Salmon live at the very heart of the indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest. Without salmon, neither the place nor the people native to it could be whole. They would have no center of meaning. They would be lost. Adrift.
Sallie Tisdale at Harper’s Magazine writes about the challenges of managing public lands for people with greatly different cultural needs and expectations, and for the other creatures entrusted to their care:
Perched in a triangle between river, ocean, and forest, Astoria is the oldest permanent American settlement west of the Rockies. The great Columbia, which begins in Canada, takes in water from seven states, and forms most of the border between Oregon and Washington, exhales here, fanning out with majestic slowness in an estuary almost four miles wide. Cargo ships dot its blue expanse. People have been sustained along this river for more than 11,000 years. It was commonly said of the fish in the Columbia that one could walk across the river on their backs: sturgeon, lamprey, shad, eulachon (a kind of smelt, called ooligan by the tribes), and salmon, perhaps 15 million or more. The salmon ran 13,000 miles of the Columbia River and its countless tributaries, from early spring until late in the fall: Chinook, steelhead, sockeye, pink, coho, and chum. The tribes of the Columbia Plateau traded and intermarried, sharing customs, religious beliefs, and language, through the common wealth of salmon.
In the legend of creation along the river, Salmon was the first gift, the first creature to offer itself to the Creator. As the spring salmon reach each tribe’s traditional fishing area, an important ceremony called the First Salmon Feast is held, to celebrate their return. Before white incursion, Native Americans of the Columbia Plateau ate about a pound of salmon every day; today they eat about ten times as much salmon as the average American. I go upriver to hike, and sometimes I go up to buy salmon. Native fishers set up along the road near Bonneville Dam to sell the morning’s catch out of coolers: whole coho and Chinook, steelhead, even the occasional sturgeon. Jeremy FiveCrows, a Nez Perce who grew up on the reservation in Idaho, works as a public affairs officer for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), an agency of the four treaty tribes: the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. CRITFC is responsible for the comanagement of all anadromous fish on the river. FiveCrows has a degree in conservation biology from Brigham Young University and speaks Norwegian fluently. “The salmon are the center of the culture of the member tribes. They define our culture,” he says. “That’s where our loyalties lie.”
Photo: Salmon at fish ladders, Columbia River. Creative Commons license; credit Colleen Benelli.
This post relates to knowledge, culture, meaning of place and justice, and so belongs to the gold portion of the singing wilderness spiritual map.