Tributaries: A Confluence History Blog

On The Water: Salmon as a Gift Economy

By Mary Rose

salmon chartSalmon in all of its varieties bear a monumental role in the culture of Native “River People” of the Columbia River and its tributaries. Historically, six species of Pacific salmon are known to have inhabited the Columbia River Basin. These are Chinook, coho, sockeye, chum and pink salmon, and steelhead.

By the time Europeans explored the Pacific Northwest coast in the 1790’s, they found Native Americans in possession of a well-developed economy, specialized methods for catching and preserving fish. According to Jim Lichatowichauthor  of Salmon Without Rivers. They possessed a “rich mythology that provided rules for the wise use of their principal resource, the Pacific salmon.”[i] A fully developed coastal culture existed for at least 1000 years prior to Euro-American contact and far longer in some river and coastal regions. A sustainable salmon-economy developed among the tribes based on the power of their own worldview – this was an economy based on the age-old concept of the gift and a strong belief system that treated all parts of the earth – plants, animals, rocks – as equal members of their community.[ii] The “gift” was not a commodity that could be owned – it must be passed on, and in accepting the gift, the receiver assumed responsibilities or as Jim Lichatowich in Salmon Without Rivers described it, it was “more like a bank loan and its repayment.”

Until recently, this hooked-snout fish was known as a steelhead trout. Steelhead were grouped with trout in the Salmo genus until the 1990s when they were reclassified in the Oncorhynchus genus with salmon.

Until recently, this hooked-snout fish was known as a steelhead trout. Steelhead were grouped with trout in the Salmo genus until the 1990s when they were reclassified in the Oncorhynchus genus with salmon.

“Salmon are the measuring stick of well-being in the Pacific Northwest,” explained Billy Frank, Jr., Chairman, Northwest Fisheries Commission.[iii]  Sustaining salmon, blessing it and respecting its vulnerability to over-fishing or natural disasters such as fires, landslides, drought, floods was the foundation of the River People’s gift economy. Wealth and tribal status were attained by trading salmon in abundance but to sustain the salmon run, humans were expected, as was all nature, to give back to those less fortunate, to share nature’s generosity. This was true in hunting and gathering, too. The slain animal was understood as a gift of food or fur, given by the animal to the hunter or harvester. The human was obligated to treat the plant or animal with respect. If not, retaliation would follow, and many taboos regarding the disposal of animal remains evolved to reinforce that belief. The rules of the gift economy helped prevent wasteful practices and limited the kill.[iv]

Wishram fishing platform photographed in 1911 by Edward S. Curtis. The Wishram people lived on the north bank (later Washington) of Celilo Falls and the Wasco people lived on the south bank (later Oregon). The most intense bargaining occurred at the Wishram village of Nix-luidix.

Wishram fishing platform photographed in 1911 by Edward S. Curtis. The Wishram people lived on the north bank (later Washington) of Celilo Falls and the Wasco people lived on the south bank (later Oregon). The most intense bargaining occurred at the Wishram village of Nix-luidix.

The most eastern settlements of the Chinookan people were the Wasco-Wishram bands, two closely related Chinook Indian tribes from the Columbia River. Today the tribes are part of the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon and Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation in Washington. An account written during the WPA History Project of the 1930’s described the fishing trade of the 19th century on the Washington side of Celilo Falls: “On the Columbia, Wishram was one of the best fishing points on the river, owing to its location at the head of the Narrows; but, the feature which riveted the attention and interest of early explorers was the system of barter carried on by the tribes who met here annually to trade and gamble. It was the trading mart of the Columbia…. Here came the tribes from the mouth of the Columbia, with dried oysters and clams, with fish from the sea-coast, with berries and roots, especially the wapato from the islands of the lower Columbia, and trinkets obtained from white traders along the coast.

“The Rocky Mountain tribes brought commodities from the plains and prairies, horses, quamash [camas], bear grass and other articles of trade. The middlemen or factors were the fishermen at the Narrows. Wishram has been called a ‘Kind of headquarters of intelligence.’ Traders came from far and near to this, the only market of the tribes. Dried salmon was first advertised to white traders by the Indians, who received it in trade at Wishram and carried it back to the coast.”[v]

Kettle Falls in 1860.

Kettle Falls in 1860.

Louise Pillisier was born in 1852 on a homestead in Washington Territory near Colville and Kettle Falls. She recalled, “There were lots and lots of fish in Kettle Falls. They put large wicker baskets below the falls and raised them up three times a day, always filled with fish. We would trade flour, etc., to the Indians for fish. We often got two or three big salmon from them for these articles.

