GOLD HILL, Ore. _ Just outside of this small Southern Oregon town, under the shade of towering oaks, 100 faithful members and friends of the Siletz Confederated Tribes stand in a patient single file, waiting for the ceremonial first salmon of the year.
Presiding over it all is Agnes Pilgrim, a youthful 89 and affectionately nicknamed "Grandma Aggie."
She is the oldest living descendent of the Takelma tribe, now part of the Siletz Confederated Tribes
After they finish eating everyone carefully places the bones and the skin in a large wooden bowl carved in the shape of a fish. Out of sight, four men sit in a sweat lodge, purifying themselves for the next step of the ritual.
"Bring out the divers!" calls Grandma Aggie.
The men emerge from the sweat lodge and she places a portion of the fish remains on the cedar boughs the divers hold aloft.
Only an elite circle is allowed to see the key moment of this rite. One purified man climbs atop a rock, dives in and returns the remains of the salmon to the river, honoring the salmon for giving its life to feed them.
Pilgrim says her ancestors performed this ceremony for thousands of years, until 1856 when treaties removed the tribes from the Rogue River. She revived the ritual 20 years ago.
"This is what I'm carrying on, my people's unfinished work," says Pilgrim. "I know that when they have done that in such a sincere and humble way, I know that our beloved Creator will bless that river." Grandma Aggie believes that salmon runs have improved since the ceremony began.
The past 20 years have brought both highs and lows in salmon runs, says Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Dan Van Dyke.
Statistics from the ODFW show in 2002 and 2004 some salmon species on the Rogue registered their highest counts since 1942. Since then numbers have dipped, but are on the rise again.
"Generally in Oregon in that time period we've seen an emphasis, a refocusing on watershed health," Van Dyke said, adding three dams have been removed in the past few years. "There's been more funding on fish enhancement."
While public sentiment has grown more favorable to fish, population growth creates new challenges.
"Here we're looking at 90 and 100 degree temperatures over the next week and you can literally watch the river gauges at different points on the Rogue and see the amount of water decreasing at the different sites on the Rogue just from human consumption," Van Dyke said.
A twenty-year snap shot isn't enough to predict a river's future, he added.
"I think it will be the next real bad period where we've got a multi-year drought and poor ocean conditions. I think seeing how the fish do during that period, that's going to be the next real test," Van Dyke said. "And if we pass that with flying colors and keep those fish around for future generations, that'll be one of the signs that we're really making progress."
This story originally appeared through the EarthFix public media collaboration.