Salmon: Spirit and Sustenance

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At Fort Mandan during the winter of 1804-1805, Lewis learned from the Hidatsa Indians about the three forks of the Missouri River, and how following one of them would lead to "a chain of high mountains being the ridge that divides the waters of the Atlantic from those of the Pacific ocean." Beyond the mountains there were no bison, but the natives "live principally on a large fish" taken from "a large river which washes [the mountains'] western base." In the report he sent back to Thomas Jefferson via the keelboat in spring 1805, Lewis wrote:

This river we suppose to be the S. fork of the Columbia, and the fish the Salmon, with which we are informed the Columbia river abounds.—

Lewis was familiar with Atlantic salmon, and recognized the same creature when a Shoshone served him freshly roasted salmon on August 13, 1805, the day of their meeting: "this was the first salmon I had seen and perfectly convinced me that we were on the waters of the Pacific ocean." The main biological difference between Pacific and Atlantic salmon is that the former spawn only once and then die; the latter can spawn as many as four times. Both are anadromous (ann-ADD-roe-muss) fish, meaning they are born in fresh water but spend most of their adult lives in salt water. (The opposite of anadromous fish are "resident" species like trout and sturgeon, which never leave fresh water.) Pacific salmon and other fish were the staff of life for all the native peoples that the expedition met on the west side of the Rocky Mountains in 1805-1806. Fish were also, of necessity, the basis of the Corps' menus during their nearly 10 months west of the Rockies, although their hunters harvested as many elk and deer as possible, to satisfy their continuing hunger for red meat.

Fingerling Salmon


© 2004 VIAs Inc.

Fingerling salmon at the Nez Perce Tribe's Yoosa Creek hatchery in Idaho, a "satellite" facility of the Cherrylane hatchery. These spring salmon are maturing for release in the autumn.

Salmon and His People1

As the salmon's flesh was a mainstay of native life along the Columbia and its tributaries, so Salmon as spirit was and is a mainstay of native religion in that part of the continent.

Accounting for dinosaur bones and isolated boulders2 found in their land, Nez Perce creation stories describe the time when the Creator told the original "large animals" that a new creature, the human being, was now coming to live among them. Human beings would be naked and life for them would be difficult, so the animals had to offer ways in which they would help human beings. The animals could also choose how they would live and what they would look like from then on. Large animals who arrived late at the big meeting the Creator immediately turned to stone, and their bodies can still be seen as boulders along the Clearwater River.

When Salmon's and Steelhead's turn came, they said to the Creator, as recounted today by Allen Pinkham,

"We can help the human beings with our flesh." Salmon said, "When we come up the river we will die, so the human beings will have to catch us before that happens. I'll come up only on certain times of the year and that's when they'll have to catch me." Then Steelhead said, "I want to come in the wintertime, but I'll give them something special. That will be the glue from my skin. This glue can be used to make bows and spears. I'll be in the water all winter long.3

The Creator accepted Salmon and Steelhead, among other Columbia River fish, to survive and help the human beings.

Leroy Seth, another Nez Perce, explains that, still today,

The salmon are one of our best teachers. We learn from them that we have to do certain things by the seasons. We watch the salmon as smolts4 going to the ocean and observe them returning home. We see the many obstacles that they have to overcome. We see them fulfill the circle of life, just as we must do.5

The Nez Perce new year began in April, when the first roots were ready for harvest along the river bottoms, and thanks were given for the renewal of the annual food cycle. (Many other Native American give thanks when harvesting begins, rather than—like Europeans—waiting for the end and seeing how big the take was. Gratitude is given that there will be food, rather than for how much.)

In June, the people moved to higher elevations to harvest berries and different roots, and to hunt deer and elk. Soon they harvested eels, a favorite fish, and "blue back salmon," or the steelhead trout (a relative of salmon), in the upper rivers. Chinook salmon, the favored salmon species, followed in July and August. When snow arrived in the mountains, the people returned to their river-bottom longhouses with fish, roots, and berries they had dried throughout the warm months. Salmon provided four-fifths of the protein in their diet.

The Nez Perce still celebrate the salmon's return with a First Salmon Ceremony, in which the food is prepared in the traditional way by selected people who know the right songs. Salmon, meat, and berries are on the menu, and all the people eat together, beginning by formally tasting each food separately.6 Native nations throughout the Columbia River Basin had First Salmon Ceremonies. Some tribes release the first salmon back into the river, some feed it only (or first) to the children, others dance or sing or drum—but all the ceremonies begin with thanks to Salmon.

