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Tribal Salmon Culture

Salmon are at the center of the diets, cultures, and religions of Columbia Plateau tribes.

Salmon Culture of the Pacific Northwest Tribes

Salmon have long been the symbol and lifeblood of the people who call the Pacific Northwest home.

Columbia Basin salmon play an important role in the ecosystem of the region, returning ocean nutrients to the rivers and streams where they were born, feeding wildlife and even the forests with their bodies. For thousands of years, salmon also shaped the lives of the people who have lived here since time immemorial. The cultures, intertribal interactions, fishing technologies, and very religions of the Pacific Northwest tribes were all impacted and influenced by salmon. These fish have been an important part of the economies of the region for thousands of years, from the ancient Indian trade routes to modern commercial fishing.

Salmon play an integral part of tribal religion, culture, and physical sustenance. Below is a short list of the many ways in which salmon are sacred to the Columbia River Basin tribes of the Pacific Northwest:

  • Salmon are part of our spiritual and cultural identity.
  • Over a dozen longhouses and churches on the reservations and in ceded areas still use salmon for their religious services.
  • The annual salmon return and its celebration by the tribes assure the renewal and continuation of human and all other life.
  • Historically, we were wealthy peoples because of a flourishing trade economy based on salmon.
  • For many tribal members, fishing is still the preferred livelihood.
  • Salmon and the rivers they use are part of our sense of place. The Creator put us here where the salmon return. We are obliged to remain and to protect this place.
  • Salmon are indicator species: As water becomes degraded and fish populations decline, so too will the elk, deer, roots, berries and medicines that sustain us.
  • As a primary food source for thousands of years, salmon continue to be an essential aspect of our nutritional health.
  • Because our tribal populations are growing (returning to pre-1855 levels), the needs for salmon are more important than ever.
  • The annual salmon harvest allows the transfer of traditional values from generation to generation.
  • Without salmon returning to our rivers and streams, we would cease to be Indian people.

Words of our Leaders

The importance of the first salmon ceremony has to do with the celebration of life, of the salmon as subsistence, meaning that the Indians depend upon the salmon for their living. And the annual celebration is just that – it’s an appreciation that the salmon are coming back. It is again the natural law; the cycle of life. It’s the way things are and if there was no water, there would be no salmon, there would be no cycle, no food. And the Indian people respect it accordingly.
—Antone Minthorn, Umatilla

My strength is from the fish; my blood is from the fish, from the roots and berries. The fish and game are the essence of my life. I was not brought from a foreign country and did not come here. I was put here by the Creator.
—Chief Meninock, Yakama, 1915

First Foods

Salmon are one of the traditional “First Foods” that are honored at tribal ceremonies. The other First Foods are wild game, roots, berries, and pure water.

A Rich Tradition

The songs sung and ceremonies held in the longhouses today are the same ones that have been performed in honor of the sacred First Foods for thousands of years.

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