The First Salmon

I didn’t sleep worth a damn that night. So, I wasn’t terribly enthused about my meeting with Ransom the following morning.

He picked me up after breakfast and we headed for the Rez. He wanted to show me just how important the Salmon are to the people.

On the way I broached the subject of last nights activities.

“Do you know Theresa Carlton?”

“I know her family, I have seen her around.  Cute kid.”  He squinted a little, trying to remember.

“It’s so sad.”

I was having trouble.

“Hey, they’ll get him.”  He tried to be encouraging.  It wasn’t working.

They arrived at the Ceremony Grounds next to the Hatchery.  There was a long house and a LOT of people.

The Longhouse was packed with people.  Many sitting, many standing around the edges of the smoky room.  In the center, near a small fire, the master of ceremonies cleared his throat.

“Great turnout! It feels good to see this longhouse full. It lifts our spirits. It lifts our voices.”

This was, according to Ransom, the First Salmon Ceremony; to welcome back the returning salmon and to ensure a good run.  Times had been tough during the last 12 years as traditional salmon runs dried up or became impassable.  Overfishing had decimated the wild runs and diseased farm fish were contaminating the species.  That is why the Native hatcheries were so important.

The MC continued.

“This ceremony was revived in 1979,” he said. “Before, we were forbidden to practice our ceremonies. Then the elders got together and remembered. They asked their grandparents. We may not do it the way it was done 200 years ago, but we do it the best way we can.

At the salmon ceremony, we come together for two reasons. To bless the fishermen, and to welcome back Haik ciaub yubev (”big important king salmon” in the Lushootseed language). He comes to scout for the other salmon. We go down to greet him and treat him with respect, because he’s going to provide for us all through the year. He will return to the salmon people and report to them how well we treated him, how well he was received. We’ll take his remains, and we return him to the water and send him on his way.”

As the ceremony continued, the MC urged all the fishermen – including several women and the three uniformed sailors – to come forward.

“We bless the fishermen and remember those lost at sea. The waters are good to us, but they are dangerous,” he said.

The blessing had just ended when a youngster ran into the longhouse to announce the approach of a canoe.

The crowd filed out of the longhouse and down to the shore, where a black carved canoe with a high prow was nearing the beach. One of the rowers raised a king salmon and everyone applauded. The fish was placed on a pallet of sword ferns and cedar branches, and two men carried it up the gravel road to the longhouse. It would become the ceremony’s symbolic first returning salmon.

“Our visitor has arrived to honor us,” said the MC. “Thank you for helping us celebrate the first returning salmon, our scout, our reporter.”

As the ceremony ended, the singers and drummers, followed by the visitors, walked behind the remains of the ceremonial salmon as they were carried back to the beach. The salmon remains were placed in a canoe, taken far out into Tulalip Bay and then returned to the water.

We walked back to the tents that had been set up near the large parking lot.  There, several large Salmon had been prepared to feed all of the visitors.

I had never, in my life, eaten such wonderful fish.  There was nothing special about it.  It was cooked traditionally over coals of burning alder chips.  No seasonings required.  The whole tent was quiet as everyone devoured the feast.  Then a lot of talking and laughing.  I felt the peace in the tent was palpable and for the first time in days, I felt comfortable, relaxed.

(Some of the passages were taken from a report from this years First Salmon Ceremony held in Tulalip Bay, Washington. -Seattle Times.)

Next – A different nightmare.