Salmon and Puget Sound Tribes

I was hired to do a part of a NEPA report several years ago. I worked with Karen James and Barbara Lane. I was responsible for the bulk of the writing. This report seems not to be available anywhere else, so I am putting it on my blog for future reference.  I don’t believe this was ever published, at least not in this form. It was used, in part, as a section of a more extensive report.


Table of Contents

Table of Contents i


Definition of Terms 2

Tribes 3

Method 4

The Ethnographic Record 4

Post Treaty Period Fishing 7

Obstacles to Fishing Pre-U.S. v Washington 7

Indian People: Resistance and Resiliency 8

1930s-1960s 8

1960s and 1970s 9

1974 and Later: Co-Management and the Centrality of Salmon to the Culture 9

Summary 9


Species and Differences 10


Fishing Areas

Gear 12


The First Salmon Ceremony and the Cultural Foundation of Contemporary Management Practices 12

Tribes and Relationship to Salmon: Responsibility and Stewardship 13

Summary 14


Introduction 15

Personal and Family Consumption 16

Distribution and Sharing Within and Between Tribes 16

Informal Interpersonal Distribution and Sharing 16

Formal Community Distribution and Sharing 17

Ceremonial Uses 18













The seventeen Indian tribes located on or near the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Hood Canal, North Puget Sound and South Puget Sound, all have adjudicated fishing rights. Salmon is a key resource for each of these tribes. Their right to fish salmon is guaranteed by 1854-1855 treaties (Treaty of Medicine Creek [December 26, 1854] 10 Stat. 1132, Treaty of Point Elliott [January 22, 1855] 12 Stat. 927, Treaty of Point No Point [January 25, 1855] 12 Stat. 933, Treaty of Neah Bay [January 31, 1855] 12 Stat. 939). Their rights to fish were reaffirmed in 1974 U.S. v. Washington, Civ. No. C70-9213 (W.D. Wash.). They were further affirmed in 1978 by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in 1979 by the United States Supreme Court,[i]and in subsequent court proceedings.


Salmon is regularly eaten by individuals and families, and served at gatherings of elders and to guests at feasts and traditional dinners. Salmon is treated ceremoniously by Indians throughout the region today as it has been for centuries. Salmon is of nutritional, cultural, and economic importance to tribes. To Indians of this region, salmon is a core symbol of tribal identity, individual identity, and the ability of Indian cultures to endure. It is a constant reminder to tribal members of their obligation as environmental stewards. Traditional Indian concepts stress the relatedness and interdependence of all beings including humans in the region. Thus the survival and well-being of salmon is seen as inextricably linked to the survival and well being of Indian people and the cultures of the tribes. Indeed, many Indian people share traditional stories that explain the relationship between mountains, the origins of rivers, and the origins of salmon that inhabit the rivers (Ballard 1929, page 90).[ii] In traditional stories, even the humblest of creatures play important roles in sustaining life and balance in the ecological niche that has supplied food for Indian people for generations (Ballard 1927, page 81).[iii] Stories recount the values Indian people place on supporting healthy, welcoming rivers and good salmon runs. Salmon is also a symbol used in art and other representations of tribal identity. Salmon is ubiquitous in Indian culture in the region. Its significance to the health of the tribes and that of individual members cannot be overstated. To Indian people of the region, the absence of salmon is unthinkable because it is central to their cultural identity.


The seventeen tribes discussed here are Makah, Elwha Klallam, Jamestown S’Klallam, Port Gamble S’Klallam, Skokomish, Squaxin Island, Nisqually, Puyallup, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Tulalip, Stillaguamish, Sauk-Suiattle, Swinomish, Upper Skagit, Nooksack, and Lummi.


Definition of Terms


Salmon is used to refer to all of the six species of Oncorhynchus found in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Hood Canal, North Puget Sound and South Puget Sound. All these species are fished for by the tribes. The term salmon includes steelhead, formerly classified by biologists as Salmo gairdneri. Steelhead, along with other salmon species, has always been treated as an important food by regional tribes. Most, if not all, of the tribes in the study area have a general word that encompasses all salmon and steelhead, though each species also has an individual name (see, for example, Hess 1976; Bates 1994; Gibbs [1877], 1970). In practice, all of these salmon have been fished and consumed by Indians throughout the area.


The word sustainable, or sustaining, as we use it, refers to the way that indigenous people use resources to meet their present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This use is consistent with that employed by tribal members with whom we conferred. Many Indian people speak of current environmental concerns regarding salmon in the context of their concern for children and grandchildren.


We use the words “traditional” or “traditionally” frequently in this document. We most often use these words to refer to continuity between the past and the present in terms of Indian perception and use of salmon as well as Indian ideas about allocation and management. Many attitudes and beliefs as well as practices that involve salmon are based upon ancient teachings. These teachings, beliefs, and attitudes underlie current practices even if it is not readily apparent. Traditional, in our use of the term, does not imply unchanging. Strait of Juan de Fuca, Hood Canal, North Puget Sound and South Puget Sound indigenous people have made enormous adaptations to their changing circumstances over the past 150 years. Old teachings are repeated and revered by many and are called upon for assistance and guidance today. We also occasionally use “traditional” to refer to the ethnographic description of practices and beliefs of the region’s indigenous people at the time the United States government made treaties with western Washington Indian tribes.


