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Why Salmon are Important to the Tribes

As a main dish at almost every meal, salmon is at the center of the cultures of the Plateau tribes. Feasts were held to celebrate their return each year! The salmon’s return was a promise of plenty of food to help the people grow healthy and strong.

Salmon are also a part of the Pacific Northwest tribes’ religions. One creation legend teaches how important salmon was:

When the Creator was preparing to bring humans onto the earth, He called a grand council of all the animal people, plant people, and everything else. In those days, the animals and plants were more like people because they could talk. He asked each one to give a gift to the humans—a gift to help them survive, since they were pitiful and would die without all their help. The first to come forward was Salmon. He gave the humans his body for food. The second give a gift was Water. She promised to be the home to the salmon. After that, everyone else gave the humans a gift, but it was special that the first to give their gifts were Salmon and Water. When the humans finally arrived, the Creator took away the animals’ power of speech and gave it to the humans. He then told the humans that since the animals could no longer speak for themselves, it was their responsibility to speak for them.

Salmon and Water are always served first at tribal feasts to this day to remember the story and honor the first foods. Modern Indians don’t eat as much salmon as their ancestors, but they still eat more than other people. Salmon still help feed the tribes and many Indians still practice their culture by fishing for salmon. The tribes still value the ancient promise that was made to honor the gifts of the animal and plant people and to speak for them. If we don’t honor that promise, these foods will go away.

First Salmon Feast

Plates of salmon ready to be served at a First Salmon feast on the Umatilla Reservation.


Many First Salmon ceremonies take place in a longhouse. The longhouse is a special building that is like a church and community center.