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Celebrating the Salmon, Saving the Indians


A special occasion dress for dancing on a young Yakama girl

The only time I can recall learning about Native American culture in school was when we had to build a teepee in second grade. Occasionally, I would hear about how white people came and took their land. It always seems that Indian history starts when they first encounter white people. We don't read much about the thousands of years they were here in North America before Columbus ever set foot in the "New World." So I jetted off for Seattle, all the way from Montana with my partner Teddy, hoping to explore more about Pacific Northwest Indians and what makes them unique from other American tribes since we tend to think of "Indians" as one big homogenous group when there are actually a huge variety of differences.

Native Americans are often thought to have arrived in America around 20,000 years ago during the Ice Age by crossing from Siberia to Alaska via a land bridge called the Bering Strait. But to a lot of Indians, the Bering Strait idea is a bunch of hogwash, a ploy to justify the taking away of their lands by white people who say they just happened to get there later than the Native Americans. To many tribes on the Pacific Coast, their Creator put them where they are for a reason, and the scientific origins of their roots does not make much sense or conform with their worldview. As far as the tribes are concerned, they have been here since the beginning of time.

Northwest Pacific Coast Indians usually cover tribes in Alaska down through the coast of British Columbia in Canada to the state of Washington. These tribes' lifestyles derived from their natural landscape, which in their case meant lush forests and expansive oceans and seas. Because the forest and seas provided all they needed for food and shelter, there was no need for agriculture or farming. In fact, there was so much food available that Washington state in prehistoric times was one of the most densely populated places on the earth for a nonagricultural region. To this day, Washington has the most Indians in the Northwest with over 30 tribes. Other notable features about the Pacific Coast Indians is that pottery and domestic animals are absent from their lives.

Though all of the Northwest tribes lived off the land, there are a couple of differences between tribes. The tribes nearest to the ocean hunted whales and still do to this very day, a controversial situation that Teddy investigated and will bring you up to date on. The tribes that were more inland mainly fished in lakes and streams for shellfish, clams, cod and most importantly, salmon. They would also hunt for deer and elk and gather berries.

Those were the general things I found out about Pacific Coast Indians before Teddy and I drove into Seattle. I then visited the Burke Museum on the campus of the University of Washington. The Museum is known for its collection of Native American artifacts from the local area, including a large portrait of Chief Sealth, the Duwamish Indian whom the city of Seattle is named after because his tribe was nice to the white settlers. As I ran around the city, gazing at the skyscrapers, the Starbucks on every corner, and the congested freeways, I wondered what Chief Seattle would think of the modern city bearing his name. I don't think he would take it as a compliment given what all this technology has meant for his people.

What exactly do I mean by this? Take for example a unique aspect of Pacific Coast Indian culture called the "potlatch," a word meaning "to give," but its real life definition is closer to a celebration. A potlatch could be held for a number of reasons. The Tlingit of Alaska would have a potlatch to mourn chiefs when they died. The Haida had them to celebrate the rights of heirs in a matrilineal (female lead) society. A potlatch was a ceremony in which a highly respected tribe member would give away his wealth to his invited guests. The stuff could be fish oil, clothes, blankets, baskets, even slaves. Though some tribes practiced slavery it was not of the gruesomely violent kind between whites and blacks in the American South. The Pacific Coast Indians had such abundant resources that they were very status-conscious and wanted to show off how rich they were. This is not so different from our own culture where we try to wear the latest Nikes, drive the fanciest car and own the biggest mansion so we can impress others. But the Pacific Coast Indians were different because for them, people were looked up to only when they gave their things away! The more things you gave away, the more impressed people were by you! The Canadian and American governments found potlatches to be a threatening custom, with its notion of redistributing the wealth, and in the mid-1800s, made it illegal to have them. If you danced at a potlatch, you could be thrown in jail for 2 months. So sadly, potlatches are rarely held anymore.

Chief Sealth probably would be very sad to see another part of his culture that has been greatly damaged because of white settlement in the Washington area and that has to do with salmon. Now salmon to you and me may be just a yummy fish to eat, but for many Northwest Indians, salmon is the crucial thing around which their lives revolve. I first learned about this when I interviewed the famous author Sherman Alexie. (I'll tell you more about that and share some video with you in the next update!) His tribe is among those considered salmon people. "Besides being protein rich, we are linked to the salmon in our spirits, our minds and our hearts," he told me. One saying goes, "Without salmon returning to our rivers and streams, we would cease to be Indian people."

I found that all very interesting, but just how exactly do Indians integrate the salmon into their everyday lives? To my delight, the city of Seattle was holding a four-day Salmon Homecoming Festival. I attended the final day and got to speak with some local Indians about what the salmon means to them and how their lives have been affected since the salmon is now an endangered species. First off, what all the tribes in Washington have in common is a similar philosophy regarding how we should treat the earth and each other. The most critical ideas they try to pass from generation to generation are a respect for animals, the natural world and their elders. This is all shown in the ceremonies held to celebrate the life of the salmon. For thousands of years, the Pacific Coast Indians have believed that there are salmon villages beneath their own and that when the first salmon of the year is spotted, it is a gift from the Salmon King that must be treated with the utmost respect. Otherwise, the King will find out and not send anymore salmon. During the First Salmon Ceremony, the salmon is carried on a slawen, a mat woven from cattails and welcomed with a dance symbolizing the life cycle of this remarkable fish. After it is eaten, the salmon's bones are then put back into the river. When the salmon swim away to the ocean to spawn, there are also celebrations held in the hope that they will come back the next season.

For thousands of years, salmon were plentiful on the Spokane and Columbia rivers. Sherman Alexie writes that, "On the southwest corner of our reservation, salmon used to swim so thick that my grandmother once told me she could walk across the water on the bridge of their thin spines." So why are there virtually no salmon left on Sherman's reservation? Well, during the Depression in the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt instituted a New Deal program which included building lots of new projects that required a lot of money in the hope that this could lift people out of poverty. In 1947, the biggest hydroelectric dam in the entire world was finished. It was called the Grand Coulee Dam. While this provided lots of cheap electricity to the area, it also displaced many Indians from their land and more devastatingly, it wrecked the surrounding ecological system so that salmon could not find their way back from the ocean. Further development like cities, roads, highways, logging, factory pollution, lawn fertilizers, pesticides, and motor oil have made life more miserable for the salmon. Unfortunately, other countries are following our patterns in order to make life better for their people. The Three Gorges Dam in China will soon replace the Grand Coulee Dam as the biggest in the world.

A few years ago, Indians on the Colville reservation each got a check for $5989 check to compensate for land taken away because of the Coulee Dam, but what kind of price can you put on having the most important thing in your life being taken away? Now that salmon are an endangered species, the Indian tribes and the local government are trying to bring them back and the Salmon Homecoming is intended to raise awareness among non-Indians as to how sacred and precious these fish are. One of my fellow trekkers, Nick, is a commercial fisherman in Alaska during the summer. After eating some of his absolutely delicious salmon catch and learning about the salmon's spiritual importance to the identity of Pacific Coast Indians, I know I will never take them for granted because one day, they may just disappear altogether. And then Chief Seattle would have a broken heart forever.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - The mysterious ways of the secretive Pueblos
Rebecca - The wild and wacky world of Seminole Indian alligator wrestling
Neda - A ghost town turns into a whirling dervish dance festival
Nick - Getting in touch with the Native American past through the heart of a woman
Teddy - Whale hunting and the art of preserving traditions
Team - The first inhabitants of North America: A picture of a proud and strong people
Team - Tomorrow's leaders, today's American Indian youth