We use the term subsistence in the anthropological sense. In part, subsistence refers to the ways in which indigenous people utilize the environment and resources provided by it in order to survive; that is, to meet nutritional needs of the members of the society. The interplay of resources, technology and work created a unique economy in which Indian people of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Hood Canal, and North and South Puget Sound thrived. Work, distribution, and consumption strategies were developed in the context of values that included reciprocity and high regard for the resources themselves. Salmon species provided a major part of the region’s subsistence resource. George Gibbs, the lawyer/ethnologist who helped to draft and negotiate the Indian treaties in western Washington, wrote that “the great staple food” of the region was salmon and noted the extraordinary quantities available in Puget Sound and elsewhere in the region. “Salmon,” he said, “form the most important staple of subsistence”(Gibbs [1856] 1877).[iv]




In the mid-nineteenth century, at the time of the 1850s treaties, Indian tribes occupied river drainages and marine areas throughout the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Hood Canal, North Puget Sound and South Puget Sound. Tribal members fished in the lakes, rivers, streams, creeks, bays, inlets, and open waters in the region. Salmon returned to and were taken from any stream that was not otherwise impassable for the fish. For example, some high falls would not allow fish to travel further upriver. Occasionally landslides or other natural damming may have inhibited a run. But in general, where there were fish, there were Indian people fishing. Anthropologist Marian Smith, who worked with the Puyallup and Nisqually people, wrote that, “Fishing was the most constant occupation and whatever a man’s economic specialty, it did not greatly interfere with the fishing routine” (Smith 1940, page 253). Reservations established by the treaties were located on or near these drainage systems or marine areas because the framers of the treaties recognized the importance of the fisheries.[v] The treaties acknowledged that tribes reserved their right to continue to fish; access to traditional fishing grounds was guaranteed by the treaties.




During December 2002 and January 2003 we conferred by telephone with some members and staff of all tribes in the study area. We held in-person interviews with some staff and members of all but two tribes in the study area. Tribal members with whom we conferred include elders, cultural and historical resource officers, museum directors, and fishery managers. We also reviewed tribal publications, regional publications that have commented on tribes and issues regarding salmon, and the ethnographic record for the region.


The Ethnographic Record


The ethnographic record is unequivocal: all tribes share a long tradition of fishing. The cultures and societies of Indian people in the region at treaty time were well adapted to the riverine and marine environments of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Hood Canal, North Puget Sound and South Puget Sound. Indian people developed economies based primarily on anadromous fish. These cultures and economies developed subsequent to the stabilization of shorelines in the region, that is, around 5000 years ago. After that time, the conditions of water in the rivers and streams could support the returning fish populations. The abundance and predictability of the fish supported permanent human settlement along these rivers and streams as well as along the saltwater shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Hood Canal, North Puget Sound and South Puget Sound.


Some archaeological surveys have been conducted in the region. Data from these sites by no means provides a comprehensive view of ancient fishing practices. Geological research demonstrates significant alterations in elevations and land deformations in parts of Puget Sound associated with a major earthquake approximately 1100 years ago. Older sites may have been submerged at this time. The few sites that have been systematically excavated and analyzed demonstrate a long tradition of fishing. These are dated to at least 1000 years before the present, the time of the alteration in water levels (Stein 2000; Croes 1996). Some indicate occupation up to and through treaty time (Stein 2003).


Fisheries, for the most part salmon fisheries, were the defining feature of the cultures and economies of indigenous people of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Hood Canal, and North and South Puget Sound in late eighteenth century descriptions of the area. The entire region was characterized by its dependence upon seafood (Gunther 1950, pages 190-191). In anthropological terms, the relationship to salmon among indigenous people formed a “culture core.” Salmon were the focus of economic activities, technological development, and ideologies. The interface of these supported the invention and application of highly successful harvesting, processing, and storage techniques. The Indian people of this region acquired finely tuned local knowledge regarding salmon resources; and developed sustainable methods of harvesting catches.