“Fish, wild game and pork were the principal items of meat foods. The natives would pickle their salmon and pork in barrels for winter use.”[vi]

Another early newcomer to the Northwest was Adam Benston, born in Washington Territory at Fort Nisqually in 1847 to a Native American mother and a British father from the Orkney Islands.[vii] He recalled that during the season when the salmon were running, “It was only necessary to go there and watch the run and pick out the one you wanted, because the fish were so thick that they could not get away. They were crowded solidly against one another from bank to bank at all the riffles.”[viii]

Foreign industries were introduced by settlers and newcomers. Early mining prospectors with high pressure water hoses miners turned hillsides into running soil, washing landslides into the river’s tributaries. The muddy waters clogged the salmons’ gills and smothered incubating salmon eggs and aquatic insects that infant salmon depended upon for food. The prospectors were soon followed by mining companies with destructive technologies like hydraulic mining and dredging that persisted for decades. Dredges threw gravel onto the banks churning through stream and riverbeds until the heavy silt and mud degraded habitat and reduced salmon.[ix]

The timber industry, so important to the business economy of the Pacific Northwest after settlement, wreaked enormous havoc on the salmon “gift economy,” too. As early as 1852, James G. Swan made a surprising observation on his voyage north from San Francisco aboard the brig Oriental as he headed to his destination at Shoal Water Bay on the Washington coast. Following a night of heavy seas and roaring winds, the tiny ship was 30 miles off the mouth of the Columbia River. The following morning Swan encountered a strange site. “The Columbia River, from which a huge volume of water was running,” he wrote in his diary, “carry [sic] in its course great quantities of drift logs, boards, chips and sawdust, with which the whole water around us was covered.”[x] Swan was witness to the beginnings of a major ecological problem – a single storm had unleashed sawdust and debris from the surrounding coastal hills and river valleys, a suffocating layer of sawmill waste that was enough to fill the ocean’s surface with sawdust and logs for up to 30 miles offshore. Lumber mills dumped their sawdust by the ton into rivers and streams and winter storms eventually washed the scrap out to sea. Millions of incubating salmon eggs and other marine life were smothered in the refuse.[xi]

The prolific salmon canneries along the Columbia River operated for years with a wide-open fishery that eventually almost “eclipsed” the salmon industry for good. This marketing label was developed on the Columbia in 1878 when the total solar eclipse originated off of Cape Disappointment and the American team of scientists monitored the eclipse from Nisqually Flats.

The prolific salmon canneries along the Columbia River operated for years with a wide-open fishery that eventually almost “eclipsed” the salmon industry for good. This marketing label was developed on the Columbia in 1878 when the total solar eclipse originated off of Cape Disappointment and the American team of scientists monitored the eclipse from Nisqually Flats.

In 1876 and 1878, respectively the legislatures of Washington Territory and of Oregon State passed statutes prohibiting the dumping of sawdust into rivers and streams. Unfortunately, like many early attempts to protect salmon habitat, enforcement of the laws were haphazard at best. Lumber mills continued to dump sawdust into streams for another 50 years.[xii]

Grazing cattle and irrigation led to more changes in natural habitats and in the stream and riverbeds that had once been the spawning grounds for returning salmon. Dams eventually delivered the coup d’état, submerging traditional Native American fishing sites and permanently interrupting the natural return of spawning salmon.

Once the traders and settlers began to arrive in the Pacific Northwest, the Native American methods of salmon management changed rapidly. Between 1830 and 1900, the Indian population along the Columbia declined by 95 percent due to disease, death, and displacement. The non-native population increased 1,000 percent. Native peoples held onto some of their traditional fishing sites, including Celilo Falls. They used dip nets to capture fish, keeping some for food and selling the rest to the canneries.[xiii] They also competed with non-traditional methods such as fish wheels at Celilo Falls and more sophisticated methods and equipment of seining near Cape Disappointment.

In the 1830’s, the Hudson’s Bay Company enlisted Native Americans to harvest salmon to be salted in barrels and transported for trade to Hawaii. A serious salmon-canning industry was introduced to the Northwest by R.D. Hume as early as 1860. Canned salmon served a worldwide customer base with huge profits, easy financial backing, and a wide-open fishery that attracted many others to the new industry. By 1883, 39 canneries operated on the Columbia River and the operators began to process all species of salmon to supply the growing demand for canned fish. The gift-economy salmon made an abrupt turn into a capital-based economy of supply, demand and greed.

Chinookan people seining fish in 1905

Chinookan people seine fishing on Sand Island, Baker’s Bay near Cape Disappointment, circa 1905. Photo by John F. Ford in the Oregon Historical Society’s Collection (OrHi 46585). Prior to white settlement, the Chinook used a variety of methods to harvest the Columbia River’s abundant salmon, and among the most important was seining. Seines are long nets that have floats on top and weights on the bottom. One end is attached to the shore and the other end is taken out into the water and circled back around to the shore, trapping the fish that are encircled by the net.

The salmon industry ebbed and flowed between earth-shaking events such as the Alaska Gold Rush and two world wars. During the Great Depression salmon became a highly affordable food found on many kitchen shelves throughout the US. Shiploads of it were sent to Europe and the Pacific Islands to supply American G.I.’s with a healthy protein food. By then, canneries were spewing out Alaska salmon and salt cod, too.

After World War II, sports fishing swelled, drawing tourists and fishing enthusiasts to the Northwest from around the world. The commercial fishing companies as well as sportsmen, attempted to legislate (often against one another) the salmons’ sustainability with fishing limits and seasons, regulations about size and types of fish, and licensing. Other industries – timber, mining and manufacturing – were gradually ordered to restrict and then to stop – dumping effluvients and other waste pollutants into rivers and streams. In the early 1960’s Northwest Indian tribes were developing their organized strength and legal voice to lobby powerfully to invoke their tribal soverneighty and to re-establish the fishing rights guaranteed to them by the Treaties of 1855.

