By Joanna Bastian

Water is a unifying force. Ocean currents transport people between continents. Rivers connect people inland. Water nurtures crops and yields nourishing seafood. Water makes up 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, and 73 percent of a human’s heart and brain. When we are filled with joy or sorrow, water flows down our cheeks. The first thing someone might say to welcome another is, “let me get you a glass of water.”

“United by Water,” a film produced by War Pony Pictures, directed by Derrick LaMere, and narrated by Sherman Alexie, examines the historic and cultural connections of people and water — focusing on the last Salmon Ceremony in 1940 when dam waters flooded key fishing grounds along the mighty Columbia.

The film celebrates the return of people to the waterways nearly 80 years later. “United by Water” premiered October 2017 at the Garland Theater in Spokane, and has been an official selection to more than 15 international film festivals. The film can be seen locally at the Methow Valley Community Center in Twisp on Sunday (March 4), at 6 p.m. LaMere will attend and participate in a discussion after the free showing of the film.

“This film will launch a very important season of events for Methow Valley Interpretive Center, and we hope to begin a deep and engaged dialog in our community about the cultural importance of the rivers to the indigenous people and to all of us,” said Mary Yglesia, the center’s executive director. The event is supported by a generous grant from Humanities Washington.

In 1940, the waterways behind the newly completed Grand Coulee Dam begin to rise, submerging Kettle Falls, one of the great Indian fishing sites on the Columbia River. Prior to 1940 people made the annual trip to Kettle Falls to connect with friends and family, catch up on news, trade goods and celebrate the return of the salmon.

On June 16, 1940, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation hosted one last Salmon Ceremony to eulogize the loss of the historic falls where people had gathered for 10,000 years. This event came to be called the “Ceremony of Tears.” Over 1,000 people were in attendance, and U.S. Sen. Clarence Dill was a featured speaker. Wallace Gamble filmed the ceremony. LaMere’s great-grandmother, Isabel Arcasa, appears in the archival footage. The original footage is included in his film was provided by Spokane’s Museum of Art and Culture.

In 2015, the Upper Columbia United Tribes provided member tribes with old growth cedar logs for communities to carve into traditional canoes and bring people back to the water, to a gathering at Kettle Falls. In 2016, teams rowed the completed boats up the Columbia River. They landed at Kettle Falls on July 17, 2016, 76 years and one day after the Ceremony of Tears.

As children, LaMere and his brother Jake spent school breaks with their grandmother on the Colville Reservation. His connection to the community developed even deeper as he became involved in the process from start to finish. LaMere split his time between Nespelem and Inchelium, working with community members to carve the canoes and plan the trip. When the time came to put the boats in the water, he took up a paddle and rowed 115 miles upriver from the Grand Coulee Dam to Kettle Falls.

Throughout the entire process from inception to completion, LaMere was able to capture “a story of people connecting, growing and coming in touch with their culture.” His handprint is carved on one of the canoes.

“A lot of hands are on that canoe,” he emphasized as he talked about people of all ages across multiple communities coming together. “The film is about the connection between people, water and salmon — salmon is what brought the people” to Kettle Falls for many generations before, he explained.

On his website,, LaMere writes: “I was able to dig deep and tell a portion of our history I feel is left out of the history books of the general public.”

The film is appropriate for all ages. The trailer for “United By Water” can be viewed at

“This is a feel-good film about our people, an inclusive journey for all races, all tribes,” LaMere emphasized. “It is meant to be a companion piece to encourage people to learn more, and get involved.”


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