Salmon were taken using a variety of techniques, including, for example, trolling, spearing, gaffing, and taking fish in nets. Gear included several kinds of weirs, traps, dip nets, gill nets, seines, and, in certain localities, reef nets. Technologies were developed for particular circumstances, locations, and species. Harvesting technologies were extremely successful. Efficient taking techniques made it possible to harvest large numbers of fish as they ascended the rivers. These techniques were designed to allow selectivity in harvest, shaping of runs, and adequate escapement to the spawning grounds. Weirs that spanned streams and rivers had the capability to block a run of salmon. They did not because these weirs were managed so as to allow fish to pass. William Elmendorf, an anthropologist, produced an ethnographic monograph describing the Twana (Skokomish) people of Hood Canal based upon his field work in the 1930s and 1940s. He wrote that, “Ordinarily one or more lattice sections were removed for a time each day or at night except during dip-net operations, to allow some fish to proceed to the spawning grounds or to weirs farther upstream. The Twana people believed that the ‘salmon people’ would be angered if this was not done, and would refuse to return for the next year’s run.” (Elmendorf [1960] 1992, page 65-66)[vi] Arthur Ballard, whose observations of South Sound Indian peoples were made at the end of the nineteenth and during the early twentieth century also discussed the practice of opening weirs (Ballard 1957, page 44). Escapement allowed sufficient fish to continue upstream to spawn. Escapement also allowed sufficient fish for Indian people fishing further upriver. Fisheries were managed with an eye to sustainability and runs were interrupted only by unanticipated natural events such as climatic or geologic incidents or, later, by impediments made by non-Indians including dams and water diversions.
Winter village sites were established along drainage systems of salmon rivers and streams. Indigenous peoples’ economic lives were organized around the seasonal runs of fish in these streams. The abundance of these fish, along with the technologies developed to harvest, process, and store the fish, sustained families and communities year round. Salmon were eaten fresh, were cured in a variety of ways, and were stored to be consumed later or traded. Trade and commerce in fish among Indian people in western Washington and with tribal people beyond this region were extensive. Curing methods assured that harvest could be kept over an extended time for later consumption and for inter-tribal commerce.




Post Treaty Period Fishing


Obstacles to Fishing Pre-U.S. v Washington


Tribal fisheries in Washington were faced with many obstacles during the decades following statehood in 1889. These included state fishing regulations, dams, diversions of rivers, development and urbanization, and pollution.


In the early years following statehood, fishing continued to be a primary subsistence activity for Indian people. Indian fishermen were a common sight in and around the region. Photographs from this period show western Washington Indians fishing or processing fish. Some of these photographs have been identified by archivists as Puget Sound Indian men fishing at weirs (1890-1895), Makah women drying fish on racks (1900), Snohomish people at Tulalip processing salmon (1907), and Lummi men trolling for salmon (1900) (American Indians of the Pacific Northwest Digital Collection). By the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, Indian rights to fish off-reservation had been undermined repeatedly by the state. Indian people were often arrested for “unlawful fishing” by state game wardens.[vii]


Fishing regulations passed by the state prohibited use of traditional Indian fishing gear such as weirs and traps. Indians were not allowed to fish in usual and accustomed places and were often challenged by enforcement officers. Treaties were invoked by tribal members who asserted their right to fish. Dams, lacking fish passage facilities, were constructed in the years just prior to World War I. Urban populations grew, non-Indian fishing proliferated, and development destroyed prime salmon habitat. Fish runs were clearly threatened. Tribal members predicted serious environmental consequences for fish habitat. They also saw that the decline in fish habitat and runs threatened Indian livelihoods and indigenous cultures. Tribes struggled to retain their access to salmon and their rights to harvest salmon.


Indian People: Resistance and Resiliency




In the mid-twentieth century, with increasing state regulation of fishing, salmon became less available and harder for Indian people to fish for in their traditional places, or with their traditional gear. The salmon retained their symbolic and nutritional significance to Indian people. Fishing itself retained its value and importance as a focus for cultural teaching, learning, and activity. Tribal people found ways to fish and continued to value and consume fish whenever they were available. Countless stories circulate about fathers, grandfathers, grandmothers, and aunts and uncles who, in order to obtain traditional foods from traditional locations, defied state laws that ignored treaty rights guaranteed by the federal government. Indian people risked grievous consequences yet continued to fish in order to put food on the table and affirm their core cultural identity and treaty guaranteed right to fish. Many tribal members regularly recount stories of fathers and uncles who fished under cover of darkness or grandmothers who confronted game wardens. Indian people went to jail and to court in the 1930s to assert their treaty rights.


In spite of the harassment, during the depression in the 1930s many Indian people fished and ate salmon year round. Some Indian people report that because Indians were part of a fishing culture, they fared better through this period than some of their non-Indian neighbors. Indian people continued fishing in the 1940s. Adults born and reared during this period remember being taught how to fish by elders. Some elders were still making nets and fish spears and passing the knowledge on to the youth. Indian people continued to cure and smoke fish and eat fish year round. Youth were expected to help in all chores connected with curing fish, including helping to hang the fish in the smokehouse and keeping the fires stoked in the smokehouse. Young people were taught to maneuver canoes in the rivers and witnessed and participated in the expression of tribal values such as the distribution of catches to elders and other family members.


1960s and 1970s


Even more stories of courage are told about those who participated in “fish-ins” in the 1960s and 1970s and were beaten or jailed for their actions in asserting treaty rights. Local knowledge of streams and fishing technologies were retained and passed on to young people all through these troubled times. Traditional methods of welcoming salmon continued throughout the period, though less publicly than now. Ceremonies were observed by families rather than by the community at large. The struggle in some ways reinforced the value of the fish to the people and their cultures. The oral and written histories of tribes have incorporated the story of the struggle for treaty-protected fishing rights (Isely 1970, Deloria 1977, Wilkinson 2000, Wray 2002).


1974 and Later: Co-Management and the Centrality of Salmon to the Culture


The 1974 decision by Judge Boldt in U.S. v. Washington litigation affirmed tribal treaty rights to fish. It mandated that the state share management of fisheries with Indians throughout the case area. Tribes adopted new technologies. Tribal people of the area engage in ancient fisheries with up-to-date equipment, such as modern boats (just as non-Indian fishermen do not use 1850s era fishing gear). The Indian fisheries continue to be informed by generations-old social and cultural traditions. No culture stands still. Technologies are always changing, being modified, reinvented, or refined. Core values, beliefs, and traditions and their practice in daily life, that is, the non-material components of culture, sustain community and relationships despite these material changes.




In brief, salmon fishing has been a focus for the economies, cultures, lifestyles, and identities of Puget Sound tribes for more than 1000 years. These fisheries continued without interruption during most of the nineteenth century, barring natural disasters such as floods, droughts, or landslides. Significant interference with Indian fisheries began after statehood in 1889 with the introduction of state fishing regulations, development of large urban areas, suburban areas and farms, the construction of dams, and the destruction of fish habitat. Indian people in the region continued to fish but were faced with many obstacles, including the depletion of resource as a consequence of development. Tribal fishermen continued to assert their treaty-protected rights, sometimes at considerable risk to themselves. The Boldt decision in U.S. v. Washington, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the United States Supreme Court affirmed those rights and ushered in a new era for Indian fisheries.




Species and Differences


Six species of salmon have been fished and continue to be fished by Indians in Puget Sound, Hood Canal, and the Strait. They are:

Sockeye or blueback salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka)

Chinook (Oncorhynchus tschawytscha)

Coho or silver (Oncorhynchus kisutch)

Chum (Oncorhynchus keta)

Pink (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha)

Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss)


Species vary as to nutritional value, including fat content. Many Indian people express preferences regarding the desirability of certain species for consumption. Some species are appreciated as good smoking fish. For example, chum is a leaner fish that can be smoked and kept for a year or more. Smoked “Nisqually chum,” is relished as a special treat even by those who live outside the Nisqually area. Coho are said to have similar qualities to chum for drying. Indian people look forward to the first spring chinook for fresh eating. Spring chinook is cured with a special soft smoke. Some Indian people say that salmon caught in salt water has a different flavor than that caught in fresh water and that flavor differences vary even by the part of the river from which the salmon is taken. Some fish of the same species are thought to be better (fatter and tastier for example) in some rivers than in others.


All species do not enter each river. All species are available in the open waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Hood Canal, and Puget Sound. It is likely that there was year round availability in these open marine waters in the past. Wild salmon are more viable and there is more variability in their behavior and habits.


Depending upon availability, all of these salmon species are harvested today by tribes. Some are taken more generally for commercial purposes and others, depending upon individual and tribal preferences, for ceremonial and personal or family consumption


Fishing Areas


The boundaries of traditional fisheries were fluid rather than confining during and before treaty time. Indigenous people in the area traveled seasonally and often shared or traded resources and engaged in commerce outside of their winter village territories. Fishing areas for individual tribes today are not as fluid. Tribes generally fish within defined management areas. These areas have been allocated and established in accord with Facts and Findings U.S. v. Washington in 1974 and in subsequent court rulings. Some tribes take fish almost exclusively from marine areas, some almost exclusively from fresh water, while others participate in both marine and river fisheries.



Gear used in contemporary fisheries include: set gillnets, drift gillnets, purse seine, trap, hook and line, dip nets, trolling gear, and beach seine.




“We’re salmon people and the Northwest is salmon. We still have hope.” Billy Frank (Clausen 2000)

The First Salmon Ceremony and the Cultural Foundation of Contemporary Management Practices


Traditionally, Indians throughout the region have treated salmon ceremoniously (Gunther 1926; Gunther 1928). These ceremonies, based on ancient teachings and practices, continue today and underscore the need to welcome the fish by providing a clean place to which the salmon will want to return. According to Indian teachings the fish come to feed the Indian people but they will not come back if the environment is not suitably maintained or salmon are not treated properly. Elmendorf is specific about this requirement: “Most ritually determined acts with reference to river fishing had to do with the salmon run and were directed toward insuring its continuance. The river had to be kept clean before salmon started running. HA (informant) defined the period as starting in early August (for the Skokomish), before the first king salmon came. From this time no rubbish, food scraps or the like, might be thrown in the river; canoes were not baled out in the river; and no women swam in the river during menstrual seclusion. The object of these precautions was to insure that the salmon would want to come.” (Elmendorf [1960], 1992, page 61) Traditional first salmon ceremonies varied from location to location, depending upon species, time of the run, and cultural differences from tribe to tribe (Gunther 1927, Stern 1934; Smith 1940). Several of the tribes in the study area use the spring salmon (chinook) in their first salmon ceremony.


These ceremonies are, once again, public in many communities, especially since U.S. v. Washington and the passing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978. The ceremony reiterates and reinforces the Indian peoples’ special relationship to the salmon and their respect and concern for the well-being of the salmon.


Modern fisheries and fishing practices of tribes are built on long-standing traditional ideas of responsibilities to fish and habitat. These practices and ideals underlie tribal approaches to “micromanagement” of drainage systems and commitment to do what is necessary to sustain runs, including voluntary suspension of fisheries. As one tribal member put it, “the first salmon ceremony contains the elements of fisheries management that we use today.” That is, tribes manage with the assumption that fish need a clean, welcoming environment and a respectful, nurturing approach to maintaining and restoring habitat, especially spawning grounds.


