American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Salmon, Economic and Spiritual Significance of

Title: Hupa fishing for salmon
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For the peoples of the Pacific Northwest, which includes the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, as well as northern California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, western British Columbia, and Alaska, the salmon has played a significant role in defining their culture. In pre-contact times salmon contributed to the organization of the peoples of this region into political groups.

The people of this region spoke many languages that in some cases were the common factor that bound them together, but often there were other ties such as family and relationships based on shared labor, including fishing, the basis of their diets. These two features held in common were key elements in determining political relationships at the village level. The village consisted of a group of people with a shared desire to follow a particular head-man while performing specific tasks essential to survival. Salmon fishing was such an important activity to the survival of these people that their sociopolitical organization was often based upon task grouping. This was a method of forming their communities based on specific tasks and the skills necessary to perform the tasks (Miller, 2003, 10, 11).

Usually village residents were related by blood-lines, to some extent, but also were interrelated with residents of other villages. The villagers usually remained with their village while it suited them—politically, socially, or economically—but were free to move from village to village at will. For example, if a village fell on hard times due to a shortage of roots or berries in a specific area, many of the villagers might find fault with the local headman and migrate to a more prosperous village. One might also move to be nearer a close friend or relative. The size and makeup of the village were generally determined by the needs of cooperative labor to perform a specific task. The interaction of a number of villages made up a tribe, and tribes often allied themselves for survival. The larger units were more loosely arranged and less permanent (Miller, 2003, 10, 11).

As a staple food, salmon were so important to the Native peoples of this region that the fish was held in high spiritual esteem. As a way of guaranteeing that the fish would return in abundance, the First Fish ceremony was performed throughout the Northwest by the peoples who depended on the return of the annual salmon runs. Daniel Boxberger, an anthropologist who has done extensive studies on the Lummi of northern Puget Sound offered this description: 

The first salmon was treated as a special guest in the village. After it had been honored and every member of the village had partaken of a small portion of its flesh, its bones would be returned to the water, where it would resume its previous form and go tell the other salmon how well it had been treated. The salmon would then allow the Lummis to capture them (Boxberger, 1989, 18).

Andy Fernando describes the First Fish ceremony of the Skagit Indians of northwestern Washington State in detail, explaining the role of the villagers who participated and the First Fish as having " . . . fulfilled their duty, prescribed by the great spirit. The salmon had returned to the appointed time and place, the villagers had faithfully honored the salmon in sharing and ceremony. The people thereby assured themselves of a good season, and the harvest could begin" (Hurtado, 1994, 529–530).

Social status and social interaction were linked to salmon fishing as a method of exhibiting skill and of generosity by providing the food for social and religious gatherings. In Fernando's description of the First Fish ceremony, he explains that "[t]he entire village would gather together and appoint fishermen to each catch one salmon—no more [for the purpose of the ceremony]." Prior to the ceremony being performed and the salmon being honored, no one was allowed to participate in any fishing activities purely for the sake of catching fish (Fernando, 1998, 529).

In his discussion of the receiving of a guardian spirit by a member of a task group, Miller gives an example of the importance of that member's ability to catch fish and how that individuals' contribution affected the band in the task-group system:  

. . . if a band had a large number of people who were granted strong fishing powers, this would be its predominant activity in the task group system . . . [T]hus, [that group was] most likely to play a leading role in economic and social life. Even such social activities as gift giving played a part in identifying the economic role of the host group. Not only did the giving of gifts indicate that a host band was capable of generating a surplus; the nature of the gifts (baskets, dried fish, etc.) identified the group's particular economic strengths (Miller, 2003, 20).

Most of the technology of the Indians of the Pacific Northwest was based on a need to catch fish—mainly salmon. Salmon were undoubtedly the most important food staple and economic resource of the Straits Salish, who inhabited the Puget Sound area. One estimate of the pre-contact, per-capita consumption of salmon is as high as 600 pounds annually among the Lummis (Boxberger, 1989, 13). This level of fish consumption required very efficient fishing technology, intense cooperation of labor, and private property boundaries. Boxberger explained this system:  

The precapitalist fishing economy of the Straits Salish was a complex interaction between free-access resources and locations held in trust by individuals for a larger kin group. A man was guaranteed access to fishing locations as far as his (and his wife's) kinship networks extended . . .. The two most productive forms of traditional Straits Salish salmon fishing, reef netting and weir fishing, both required a great deal of labor and organization. Both reef net and weir sites were owned and controlled by individuals on behalf of a larger kin group . . . [A]lthough a weir might be owned by a kin group, everyone had a right to take fish from it (Boxberger, 1989, 13).

Boxberger uses the Lummis to illustrate the economic dilemma of most Native peoples when it comes to commercial salmon fishing:  

In the western Washington fishery the massive capital outlays and subsequent technological advances displaced the small operations and increasingly restricted Indian access to the resource. Though the tribal resources were developed, the Lummi tribe became underdeveloped. As fisherfolk, the Lummis were incorporated into the capitalist system to provide raw materials for the processors and labor for the processing sector. Once they entered the dominant economy there was no turning back, for when their labor and resources were no longer needed they were still dependent on the dominant economy though no longer able to participate (Boxberger, 1989, 6).

In modern times, many Indians of the Pacific Northwest fish with modern fishing gear and, after decades of court battles having finally won rulings in their favor, fish in the "usual and accustomed" fishing areas guaranteed them by the treaties of the 1850s. The Lummis, for example, now fish Puget Sound and its tributary streams using modern gill nets and purse seine boats requiring a high capital investment on a commercial basis, as well as using traditional methods of fishing for subsistence use (Boxberger, 1989, 167). Either way, salmon has retained its social, economic, and spiritual significance for most Indians in the Pacific Northwest.

Daniel R. Gibbs

Further Reading
Boxberger, Daniel L. 1989. To Fish in Common: The Ethnohistory of Lummi Indian Salmon Fishing. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Evans, Sterling, ed. 2002. American Indians in American History: 1870–2001. A Companion Reader. Westport. CN: Praeger.; Fernando, Andy. 1994. "On the Importance of Fishing Rights in the Northwest, 1984." In Major Problems in American Indian History. Edited by Albert L. Hurtado and Peter Iverson. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company; Iverson, Peter. 1998. We Are Still Here: American Indians in the Twentieth Century. The American History Series. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson; Miller, Christopher. 2003. Prophetic Worlds: Indians and Whites on the Columbia Plateau. Seattle: University of Washington Press.; Nikel-Zueger, Manuel. 2003. Saving Salmon the American Indian Way. A case study in a series. Bozeman, MT: Property and Environment Research Center.

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