Tribes’ spring ceremonies honor, protect Northwest salmon

Lummi Nation’s ceremonial first salmon rests on a bed of cedar fronds in a canoe Lummi Nation School teacher Michael Baker and senior Thomas Romero built for the event.

Each year, many tribes in the Northwest host salmon ceremonies as a way of communing with the fish populations that made life for their ancestors possible in the region for thousands of years.

Lummi Nation and the Puyallup Tribe were among those that held events in May.

“Today, it’s all about giving thanks. Without the salmon we wouldn’t be here,” said Lawrence Solomon, Lummi Nation School’s Curriculum Immersion Director. “We give thanks every year to our first salmon … to show our appreciation.”

Lummi’s First Salmon Ceremony had a marked change this year with the increased involvement of tribal youth in planning, hosting and engaging in the event.

Lummi Nation School students emceed most of the ceremony, told some of the tribe’s traditional stories pertaining to salmon, and drummed and sang and danced—transforming their school gym into a vibrant display of their culture.

A group of teens also helped divide the first fish and distribute bites to the crowd in paper cups. One of them, 14-year-old Syndey Washington, later delivered the remains of the first salmon back to the salt water.

Lummi Chairman Tony Hillaire said seeing youth so engaged in the event and the culture is a sign of healing for the tribe, in part through education sovereignty.

“This is our responsibility: Taking care of the salmon, taking back what’s ours, and healing what needs to be healed,” he said.

A week later, the Puyallup Tribe of Indians marked its First Fish Ceremony with songs, dances, drumming—and a reaffirmation of the tribe’s dedication to preserving salmon as they have for many generations.

“Our salmon came back, and came back big,” said tribal Chairman Bill Sterud, looking with admiration at the large salmon caught for the ceremony. “If it wasn’t for the Puyallup Tribe, that salmon may not be here. We keep him safe.

“For a thousand years, this ceremony has taken place, and a thousand years from now it’ll still take place,” Steurd said.

Tribal fishers took a boat out on the water before 5 a.m. to catch fish for the ceremony, and dozens of tribal members including elders and young people gathered to see the salmon carried to shore; later, its remains were carried back toward the water by young people of the tribe.

“When the salmon goes back in the water, he’ll tell a great story of our people,” said tribal member Connie McCloud.

Below: Puyallup Tribe members including Ramona Bennett (center) and Clinton McCloud (right) chat during the First Fish Ceremony. Photos and story by Kimberly Cauvel and Trevor Pyle. 

Below left: Lummi youth, including Jr. Stommish Princes Nakaia (Kitty) Tso, distributed bites of the first salmon to participants at the tribe’s event in May. Below right: Puyallup Tribe members drum during this year’s First Fish Ceremony.