Tribes Mourn Death of Celilo Village Leader Bobby Begay

Bobby Begay with a Chinook. CRITFC photo.

The lead fish technician of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), Bobby Begay, a man who harassed sea lions to protect salmon in the Columbia River and who wasn’t afraid to plunge into the frigid waters of Willamette Falls to harvest lamprey the way his Yakama Nation ancestors have done for thousands of years, died April 26 from complications of the Corona virus. He was 51.


Mr. Begay, leader of the historic fishing village at Celilo Falls, was known for his dedication to his family, the Celilo community, salmon, the river, and tribal culture. In a memorial, CRITFC observed, “He was a bridgebuilder who connected many groups and individuals across cultural divides. His example of intertribal brotherhood embodied the hopes and values envisioned by tribal leaders from the Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce tribes when they came together to form CRITFC. He was an incredibly generous person and had a willingness to share not only his harvest, but the message of why salmon, lamprey, and the river are central to our culture. He did so for countless groups with enthusiasm and humor.”


A photo issued by CRITFC with its memorial shows Begay embracing a large Chinook salmon, a tender gesture that shows his respect for the fish.


Among other duties for CRITFC, Begay captained a boat and two-man crew that hazed sea lions away from Spring Chinook Salmon and other fish from March through May in the tailrace of Bonneville Dam. Using pyrotechnics called “cracker shells” fired from shotguns, and underwater firecrackers called “seal bombs,” Begay and his crew would locate and haze the voracious sea lions away from the dam and back downriver. In 2015, he told a Portland television reporter who recorded a day of the boat crew’s work that the loud bangs worked for a time, but inevitably many of the sea lions returned. Since then, tribes and states have been granted authority to remove a limited number of the most aggressive sea lions from the river, which are otherwise protected by federal law, bolstering the hazing.


Begay also assisted in annual harvests of lamprey in the Willamette River. Lamprey, like salmon, have spiritual and cultural significance for Columbia Basin tribes. As documented by local news media, Begay would dive repeatedly into the frigid spring waters at the base of Willamette Falls, harvesting lamprey by hand.

Bobby Begay at Willamette Falls. Photo: Yakama Nation Fisheries. Click the photo to view a Yakama Nation video about lamprey, featuring Mr. Begay.


When not collecting lamprey or hazing sea lions to protect salmon, Begay’s work for CRITFC included tagging juvenile salmon, clipping their adipose fins to mark them as hatchery fish, and related duties. “I’ve worked almost every creek, river or tributary,” he once told The Oregonian newspaper. He proudly taught his four children the same skills, a vital part of their heritage.


He also was pretty good with salmon and a smoker, once telling a reporter who asked about the recipe for his secret smoke, “it wouldn’t be secret if I told you.” Clearly a man with a sense of humor, he once told another reporter about the time he recognized a sea lion at Sea World in Orlando, Florida, he was certain he helped capture in the Columbia and transfer to the water park. The sea lion never stopped looking at him, Begay said. “It was a one in a million that we would both be there,” he said.


According to the CRITFC memorial, Begay’s survivors include his wife Megan, their four children, Daisy, Steven, Henry, and Jackie, and the entire Celilo Village.