Remembering Elmer Crow, teacher and advocate

Nez Perce Tribal Elder Elmer Crow sat down with IRU in 2010 to share his passion for Idaho’s endangered wild salmon. Elmer died Friday, July 26, while rescuing his grandson in the Snake River. (Photo by Skip Armstrong)

Elmer Crow died Friday at one of his favorite fishing holes on the Snake River near Asotin, Washington.

The Nez Perce tribal elder perished after saving his young grandson, who was reportedly swept into deep water by the wake of a passing jet boat. Elmer was 69.

Elmer’s death is a terrible tragedy for his family, his many friends and for the Nez Perce tribal community. On behalf of the entire Idaho Rivers United family, I extend my deepest sympathies to those closest to this remarkable man.

His passing also marks a great loss for Idaho and the entire Pacific Northwest.

A senior fisheries technician and fisheries program manager for the Nez Perce Tribe, Elmer was a passionate advocate for wild salmon and steelhead, the restoration of Pacific lamprey, and the protection of free-flowing rivers. And, he was an important guardian and protector of Nez Perce tribal history and culture.

Elmer also was an incredible educator. Over the years, he taught thousands of young tribal members and non-Indian pupils about his culture and our natural world. His humor, patience, story-telling skills and his desire to help people see and touch his subject matter made him a natural and popular teacher of both the young and old.

Each fall for the last several years Elmer combined his love of rivers and passion for his heritage at Salmon and Steelhead Days at the MK Nature Center in Boise. During those multi-day sessions he taught hundreds of Idaho fifth-graders about salmon, steelhead and lamprey — and their special relationship with the Nez Perce people.

Elmer Crow was also one of my favorite teachers and mentors, as well as a source of inspiration and a friend.

We first met in April 2003 when I was asked to row Elmer and Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden down the Snake River in Hells Canyon. Harden was working on an article about Idaho Power, former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, and the Senator’s attempt to push a bill through Congress that would have given private utilities incredible advantages in licensing hydropower dams on Western rivers.

The river was raging, about 30,000 cubic feet per second. It was raining and cold — the rain drops were snow flakes 500 feet above our heads.

After stopping to scout Wild Sheep Rapid, I thought: “My God, what am I doing here today with a revered Nez Perce elder who’s had some recent health problems, and a Washington Post reporter who’s survived genocide wars in Africa and the Balkans? What if something happens to one of these guys?”

I was scared. But Elmer was in his element — making jokes about his nervous oarsman, teaching and tossing out one-line talking points to the prize-winning reporter from the Washington Post.

“Hmm, this is why my people lived here,” Elmer said as he grabbed a handful of grass.  He then began weaving a basket. Harden scribbled furiously.

“If you look at what’s happened to this river and you look at this new bill, you can see why I’m one bitter Indian,” Elmer was quoted as saying in the Post.

In the end we ran Wild Sheep flawlessly. And I knew later that day that I’d made a new friend and had met a very special person in Elmer Crow.

Since that first meeting, Elmer and I have done another Hells Canyon trip together, we’ve met for hearings and media events, and we’ve conspired often on how best to get a certain point across to the public about salmon recovery or on the need to return Pacific lamprey to the rivers and streams of Idaho.

But today, now that the river’s taken Elmer, there will be no more opportunities to do those things. And I’m saddened by the fact that there will not be other trips, other conversations and other incredible learning experiences.

I wish we could have spent much more time together, Elmer. I’ll miss you, my friend.

Swim with the salmon, rest in peace.