Few things unite the Pacific Northwest’s culture, economy and ecology like food. But sometimes the ingredients we eat are also divisive. Take salmon: Once these fish were superabundant throughout the region, but the arrival of western settlers — who introduced overfishing and dams — has taken a toll. Now, despite monumental efforts, some salmon species are endangered. Yet these fish remain crucial to the Indigenous cultures that learned how to sustainably manage the resource for millennia.
“Superabundant” is OPB’s video series dedicated to the stories behind the foods you love. As we examine salmon, we meet with Indigenous fishers, traders and scientists who have adapted to a changing world and who are working to bring these fish back to a state of superabundance.
Zach Penney, the fishery science department manager at the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, shares a traditional story from the treaty tribes of the Columbia, about the creation of humans. In it, the Creator asked all the animals what they could do to help humans survive, as they didn’t know how to feed themselves. According to the legend, the salmon volunteered to help.
“Salmon was the first animal to stand up. It said, ‘I offer my body for sustenance for these new people,’” Penney said.
“‘I’ll go to far-off places and I’ll bring back gifts to the people. My requests are that they allow me to return to the place that I was born, and also, as I do these things for the people, I’ll lose my voice. Their role is to speak up for me in the times that I can’t speak for myself.”
The fish are used in important tribal ceremonies and the cultural knowledge of fishing and caring for salmon is central to many Native tribes’ way of life. Many tribes also continue to eat salmon as a major part of their diets.
“There is a lot of Indigenous knowledge within the landscape here in the Columbia River,” Penney explained.
“You don’t live in a place for 16,000 years without learning something, and you don’t live in a place for 16,000 years by messing it up,” he said.
Family and tribal traditions today
Brigette McConville owns Salmon King on the Warm Springs Reservation in Warm Springs, Oregon. The store specializes in salmon and beads. Husband Sean McConville is a fisherman who provides fish for the store.
“The sale of fish is something that our people have always done,” Brigette McConville said. In addition to being a salmon trader, she is vice chair of the Warm Springs Tribal Council and a member of Warm Springs, Wasco and Northern Paiute tribes.
“I always look for the fish that have no blemishes or bruises. So there’s a clean cut and it’s pretty,” she said. “Our wind-dried salmon: It’s the oldest processing that we have. It hasn’t changed from forever.” In addition to the retail store, Salmon King has online shopping and delivery, catering, cultural experiences and education.
“Whoever works with fish, it’s important to be happy. The old saying, ‘don’t cook when you’re mad,’ that’s true in every culture,” Brigette McConville said.
“My mind is thinking of happy thoughts — touching the food with happy thoughts of a young boy when he tastes candy for the first time when I’m catching every fish,” Sean McConville agreed.
“My dad was Nez Perce. My mom was Nez Perce/Yakama, but I consider myself from the Columbia River,” he said.
“I’m a fisherman. Born and raised a fisherman,” he said. “We’re fighting for our food. We’re not fighting just for a commercial fishery. We’re fighting for families to have food at home.”
As Penney, with the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, put it: “The tribes have depended on this species, these animals since time immemorial. A lot of our wealth was accumulated from having abundant salmon runs,” he said.
A journey through rivers and through time
Salmon are famous for their big journey from the ocean back to the freshwater place where they were born, where they spend their last weeks. The journey is a feat of nature that continues to impress even after millions of years.
By some estimates, before European contact, the Columbia River hosted runs of tens of millions of salmon per year. The fish reached as far inland as Canada and Idaho and could weigh more than 100 pounds.
As white settlers made their homes in the Pacific Northwest, that changed. Commercial fisheries and canneries depleted the runs, and dams changed the river, blocking the downstream passage of juvenile salmon.
In 1855, tribes in the Pacific Northwest ceded lands in treaties with the U.S. government. But those tribes also reserved the right to fish at their “usual and accustomed places.” The government accepted “a trust responsibility” to assure the health and livelihood of the tribes.
Court cases in the 1960s and 1970s affirmed these rights and specified that tribal fishers were entitled to 50% of the harvestable fish in the Columbia.
While the Columbia is a salmon highway, many other rivers and streams in Oregon carry salmon too. On the Willamette, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde are taking action in their own way.
“Just to be able to provide those fishes for our ceremonies, it’s kind of a big deal. We’re doing that for all our people,” said Bobby Mercier, a language and cultural specialist and ceremonial fisher for The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. “Our bodies, our DNA knows this fish for forever,” he said.
“That food goes into your body and it goes into your soul,” Sean McConville said.
The runs continue to struggle. Fish ladders and hatcheries help support salmon, but just a fraction of the fish successfully journey from ocean to spawning areas each year. Scientists with the tribes and the state keep track by tagging salmon and collecting DNA samples and other data.
“In some cases, they can tell you who the parents were of that fish and even some cases they can tell you who the grandparents were of that fish,” Penney said.
“Age composition can give you some ideas about what’s going to happen with their progeny in the next couple years,” he said.
These measurements help predict salmon runs, which in turn helps set limits on how many fish can be safely caught, and when. Many Northwest salmon are caught in the ocean, but there would be no ocean salmon without the fish that first spawn in river hatcheries and stream beds.
“The Columbia River is probably one the bigger arteries of salmon production in the Pacific Ocean,” Penney said.
That knowledge informs many tribal members’ efforts as they push for restoration and advocate for treaty rights.
“Let us fish. Let us practice our treaty rights on the Columbia River,” advocates Warm Springs tribal council member Brigette McConville.
Salmon is so much more than a delicious Pacific Northwest dish. It’s a livelihood for an entire industry and the center of a wealth of cultural history. It’s not simply a delicacy, it’s a need, a requirement and, to Native tribal members, a right.
Editor’s note: The Columbia watershed is home to, and utilized by, many different tribes. In the video at the top of this story, the tribes referenced during discussion of the 1855 treaties (beginning at 08:13) are the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama. These are also the tribes the make up the Columbia River Intertribal Fishing Commission.