Every member of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe plays a role in protecting our stories, culture and traditions. Sometimes the passage of time and creep of modern life cause some of the old ways to fade away, but what is lost isn’t always forgotten.
For example, a few weeks back, members of our Natural Resources staff took the initiative to begin resurrecting a long gone tradition: the Return of the Salmon ceremony. It’s been over a generation since our Tribe has celebrated this once annual tradition. Few of our elders remember it, and the ones who do recall it from the memories of the young children they once were.
The Return of the Salmon or First Salmon ceremony celebrates the season’s first salmon catch. Every Tribe has its own take on the details, but the purpose is the same: to welcome the salmon back and thank them for all they provide for a Tribe’s people. If salmon are treated as welcome and revered guests, it is believed that the season’s catch will be bountiful and the fish will return in abundance the following year. There are, of course, ancient stories surrounding this tradition. One of the variations I’ve heard is that salmon take on a human form while in the sea, living in separate houses depending on their species. Once a year, the Salmon King commands them to don their fish skins and visit the Tribal people. If they aren’t welcomed properly, the salmon see this as a lack of reverence and return in fewer and fewer numbers.
Some of the first explorers to North America made note of the First Salmon ceremonies. In 1806, Lewis and Clark witnessed a salmon ceremony at Celilo Falls on the Columbia River. Clark wrote about it in his journal, “There was great joy with the natives last night, inconsequence of the arrival of the salmon. One of those fish was caught. This was a harbinger of good news to them.”
Port Gamble S’Klallam hasn’t been the only Tribe to have temporarily lost this tradition. Many other Tribes are also revitalizing their ceremonies and bringing back unique customs to celebrate. For example:
Lower Elwha Klallam, which brought back its ceremony in 1990, cleans the first salmon and sets the meat aside. The remains are blessed and then released in three areas that have traditionally had large salmon populations. The salmon meat is distributed to the community elders.
The Tulalip Tribes welcome the symbolic first salmon of the season as Big Chief King Salmon with their ceremony serving as a message to all the fish that they are revered guests. The Tulalip Tribes re-established their salmon ceremony in 1976.
Squaxin Island Tribe has been holding its annual salmon ceremony since 2007. Ancient songs are performed as the first chinook arrives on a fern-draped cedar plate. Fillets are cut out of the fish. The carcass — with the head, tail and fins intact — is returned to the sea by canoe.
As for Port Gamble S’Klallam: that small group from Natural Resources has grown to include Tribal members and staff from all walks of life, working to get our ceremony re-launched exclusively for the PGST community this August. We’re trying to re-establish the old ways where we can, but feel it’s equally important to build new traditions. This way, our Tribal members — the protectors of our culture — can feel like they had a hand in shaping our history and our future.
— Jeromy Sullivan is chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe.