The story of the First Salmon Ceremony goes back to the melting of the continental ice sheet some 15,000 years before the present. When the ice melted the rivers ran free. The salmon found the rivers and multiplied in numbers the modern mind cannot comprehend. The First Salmon Ceremony was practiced in one form or another by people who lived in the range of the salmon from California to Alaska and east to the Continental Divide. It is one of the oldest expressions of human faith known to man where the salmon are thanked for returning to the river to sacrifice their bodies as an abundant food source for people.
It was said that the salmon came from a big house at the bottom of the ocean where they lived in human form. When it was time for the run up the rivers, they put on salmon robes. The salmon runs were a voluntary sacrifice for mankind, the animals and the forest. That as long as the salmon were treated with honor, their bones washed and returned to the river, the fish would run forever.
The First Salmon Ceremony was first witnessed by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition at The Dalles on the Columbia River on April 19th 1806.
Captain Clark observed, “The whole village was rejoicing today over having caught a single salmon, which was considered as the harbinger of vast quantities in four or five days. In order to hasten their arrival, the Indians, according to custom, dressed the fish and cut it into small pieces, one of which was given to every child in the village.”
It was believed that as long as the salmon were treated with respect, their bones washed and returned to the river, the fish would run forever. All of which might go a long way to explain what happened to the salmon fishing in Washington. When Lewis and Clark first observed an estimated ten thousand pounds of dried salmon stored in baskets stacked along the river, salmon was a food for the common people.
Salmon kept people alive throughout our history. James Swan described the salmon fishing at Chinook, Washington in June of 1853 where a hundred Chinook or King salmon weighing up to 78 pounds could be caught in a single haul of a beach seine net. These fish called,” June Hogs” for their size and fat content were doomed to extinction with the establishment of the first of many salmon canneries on the Columbia River in 1866. Canned salmon represented an inexpensive protein that was considered the poor man’s tuna. In 1938 the Grand Coulee Dam which was built on the Columbia with no provisions for fish passage.
Predictably, the salmon fishing moved north to Alaska. The yearly arrival of the Copper River Salmon by jet to the restaurants in Seattle represents a transmogrification of the First Salmon Ceremony into a media event almost like the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Clause all rolled into one. This year about 18,000 pounds of these first salmon described as, “buttery, red and rich-with intense flavor, texture and mouthfeel” were available for $75.00 a pound. The closer the salmon circle the drain of extinction the more valuable they will become.
Meanwhile here in Washington the king salmon has achieved threatened and/or endangered species status despite the millions spent in restoring them. It was thought that by showing the salmon a new appreciation with a First Salmon Celebration they would return. This was not a dog friendly venue. The First Salmon would be offended if a dog came near them or ate any part of his body. I was secretly relieved. Cooking over a camp fire can be a challenge even without a snarling pack of dogs with questionable bathroom habits. As it happened, I was trying out some new recipes from my about to be released cookbook which includes my Chili Contest winning chili recipe.
People always said the only way I could win a chili contest was if mine was the only entry and they were right. The losers of this chili contest never knew about it until after I won fair and square. We were going to need that chili since no one caught a salmon. Even the tribal net fisherman was skunked. I was sunk with no salmon for the First Salmon Ceremony. All we had were chili-dogs and people at my fish camps expect way better. The event had become a no salmon ceremony.
People showed up with meat, fowls and vegetables which I was expected to cook on a grill over a campfire instead of the salmon. I was skewering a kabob when the first dogs arrived. They ranged from the size of a small coyote to a small ox. The dog’s owners or human companions as they are known these days all insisted their animal companions didn’t bite or fight. Which was true they just growled and snapped while trying to barge into my experimental kitchen.
“Just kick the dog if it gets in the way,” a human companion insisted. Like I would want to hurt my foot kicking a beast that weighed almost as much as I did even if it’s drooling on a platter of meat. The human companions kept a constant stream of instructions to the animal companions yelling,
“Come here!” or
“Go away!” While asking the animal companion rhetorical questions like,
“How many times have I told you not to do that?” While insisting,
“You know better than that.”
It’s been said that a wet dog is the friendliest creature in all of the animal creation. The eternal truth of these immortal words were exemplified to their fullest when a dog emerged from the river to roll in the hot sand and there amid a vast expanse of a million acre wilderness, stand upon the precise spot to shake a spray of sand infused water where it would do the most good, on the barbecue.
Then the elders told their stories. Of what the river used to be like. It was like a celebration of life for the river and the salmon which meant that both of them were dead. It was very sad, enough to make you weep. I was so depressed I got a puppy.