Tribes and Relationship to Salmon: Responsibility and Stewardship


During this post U.S. v. Washington period, tribes have developed fisheries that promote the centrality of fish to the community and the community’s responsibility to the fish. This responsibility is, as articulated by tribal people, based upon traditional teachings. While fishermen are trained in the use of new equipment and safety regulations, the status and role of the fishermen is based upon traditional understandings of the resource and habitat. The fishermen continue to contribute to the health of the tribal members by bringing in food for the tables of the community. A role that had been problematic and hard to fulfill in the years of struggle is once again one of public honor. Tribal hatcheries and stream restoration projects take advantage of new science but are developed in the context of local knowledge and traditional regard for responsible stewardship of the land, the rivers, and the fish runs. Tribes are working in partnerships with local, state, and federal governments, businesses, and farmers to repair degraded habitats and the polluting effects of urbanization and agricultural practices. New processing plants are being developed at the same time as traditional and contemporary preservation methods are taught and passed on to younger tribal members. Fish cured in traditional ways are still a focus of community trade in fish, carrying the added value of history and custom. In many ways, since U.S. v. Washington, because fishing is open and religious practices are protected, fish have become even more central to the tribes’ identities than they were fifty years ago. Fishing is not the under cover of darkness activity that it was by necessity for so many years. But because of the difficulties encountered during those many years, salmon are not just a food or even simply a symbol of a long and proud tradition, but a signal of the struggle that the tribes undertook to assert rights. Many of those who fish today lived that struggle and pass on their commitment to their history and their right to fish to the younger generation (Deloria 1977). In the words of one tribal person, the fish “feed the Indian” not just in body, but in spirit.




The relationship of tribal people to salmon is spiritual, emotional, and cultural as well as economic. Salmon evoke sharing, gifts from nature, responsibility to the resource, and connection to the land and the water. Salmon are strongly associated with the use and knowledge of water, use and knowledge of appropriate harvesting techniques, and knowledge of traditional processing techniques. The struggle to affirm the right to fish has made salmon an even more evocative symbol of tribal identity.






Indian people of the region remember teething on smoked salmon and talk about eating salmon eggs for breakfast, salmon egg soup, or eating the eggs as a snack. Adult fishermen today remember catching fish, sometimes by hand, as children. Youngsters made a fire, and cleaned and cooked the salmon on the river bank as a treat. Those who fish today and carry on the salmon culture were raised in that culture and identify whole periods of their lives in relationship to the salmon. Salmon is not just the primary traditional food but a food that nourishes the spirit, some say. It is served during naming ceremonies, funerals, during one-year memorials after a death, and when students are honored. It is served to guests and during winter ceremonials. It is served to elders for their dinners, and shared or donated widely by fishermen with elders or family members. If a person doesn’t fish him or herself, “all it takes is saying ‘I’m really hungry for fish’ and a salmon appears.” If there is an abundance of fish, they are delivered around the reservation so everyone has a share. Some fishermen are known to fish regularly and to be ready to give some to tribal people who want to smoke fish or have some fresh fish to eat. Though, between tribal people, the exchange of money for fish is not always a concern, some people make a substantial amount of their livelihood by selling smoked salmon to other members of the tribe or to members of other tribes. Some fishermen, hit hard by the low per pound return of commercial fisheries, have turned to “roadside sales” of fresh and smoked salmon to supplement income.


When salmon is available, the word goes out. Salmon is a favored food and, with other indigenous foods, must be present at all traditional ceremonies and functions. Sometimes boats are sent out to take salmon for these special events.


In brief, salmon is more than food; salmon, in these contexts, represents to the Indian all that is his or her history, a spiritual connection to the resource, and responsibility to that resource. No ceremony, no gathering, is complete if salmon is not present.


The sections below comment on some of the many ways salmon is present in the culture of regional tribes. These comments also represent how salmon is present in the lives of many individual tribal members today. Examples here are taken primarily from interviews with tribal members. Examples are also drawn from tribal newsletters and other publications. The ways in which salmon is part of Indian peoples’ lives are as varied as the individual Indian people and Indian cultures of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Hood Canal, North Puget Sound and South Puget Sound. There are some significant commonalities and most items commented upon or enumerated in the lists below express those commonalities.

Personal and Family Consumption/Everyday Eating


Indian people in the study area value and eat salmon whenever it is available. This includes fresh, frozen, vacuum packed, canned, and smoked salmon. Salmon is prepared in many ways. Some Indian people consume nearly every part of the salmon in some form, including eggs, flesh, skin, and bones. Some tribes help individual members with processing and storing salmon for home use. Some tribes have community smokehouses, pressure cookers (for canning), and machines for vacuum packing that tribal members may borrow.