The Native Americans had already lost a great deal and salmon and treaties were at the heart of their losses as much in the 20th Century as they had been in the 19th century. Kettle Falls was submerged and flooded in 1940 for the construction of Grand Coulee Dam. Celilo Falls was silenced March 10, 1957, just befrore the sacred spring salmon run. John Harrison wrote in 2008: “1956 was the last year for the treaty Indian fishery at Celilo Falls. Until that year, commercial fishing above Bonneville Dam was open to both Indians and non-Indians. Using dip nets, the Indian fishers caught 910,000 pounds of salmon and steelhead in 1956, the second-lowest catch since 1938 (also in 1956, non-Indian commercial fishers caught 1,023,000 pounds of salmon and steelhead above Bonneville Dam). The lowest Celilo catch of the 1938-1956 period was 796,000 pounds in 1954. In 1955, the Celilo fishers took 1,983,100 pounds. The greatest Celilo catch between 1938 and 1956 was in 1941: 3,464,900 pounds.”[xiv]

In 1957, Washington and Oregon closed the fishery above Bonneville Dam to all commercial fishing. Native people were allowed “Indian-only” fisheries from 1957-1968, but these were ceremonial and subsistence purposes. No commercial fishing was allowed to anyone and a number of Native Americans were prosecuted for selling their catch.  Native tribal members considered these restrictions to be violations of their treaty rights. Led by Yakama member Richard Sohappy, a group sued the State of Oregon. The United States government joined the Indians as plaintiffs, and the case was named U.S. v. Oregon.[xv]

The case was argued before U.S. District Judge Robert Belloni of Portland. His decision, handed down on July 8, 1969, ruled that the Native Americans have “an absolute right” to the fishery and is entitled to “a fair share of the fish produced by the Columbia River system.”[xvi]

In 1974, U.S. District Judge George Boldt of Tacoma refined Belloni’s “fair and equitable share” rule in United States v. Washington to mean 50 percent, and the following year Judge Belloni applied the 50-percent rule to the Indian fishery on the Columbia River. In 1979, the issue at last reached the United States Supreme Court in Washington v. Washington State Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel Association. The Supreme Court rejected Washington’s argument that Indians and non-Indians had an “equal opportunity” to the fishery, stating: “In our view, the purpose and language of the treaties are unambiguous; they secure the Indians’ right to take a share of each run of fish that passes through tribal fishing areas.”[xvii]

In 1992, Louie Dick, Jr., a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, commented on the cultural legacy of fishing:

“We come from the land. We are the earth; we are the land. The others occupy the land. When you destroy the salmon, you destroy me. The salmon made a commitment to return and to give life. He’s following his law by coming. We are violating our own law by not doing everything we can to get him back.”[xviii]

3155A. In 1941, the photographer Ray Atkeson observed this fisherman "throwing back, over a period, a dozen salmon nearly two feet long. He disdained them as not suitable for his purpose." This catch is typical of Columbia River salmon born before the dams were built. Fish were big and rich in oil because they traveled a thousand miles to spawn in Canada. The size of a fish is proportional to the length of their journey to spawn. The largest of the fish became extinct when the Grand Coulee dam was built in upstate Washington and blocked all Canadian salmon.

3155A. In 1941, the photographer Ray Atkeson observed this fisherman “throwing back, over a period, a dozen salmon nearly two feet long. He disdained them as not suitable for his purpose.” This catch is typical of Columbia River salmon born before the dams were built. Fish were big and rich in oil because they traveled a thousand miles to spawn in Canada. The size of a fish is proportional to the length of their journey to spawn. The largest of the fish became extinct when the Grand Coulee dam was built in upstate Washington and blocked all Canadian salmon.


End Notes:
[i] Jim Lichatowich. Salmon Without Rivers. [Island Press, Washington, D.C. 1999] p. 33
[ii] Ibid., p. 34
[iii]  http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/exhibition/3_2.html
[iv] Ibid., p. 36
[v] “Ancient Village of Wishram in Klickitat County,” in Told By the Pioneers, Vol. I. 1937. P. 219
[vi] “Interview with Mrs. Louise Pillisier Stevens County,” in Told By the Pioneers, Vol. I. 1937. P. 144
[vii] http://www.ftnisquallydescendants.org/200910NewsLetter.htm
[viii]  “Adam Benston Pierce County,” in Told By the Pioneers, Vol. I. 1937    P. 90
[ix] Jim Lichatowich. Salmon Without Rivers. [Island Press, Washington, D.C. 1999] p.58
[x] Ibid. p.60
[xi] Ibid. p.61
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/exhibition/3_2.html
[xiv] John Harrison. “Indian Fishing.” https://www.nwcouncil.org/history/IndianFishing
[xv] Ibid.
[xvi] Ibid.
[xvii] Ibid.
[xviii] Ibid.
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