Salmon leave their freshwater spawning and rearing habitat as juveniles and go to the ocean, where they grow and spend their adult lives, and then return to the freshwater habitat of their origin generally three to five years later to spawn and die. Columbia River Indian tribes understood this life cycle very well. They understood the unique life histories of the salmon species that inhabited the river basin, Chinook, coho, sockeye, chum and pink, and also steelhead and sea-run cutthroat trout. Salmon were an important food for Indians; they knew when the adult salmon would return each year.
In the tribes’ religious beliefs, salmon were a gift from the benevolent salmon king. The tribes believed salmon were immortal and that in the ocean they took on human form, lived in separate houses according to their species, and that every year the salmon king would order the people to clothe themselves in fish skins and go up the river as a present to the Indians. This also perpetuated their races. In honor of the gift, Indians treated the annual arrival of the salmon, in the spring, with great reverence and ceremony.
Every tribe or group of tribes that fished for salmon had a form of first-salmon ceremony. Lewis and Clark witnessed a first-salmon ceremony at Celilo Falls in the spring of 1806 on their return journey. Clark wrote in the journals for April 19, “There was great joy with the natives last night, in consequence of the arrival of the salmon. One of those fish was caught. This was a harbinger of good news to them.” Explorer David Thompson arrived at Kettle Falls in June 1811 a few days too late to witness the beginning of the first-salmon ceremony there, but he described the ritualistic fishing that still was going on. It was the local custom to allow fish to pass for a certain number of days once the run began. During this time a single fisher with a spear was allowed to take a limited number of salmon. Soon the salmon chief would open a general fishery, which was conducted with nets and baskets. Thompson wrote:
“The arrival of the Salmon throughout this River is hailed with Dances and many ceremonies which I was five days too late to see; and therefore cannot say what they are; but deep attention is paid by them to what they believe will keep the Salmon about them; for this purpose the Beach of the River is kept very clean, no part whatever of the Salmon is allowed to touch the River after it is brought on shore, the scales the bowels &c are all cleaned on the land a few yards from the River, for experience has taught them the delicate perceptions of this fish, even a Dog going in the edge of the water, the Salmon dash down the Current and any part of one of them being thrown into the water, they do not return until the next day, especially if blood has been washed; in spearing of them, if the fish is loose on the Spear and gets away, the fishing is done for that day. The spearing of the Salmon at the Fall was committed for [to] one Man for the public good, of course the supply was scant until the fish became sufficiently numerous to use the Seine Net. The third day we were here, the Spearman in going to the Fall with his Spear came close to the bleached skull of a Dog, this polluted his Spear; he returned to his shed, informed them of the accident, and to prevent the fish going away he must purify himself and his Spear, this was done by boiling the bark of the red Thorn, the steam of which on himself and the head of his spear began the process. When the heat had moderated, his face and hands and the spear were washed with it and by noon he was ready and proceeded to the Fall.”
First-salmon ceremonies at Kettle Falls in 1940 and Celilo Falls in 1956 were bittersweet, as the rising reservoirs behind Grand Coulee and The Dalles dams, respectively, would drastically change the historic fisheries. At Kettle Falls, there would be no more salmon. At Celilo, the falls are gone but the fishery and village endure, and tribes still celebrate the first salmon every spring. Salmon remain a venerable source of cultural identity, and also food, for Columbia River tribes.
Historically, first-salmon ceremonies differed from tribe to tribe, but all had some things in common. The salmon chief of the tribe would select a fisher to catch the first salmon. This was an honor, and before entering the river the fisher would undergo a blessing or a purification. Once a fish was caught, it would be brought to shore and carefully prepared, cooked and distributed to the people in a manner unique to the location and tribe. The head of the fish would be kept pointed upriver to show the salmon’s spirit the way home. The bones would be carefully cleaned and returned to the river, where it was believed the salmon would reconstitute itself and continue its journey. Throughout, there was an underlying theme of respect for the salmon as a gift, and the hope that by properly respecting the fish the salmon king would continue his benevolence through the coming months of salmon returns and again the following year.