Distribution and Sharing Within and Between Tribes


Informal Interpersonal Distribution and Sharing


There are many informal, everyday ways that salmon are shared and distributed within each tribe and between tribes. For example, some community members are not able to acquire salmon for themselves. Other people fish for them or share fish from their freezers or smokehouses. Sharing and informal distribution of fish help to bind the community in a system of relationships and obligations. Indian people speak of driving around the reservation with salmon and gifting friends and neighbors with the fish. Surplus is distributed or placed in tribal lockers and freezers for future distribution to individuals (or for traditional dinners or ceremonies). Windfalls are distributed. Smoked salmon is sold from the back of trucks and cars in tribal parking lots. Tribal people who have smokehouses take shares of fishermen’s catches in exchange for smoking fish for them. Fish, fresh, frozen, or smoked, is given as a gift to those who help a friend or relative with a task. Fish are commonly given to food banks for the needy, both Indian and non-Indian. The tradition of feeding others and sharing with non-Indian neighbors is one that goes back to the earliest accounts of Indian relations with Europeans and Americans in the region. This way of distributing a resource cannot be fully understood without an understanding of the ethics and morality that inform it: reciprocity and exchange among kin and even non-related groups, including those with whom connections have been established throughout the region, is a foundation of meaningful human interaction between and among Indian peoples in the area.


Formal Community Distribution and Sharing


As noted above, salmon are distributed among and between Indian people and tribes in many informal ways. There are also formal, frequent or periodic occasions during which salmon is expected or required to be served. Among these are:


  • Feeding elders as in elders’ dinners or lunches. Salmon are contributed by fishermen to these meals. Tribes buy salmon or they stock donated salmon for these lunches and dinners. Salmon is served often, if not at least weekly, at luncheons. Some tribes serve lunches to elders at least three days a week. Dinners for elders are held frequently. These dinners include reciprocal intertribal dinners held for elders throughout the area. Traditional food is always present at these dinners and salmon is an essential part of the dinners. Elders are often offered salmon to take home at the conclusion of both luncheons and dinners. When available, salmon make up a substantial portion of an elder’s diet.
  • Community wide and intertribal traditional dinners. These may be held for any number of reasons. Again, fish are contributed or special boats sent out for “C and S” (Ceremonial and Subsistence[viii]) harvests in order to have the proper food for these dinners. Those who fish commercially may put aside a portion of the catch for personal subsistence use and also donate or be paid by the tribe for a portion to be stored and used for traditional community dinners. Tribes provide storage facilities so that catches can be kept on hand for these dinners. Some tribes tax fishermen and use the tax money to buy additional salmon from other tribes to keep on hand for traditional dinners.
  • Salmon is part of the traditional meal served whenever a wedding takes place.
  • Cultural dinners with other tribes. For example, welcoming dinners that feature salmon are provided for those on the summer Canoe Journey. The Journey involves tribes from throughout the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Hood Canal, Puget Sound, and beyond.
  • Health fairs during which special traditional foods, including salmon, are featured. The value of a traditional diet comprised of traditional foods is emphasized among many tribal leaders and educators who voice concern with health issues, such as diabetes, prevalent among tribal people. Many of these health issues are, they believe, linked to the loss of plant, fish, and animal diet available to and followed by their ancestors.
  • Dinners for guests and invited outsiders. Dinners for guests feature traditional foods. Often these meals, featuring salmon, are to honor someone or some event. Hosting guests and serving traditional food, including salmon, is an important part of traditional culture.
  • Honoring students and others who have special achievements.
  • Some tribes distribute food baskets to tribal members at Thanksgiving and Christmas and include smoked fish in the baskets.
  • Tribes commonly deliver salmon to elders. Some tribes make fresh salmon available at central distribution points for elders and others to take home and cook. When available, salmon make up a substantial portion of a person’s diet.


Ceremonial Uses


In addition to tribally sponsored dinners, salmon is a key food, among other traditional

foods, in ceremonies. Tribes whose fisheries are depleted are helped to put out a good table of traditional foods by buying salmon from other tribes or receiving donations of fish. Tribes make an effort to keep salmon on hand or send out special boats for these occasions.


  • Winter ceremonials. Winter ceremonials require meals that include salmon. Ceremonies may last many days. Guests who have traveled from throughout the region must be served. These ceremonials are held frequently during the winter months.
  • First salmon ceremony. First salmon ceremonies as practiced today focus on thanking the fish for returning and assuring the entire community of a good harvest. These ceremonies also draw attention to the responsibility Indian people have for providing a clean, welcoming habitat for the returning fish. Many tribes incorporate a blessing of the Indian fishing fleets or individual fishermen or fisher women with these ceremonies. Some ceremonies welcome non-Indian people to witness and these witnesses are typically served salmon dinners. This welcoming of non-Indian people to be present at first salmon ceremonies is an effort to engage more of the region’s residents in sharing responsibility for the salmon and for the habitat.

First salmon ceremonies, as suggested above, were not always publicly or even communally celebrated during a period of years preceding U.S. v. Washington. Some fishermen and fisherwomen continued a more private version of this ceremony, individually sharing out the first catch of the season with other community members. This practice still continues in some tribes in addition to the public ceremony.

