
‘Salmon People’ dives deep into the past to save the salmon
Chris O'Neill


“A revolutionary 90-minute documentary will highlight the current bleak situation for salmon and show a pathway to recovery,” declared Isabella James of Children of the Setting Sun Productions in a keynote talk at last Sunday’s Sacred Earth Fair in Bellingham.

Introducing the “Salmon People” project, James said, “We are unifying people to help save the salmon by focusing on values of respect, responsibility, generosity and gratitude.”

The project will consist of three components: unifying the Indigenous communities along the coast, researching their history and experience, and documenting their lives. 

The project began as a documentary of Larry Kinley, the longest-serving chair of the Lummi Nation and an advocate for salmon conservation and fishing rights for Indigenous people. Kinley passed away before the film could be finished, which required the project to shift focus.

“When we initially started the work for Larry’s vision, we kind of wanted to follow him and his life and his family’s life,” said Beau Garreau, CSSP creative director at the nonprofit’s headquarters in Bellingham. “Because [his family is] so connected to the water and salmon, and culturally, they celebrate the salmon.”

Garreau explained that the focus of the initial project was to showcase the ethical practices passed down by the Coast Salish people and the declining fish salmon population they were dealing with due to external forces.

“When Larry passed away then it turned into, ‘okay, let’s finish out his story’,” Garreau said, and the refocusing became the series of how to save the salmon. 

The nonprofit plans to follow the documentary with six additional episodes showcasing other Indigenous fishing communities along the coast who have incorporated Kinley’s approach and documenting their experiences with what it means to be a “salmon people.” 

Founder’s vision

None of this would be possible without Darrell Hillaire, executive director of CSSP, who founded the Bellingham-based production company about six years ago. 

Hillaire’s great-grandfather started a Lummi dance troupe in the 1930s with the name Children of the Setting Sun. He used the troupe as a way to educate both Lummi and nonnative people about the traditional practices and heritage of his ancestors, promoting the kind of awareness necessary for fostering a better understanding between the two communities. Hillaire said that although he was aware of his great-grandfather’s work, he didn’t take up the mantle right away.

“I discovered it later in life. I was raised Catholic,” Hillaire said. “I knew nothing of my culture, I lived on the Lummi reservation, understood that we were different, but the drum and the songs were foreign to me. It was only later in life that I came to understand it, and I’m still learning.”

Hillaire began his version of Children of the Setting Sun with a play titled, “What About Those Promises?” based on a paper he had written about land disputes the Lummi faced in opposition to the United States government. The play was a critical success leading to many opportunities for the nonprofit to unify community, the first component of the Salmon People project.

Lummi Nation and community

“That was a really powerful piece,” said Elli Smith, CSSP development administrator and youth program director. “And because of that we were asked to do a lot of speaking engagements.”

Founder Darrell Hillaire’s critical success with a play about Lummi Nation land disputes with the U.S. government sparked formation of Children of the Setting Sun Productions. (Christopher O’Neill photo © 2022)

Smith said that the play marked the beginning of a fruitful relationship between the nonprofit and the Lummi people as well as the community at large. She said the organization evolved, incorporating new concepts and approaches based on the community demand they were experiencing. 

“We definitely have a lot of outside community requests for our work, so we try to address those,” Smith said. “And then there is a lot of internal strategizing on who our partners are so that we can influence policy and get into the education system.” 

The nonprofit has formed partnerships with Western Washington University, the Bellingham Public School District and Northwest Indian College, to harness the research potential of their work as well as develop curricula, Smith said.Recognizing the opportunity to compile information that could be used for the benefit of their cause, the nonprofit also created the Setting Sun Institute.

“It’s a department or a subsidiary where we’re going to take everything that we are doing with gathering stories for analysis or summary reports in order to apply it,” Hillaire said. “We’re going to provide case studies for people to utilize in their work beyond just watching a video so that we can advance whatever those agendas are for the good of everybody, like dam removal.”

Plight of the salmon

On July 12, the Biden Administration released a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on salmon population conservation and recovery along the West Coast. The report, done with the collaborative efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nez Perce Tribe and the State of Oregon, notes that “…the common message is clear across all the work: salmon recovery depends on large-scale actions, including breaching dams, systematically restoring tributary and estuary habitats, and securing a more functional salmon ecosystem.”

 “They’re beginning to understand us in the science field,” remarked Garreau on the recognition of Indigenous knowledge by the scientific community. “They’re finally saying, ‘You guys are right, we are finally understanding this knowledge and understanding that your knowledge is credible,’ and that’s huge.”

Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray will release their recommendations later this summer on breaching the lower Snake River dams, but have already released a report with estimates of the cost of replacing services provided by the dams to range between $10.3 and $27.2 billion.

Before passing, his great-grandfather made one request, Hillaire recalled: “Keep my fires burning.” 

CSSP has done so with projects like their Young and Indigenous Podcast, community outreach and pushing forward with the Salmon People project. 

“Future generations influence everything we do here at Children of the Setting Sun,” Hillaire said. “We create, we share, we educate so that we may inspire people to heal and become one and have unity once again.”

The Salmon People project documentary is expected to be released early next year after postproduction in the fall.

— Reported by Christopher O’Neill

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