Indigenous River Protectors: an interview with Louis and Devin Reuben on the Lower Snake River

Faces of Rivers: A Profile series from American Rivers

Devin Reuben atop Devil’s Slide at Hells Gate State Park on the Snake River. Photo: Emily Nuchols

By Emily Nuchols

Over the past several years, I’ve gotten to know Louis Reuben and his son, Devin. They are Nimiipuu (Nez Perce), the original inhabitants of this landscape at the confluence of two historic waterways — the Snake and the Clearwater.

Louis and Devin are canoe carvers, and their sense of place and belonging goes beyond sentiment. It’s in their DNA. While standing together on a bluff overlooking Lower Granite Dam on the lower Snake River with Louis, I asked him why now is the time to remove Lower Granite and the three other dams on the Lower Snake to restore the river and its salmon runs.

“Now is not the time,” he said. “The time was yesterday.”

Louis pointed to a bend in the river, just upstream from the dam, called Wawawai. He explained that his great-grandfather had been born in a cave there. “I have never been able to show my son that place — because it’s underwater.”

Louis Reuben in front of Lower Granite Dam on the Lower Snake River, just downstream of his ancestral homesite of Wawawai. Photo: Emily Nuchols

Later, I ran to keep up with Devin as he sprinted up Devil’s Slide at Hells Gate State Park looking over the free-flowing Snake River near Lewiston before it joins the Lower Snake. We both stopped at the top of the hill when we startled a herd of grazing bighorn sheep. As we watched them scatter, Devin surveyed the view pointing out his ancestral homelands, now dotted by new construction.

I asked him what he has learned from his dad. Still running, he turned to me and said, “You finish what you start.”

As I’ve come to know, Devin has a way of dropping the wisdom of someone well beyond his years — and always brings a bit of a challenge, inviting me to broaden my mind and perception of things. On one of my trips, Devin walked up to me, his hands behind his back and a grin on his face. As he got closer, he handed me two books: “The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest” and “Yellow Wolf: His Own Story.” He told me I had a lot of questions so I better read up. And he was right.

Well, I’ve read up, but I still have a few more questions for Louis and Devin. Thankfully, they still generously make the time to answer them.

You two were a part of the first group of Nimiipuu to carve a canoe in over 100 years. How did that feel? Why was it important for you to be a part of it?

Louis: It was an unforgettable experience to be part of such an amazing group. I didn’t and don’t seek recognition for being the first to do anything, I simply wanted to carve a canoe.

I wanted to see a finished canoe, as students at Northwest Indian College-Nez Perce Site (my alma mater) had started carving a canoe, but never finished it. I believe I was a year too late, and the opportunity came with Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment’s Canoe Project. I was determined to see a finished canoe. I’m thankful for everyone that helped with the canoe, also thankful for Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, it really was a life changing experience, as it connected us to so many awesome people and organizations that makes changing the way the world looks at indigenous rights and issues and environmental issues and how they have common problems.

Devin: It was an experience that changed my life because we made change. We slowly made progress to something that hasn’t been done in a while. I felt that Dave* from the canoe project started that spark for the kids, I feel that I’ve accomplished something I strived for. I felt that it’s something that needed to be done so I did it. It was important for me to learn what was not used for a long period of time and seeing the kids being inspired was heartwarming. I don’t want to be recognized for being the first kid to make a paddle in one hundred years, I want to be recognized for bringing back a way of life.

You are also part of a campaign to restore a free-flowing Lower Snake River. Why is this important for you?

Louis: The dams flooded out mine and many others ancestral homelands and burial sites. I don’t only seek justice for my people, I seek environmental justice. Everything is connected, from the grizzly bears to the orcas. No species has the authority to change the environment when only themselves benefit. It is important to correct what’s been wronged.

Devin: It is important to reconnect to what was lost like we did the canoe, but that was the first step in the journey we are going through.

Devin and Louis Reuben at Wawawai Landing. This is near their ancestral homesite, which is now underwater. Photo: Emily Nuchols

Can you tell us about Wawawai? [pronounced WA-WOW-WE]

Louis: Wawawai was the wintering home for the Wawawai Band [of the Nez Perce] and some Palouse. It was also the place where my great grandfather was born before Lower Granite Dam flooded it. It is important to be able to visit my roots, as the dams disconnected us from being tied to the land.

Devin: It’s important to know where you come from and who you are and what your people did.

You went on two youth exchanges with the organization Rios to Rivers last year, one to the Klamath River and one to Chile. How much of a difference can young people make in addressing the problems facing our rivers? What makes their voices uniquely powerful in this conversation?

Louis: Rios to Rivers is such an amazing group. Man, Weston** has great vision. Can’t say enough about that guy. The youth have such a powerful voice when it comes to speaking on environmental issues, especially on behalf of the rivers. They are the generation that is most impacted by decisions made now by corrupt politicians in a corrupt system. Rios to Rivers connects youth with strong voices to fight common problems. Dams and colonization have the most effect on indigenous rights/environmental injustice. This generation understands that. The youth also inspire us to look at ourselves and how impactful they are, and can be.

Devin: Rios to Rivers had many powerful youth speakers that really opened people’s eyes from the damage of dams and what happened in their homelands. What really makes it unique is the youth caring for the land and speaking for it.

Louis and Devin Reuben speaking in Santiago, Chile as part of the Social Summit for Climate Action, organized to coincide with the United Nations’ COP 25 climate summit. Photo credit: Weston Boyles // Rios to Rivers

How did it feel to be representing the Snake River Basin and sharing your story with a global audience? What do you want other audiences to know about your river? And your ancestral homelands?

Louis: It was an honor to represent the Snake River Basin in two exchanges with Rios to Rivers. It was surreal to be in another part of the world talking about one of our rivers. I really want to show everyone the raw beauty of my homelands. There is so much history that doesn’t get told in books, you have to come experience it for yourself. There is unexplainable power that lies within all our own respective homelands, it would truly take a lifetime to learn it all, I just want to make sure the history of my people is always tied to the land and rivers.

Devin: It was our pleasure to represent the Snake River Basin because I wanted to inspire other youth and I felt humbled for going to Chile and how they showed so much respect. They know what’s currently going on.

You were both scheduled to lead your own global youth exchange in the Snake River Basin, but that is currently on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When it happens, what are you most excited about showing people? What are you most proud of?

Louis: I am excited to show people the heart of my homelands, sharing our culture and memories that’ll last a lifetime. I am most proud of Devin for many things, but really for wanting to do something not tied to electronics.

Devin: I am excited for showing people our ways of life and what we did and see the similarities in their culture. I am proud of my dad for taking that big step and hosting this event and I am proud of myself for completing a paddle and inspiring others.

What can, or should be done by fellow citizens and allies to make sure all voices are heard?

Louis: Respect the frontline indigenous voices, amplify them, not over them. Spread knowledge when possible, remember this land is for all life to share.

Devin: Looking into what the dams did and how it affected the area around it and stand for what’s right.

Anything else?

Louis: Rios Libres ahora y siempre! [Rivers free now and forever!]

Emily Nuchols is a writer and the founder and owner of Under Solen Media. She is working with the American Rivers Snake River campaign. Learn more about American Rivers and its Vision for the Snake River — and how you can help — here.

*David Paul is a professor at the University of Idaho and joined the canoe carvers every Wednesday, sharing his woodworking skills with Devin and others.

**Weston Boyles is the founder and executive director of Rios to Rivers.

Stories about protecting and restoring our nation’s rivers and streams. How will you get involved?