  • Naming ceremonies require that traditional meals, including salmon, be served. These are common throughout the area.
  • Giveaways and feasts feature traditional foods, including salmon, and are held frequently.
  • Indian funerals in the study area are large gatherings typically attended by more than 100 people and often many more. Funerals are accompanied by traditional meals that include salmon. Meals take several days of preparation. Those who cook and serve must be fed as well. The death of a tribal member is marked by remembrances or memorials a year later. Burnings are held to feed the deceased at other times. All of these events require the use of traditional foods, including salmon.




Youngsters, as in the past, are taught from an early age to fish and to understand that they, as tribal members, have a special responsibility to the salmon and for the habitat in which it thrives. Indian fishermen and women take their children fishing and remember being taken fishing by relatives when they were growing up. Fishing with older friends and relatives is a time when one not only learns the skills of taking and processing fish, but also hears the history and tradition of the tribes and is taught how to be a responsible member of the community. Some fishing, for example beach seining, is a group, multigenerational activity. Elders sit on beaches watching and advising while younger adults and young people take the fish. During the work of fishing, everyone joins in conversations about the place, the salmon, and the history of salmon fishing, and youngsters listen to stories elders share.


Youngsters are also taught skills by their elders. Fishing is considered to be an activity that is a critical part of a tribal member’s identity. No matter what else one does, learning to fish is part of one’s education.


Specific examples of this education are:


  • Young people are taught how to work with fishing gear, how to maintain gear, how to fillet fish, and how to prepare fish for curing, freezing, and canning.
  • Young people are encouraged to help elders and relatives or older tribal members with smoking and thus learn all the skills required for traditional smoking. This includes learning to fillet the fish, how to carve the sticks on which the fish are smoked, how to gather and split wood for the smokehouse, how to thread the fish on sticks and how to hang the fish in the smokehouse, how to assure proper air circulation in the smokehouse, and how to tend the fires.
  • Elders teach younger tribal members about smoking and other traditional skills associated with fish in less direct ways: For example, an elder may sample fish smoked by a younger tribal member and comment on flavor and degree of dryness. An elder may visit and assess a smoke house put up by a younger tribal member
  • Elders teach awareness of the environment and the place of fish in it. The whole landscape is a reminder of the salmon and its centrality to the culture. There are many associations. For example, in South Puget Sound, the elders watch and comment on the salal berries. If there are plenty, then they say there will be plenty of salmon. Because the sword fern is part of the First Salmon Ceremony, even seeing sword fern in the environment reminds one of the salmon and is commented upon.




One has to participate in a culture in order for it to survive. Fishing for salmon is a part of tribal life among the Indians of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Hood Canal, North Puget Sound and South Puget Sound. Tribes have developed many ways for tribal members of all ages to feel connected with the tribe and tribal culture and participate in community life. Fishing and responsibility for salmon and salmon habitat is a core area for participation. There are other ways to make a living, but fishing is “in the blood” Indian people say. You “develop a relationship with salmon” from the time you are a youngster. Tribal members continue to invest in boats and nets and go fishing even if fishing is not always economically viable. Family members, countless generations of them, have fished. Family members have died fishing. Their stories are kept alive and told to the younger generation. Indian people teach younger family members to feel responsibility to the fish. To lose touch with the fish and to ignore the decline in habitat and runs, one tribal member said, is to “lose touch with a culture you’ve always known.” Ways other than fishing that sustain participation in the fish culture include:


  • School programs: transmission of culture through curricula and special school programs, including language programs that feature stories of salmon and first salmon ceremonies
  • Headstart participation in restocking programs
  • Fishing derbies for children and teens
  • Strategies for protection and restoration. For example tribes created, with the State of Washington, the “Wild Stock Restoration Initiative” in 1996. Tribes have voluntarily reduced harvests in order to respond to the issue of endangered fishing stocks; tribes have shown that they are willing to live with self imposed restrictions to get the fish back–if we don’t take care of the fish we too will expire. Large numbers of fisheries biologists are employed by tribes and further signify the tribes’ commitment to the resource.
  • Publications/public relations that depict tribal involvement with fisheries, habitat enhancement, and fisheries programs in general. Tribal partnerships with businesses and state, federal and local government to enhance fish habitat.
  • On-the-job options within tribes to take time off work to fish. These options recognize both the importance of the food to families and the value to tribal identity of supporting involvement with fishing.
  • Creation of culture and heritage and tribally operated cultural resource management programs to enhance and celebrate relationship with the past and especially recognize and maintain cultural resources that support long-standing relationship to salmon.
  • Tribal plaques and logos on shirts, hats, and tribal stationary that feature salmon.
  • Art that features salmon iconography.
  • Museums and exhibits that feature fish technology and relationships to water and fisheries; repatriation of items of significance to salmon fisheries. Also exhibits, including historic and contemporary photographs, that honor generations of fishermen and their contributions to the tribes.




The availability of salmon as an economic base and a cultural, ceremonial, and religious staple has provided for enhanced social cohesion and promoted cultural vitality particularly since U.S. v. Washington. Some refer to it as “a calling back home.” In many instances, Indian people came back to live with relatives and friends on reservations because there was economic opportunity. The enhanced fisheries opportunities demanded that new generations of fishermen and women be trained. The core group of elders and fishermen who had local knowledge of the waters, the currents, the tides, the habits of fish, and the requirement of habitat came forward to train others in this specialized cultural knowledge. New technologies were learned and taught along with the guidance of local, traditional knowledge.