The Corps of Discovery was among the Tenino and Watlala people below The Dalles of the Columbia on April 18, 1806, when the first salmon of the spring run arrived. The captains recorded the First Salmon Ceremony, but they missed its religious significance. They applied their non-judgmental term for "unscientific" to the rite, calling it "superstitious." The next day, Lewis wrote:

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 the harbinger of good news to them. they informed us that these fish would arrive in great quantities in the course of about 5 days. this fish was dressed and being divided into small pieces was given to each child in the village. this custom is founded in a supersticious opinion that it will hasten the arrival of the salmon.

A Series of Reservoirs

It's a rough life

The statistics of salmon survival are instructive: Imagine 3,000 salmon eggs, a female's normal output. From them, 500 fry will hatch, but only 45 fry will grow to smolt stage and reach the sea. Ocean fishing, natural predation, and the rigors of returning upstream will kill off all but 2 to 5 adults who succeed in returning to their spawning ground. If 5 return, they've beat odds of 600 to 1 against them.7

When Americans moved into the Columbia basin in the 1840s, '50s, and '60s, they joined the natives in fishing for salmon. The first commercial salmon processing plant—its product salted and shipped in barrels—opened on the lower Columbia in 1866;8 canning would replace salting in the 1880s.

Overfishing the spring chinook run was soon a problem, and a consortium of processors created the first salmon hatchery in 1877. (They also began fishing the fall chinook run.) Drawing on the expertise of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, headed by zoologist Spencer Fullerton Baird,9 they financed the facility and ran it for five years.10 State- and federally-owned hatcheries in the Columbia River Basin began to follow in 1888, when the State of Oregon leased and reopened the consortium's hatchery. (Washington first state-owned hatchery opened on the Kalama River in 1895, and Idaho's in 1934 on the upper Snake River.) Never since 1877 have the salmon in the Columbia been entirely wild-born.

The early hatcheries' purpose was simply to increase the harvest for commercial fishery which, according to Thomas C. Dewberry, "peaked in 1895 when 13,800 metric tons of salmon (4—6 million fish) were caught and canned."11 Their model was agricultural, with Baird famously claiming that "one acre of water was worth seven acres of land if properly cultivated."12 and other scientists of the day disagreeing only to increase the ratio in favor of hatcheries.

Some salmon still escaped the commercial nets to reach their upper Columbia, Snake, and Clearwater spawning grounds, but their numbers and their individual sizes decreased as commercial fishermen picked off the largest fish and hatcheries bred from smaller specimens.

Salmon Trap

Salmon trap

Some of the salmon swimming up Lolo Creek to spawn are captured by this trap for transport to and breeding in Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery Program facilities.


1. This heading is taken from Dan Landeen and Allen Pinkham. Salmon and His People: Fish & Fishing in Nez Perce Culture (Lewiston, ID: Confluence Press, 1999). The title of this book, copyrighted by the Nez Perce Tribe, says it all about Salmon's importance.

2. Ibid., p. 4.

3. Ibid., p. 7.

4. Smolts are young adult salmon leaving their freshwater "nursery" and moving out to the ocean for their adult life.

5. Salmon and His People, p. 3.

6. Explained by Carla HighEagle, ibid., p 57.

7. NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, Northeast Fisheries Science Center website, on 3/31/05

8. Artificial Production Review: Report and Recommendations of the Northwest Power Planning Council. Council Document 99-15, October 13, 1999, p. 64.

9. Baird (1823-1887), was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution at the youthful age of twenty-seven and became its Secretary (director) in 1878. He was named the first commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries—forerunner of today's National Marine Fisheries Service—in 1871, and established the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory on Cape Cod in 1888. Modern scientists express surprise at his accepting the agricultural model for hatcheries.

10. Artificial Production Review, p. 65.

11. Thomas C. Dewberry is a restoration ecologist and the author of Restoring the River: A Plan for the Chinook Watershed (Portland, OR: Sea Resources and Ecotrust, 1997. See

Dewberry also notes that the population of Astoria, Oregon, near Fort Clatsop increased tenfold from 200 to 2,000 in 1874-1876, as fishermen and processors moved there.

12. Artificial Production Review, p. 76.

Funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee