Spring is a time of spiritual renewal along with Easter, Ramadan and Passover. There is, however, another seasonal ritual that’s older than all these traditions put together, the First Salmon Ceremony.
It’s a ritual celebrated by Native Americans throughout the range and history of the salmon, which goes back to the end of the last ice age, 15,000 before present.
The First Salmon Ceremony is one of the oldest expressions of human faith where the salmon are thanked for returning to the river.
The salmon were said to have come from a big house at the bottom of the ocean where they lived in human form.
When the time came to run up the rivers, they put on salmon robes. The salmon volunteered to sacrifice their bodies for food for mankind, the animals, the birds and the forest.
It was believed that as long as the first salmon was treated with honor, its bones washed and returned to the river and not one scrap of its flesh fed to the dogs, the salmon would run forever.
All of which would go a long way to explain the decline of salmon lately.
It seems that only yesterday Lewis and Clark observed a First Salmon Ceremony on April 19, 1806, at The Dalles on the Columbia River.
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.”
The Corps of Discovery was in trouble at the time.
After a soggy winter at Fort Clatsop, they headed back up the flood-staged Columbia in late March, with nothing more than a handful of trade goods that could be carried in “two handkerchiefs.”
Fortunately, during the winter they had made 300 or 400 pairs of elk-hide moccasins. Captain Clark had sealed their remaining 140 pounds of gunpowder inside waterproof lead canisters so they had plenty of ammunition.
However, Captain Lewis lamented the fact that President Jefferson hadn’t sent a ship to rescue or supply the expedition at the mouth of the Columbia. It would have been nice.
All winter they subsisted on lean elk meat while trying to trade for food with the hard-bargaining Columbia River tribes, who already had experience in the sea otter trade that began in 1778, when Captain Cook sailed past our coast or what was known as “New Albion.”
Cook missed the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the fog, naming Cape Flattery as an historic insult to the navigator for whom the then-imaginary Strait was named.
Captain Cook proceeded to Vancouver Island, where by chance they traded with the Nootka People for 20 sea otter skins that were worth $800 in China.
In 1785, James, (AKA John) Hanna opened the sea otter trade, killing an estimated 70 Nootka men, women and children, to trade 500 skins worth $20,000 in China. The rush was on.
Hanna was soon followed by the American Captain Robert Gray, who first entered the mouth of the Columbia on May 11, 1792, slaughtering a canoe load of 20 Indians with cannon fire on the way.
Gray was followed in 1806 by the brig Lydia. Unknown to Lewis and Clark, the Lydia was anchored just across the river from them.
Next week: The story of the Lydia and her place in the history of the Olympic Peninsula.