Indian people express a holistic relationship to the land and the waterways, as well as to the salmon and other creatures dependent upon the health of the land and environment. Little differentiation is made between and among spirit, nature, and culture when they speak of their obligations. Tribal people characterize their relationship to salmon as a dynamic and demanding one. The relationship draws upon indigenous teachings and insights. Though explained in a number of ways, and in many stories, the fundamentals are the same–we have a responsibility to the fish, to the land, and to the waters. We are, from ancient times, of these lands and waters, and the quality of our relationship to fish and its sustenance reflects on the quality of our communal and spiritual lives.


The obligation to salmon articulated by Indian people is one concerned with renewal, reciprocity, and balance. Salmon is of economic importance to Indian people and it embodies cultural, ceremonial, and social dimensions of peoples’ lives to the degree that it is a significant symbol of Indian and tribal identity. Tribal identity, to be sure, is realized and expressed in the many daily acts in which one engages. For the Indian people the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Hood Canal, North Puget Sound and South Puget Sound, many of those acts involve or include salmon.


Tribal people have a strong present connection with salmon and share a passionate concern for the future of salmon in the marine waters, rivers, lakes, and streams in the region.


This concern is reflected in voluntary reduction or suspension of fishing on endangered or weak runs of salmon over the past decade and more, and by efforts at stream restoration and stock enhancement described elsewhere in the Affected Environment document.

















[i] United States v. Washington, 384 F. Supp. 312 (W.D.Wash. 1974), aff’d, 520 F.2d 676 (9th Cir. 1975), cert. denied, 423 U.S. 1086 (1976), enforced, 459 F. Supp. 1020 (W.D. Wash. 1977), aff’d sub nom., Puget Sound Gillnetters v. U.S. District Court, 573 F.2d 1123 (9th Cir. 1978), substantially upheld sub nom., Washington v. Fishing Vessel Ass’n, 443 U.S. 658 (1979).

[ii] An example of this kind of explanatory tale is The Origin of Tolt River as told by John Xot (also known as John Hote). The Tolt River watershed originates on McClain Peak in the Cascade Crest.

[iii] For example in the tale, How Grandmother Bullhead Brought the Salmon, the little bullhead is given salmon eggs in exchange for helping to bring rain and the salmon. Though her powers had been doubted, she helped the people.

[iv] George Gibbs’ Tribes of Western Washington and Northwestern Oregon was published by the Department of the Interior in 1877. It was based on observations in Washington in 1853-1856. Another treaty period resource on tribes in the region is Gibbs’ 1854 “Report of Mr. George Gibbs to Captain Mc’Clellan, On the Indian Tribes of the Territory of Washington.” This was reprinted by Ye Galleon Press as Indian Tribes in Washington Territory (Gibbs [1854], 1967.

[v] For example, see Journal of the Expedition from the Conclusion of the Treaty of Nisqually (Swindell 1942, page 333). The entry for January 1, 1855 notes that the reservation, “affords a good site for a village, with ground for potato patches and a small stream at which the Indians take their winter salmon.” George Gibbs, the scribe, further notes that “the Indians will require the shore only, this tribe being exclusively fishing Indians.” Microfilm copies of the original records can be found in Documents Relating to the Negotiation of Ratified and Unratified Treaties with Various Indian Tribes. 1801-1869. Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (Record Group 75)T494, Roll 5. National Archives and Records Administration. Washington, D.C.

[vi] Elmendorf’s Structure of Twana Culture was originally published as a Monographic Supplement No. 2, Research Studies, a Quarterly Publication of Washington State University, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3. September 1960. For further notes on the weir and other fishing technologies see, among others, Herman Haeberlin and Erna Gunther, The Indians of Puget Sound (1930), T.T. Waterman, Notes on the Ethnology of the Indians of Puget Sound, based upon his early twentieth century field work ([1921]1973), Arthur Ballard (1957), and Marian Smith The Puyallup-Nisqually (1940).

[vii] See 1916 cases: State v. Towessnute, 154 P. 805; State v. Alexis, 154 P. 810; and Kennedy v. Becker, 241 U.S. 556. and Wash. Sess. Laws Ch. 31, Sec. 72 (1915) for examples of legal actions that interfered with Indian treaty rights during this period.

[viii] “C & S,” or ceremonial and subsistence is a “term applied to Indian harvest of many fish…”In general a fisherman engaged in a commercial fishery may take part of his or her catch for C & S and designate that as “take home fish” on the lower portion of a “Treaty Indian Fish Receiving Ticket.” “If a tribe opens a fishery specifically to catch fish for a ceremony or other community use (i.e. there is not a concurrent commercial opening) then the catch is recorded on the same place on the ticket but with an annotation that the source of catch is ‘C & S’” (Beattie 2003).

About Llyn De Danaan

LLyn De Danaan is an anthropologist and author. She writes fiction and nonfiction. Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman's Life on Oyster Bay was published by the University of Nebraska Press. She is currently a speaker for Humanities Washington.
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