Lewis and Clark’s interpreter and guide Sacagawea was a “Salmon Eater.” That’s what they called her tribe of Lemhi Shoshone Native Americans, a nomadic band who lived in Idaho’s Lemhi River Valley and along the upper Salmon River — their descendants today living mostly on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation near Pocatello.
Sacagawea’s tribe was made up of the Agaidikas or Salmon-Eater Shoshone and the Tukidikas. Sacagawea belonged to the Agaidikas.
Food was almost always a big challenge for Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery expedition. Sacagawea helped enormously by introducing the men to edible wild foods they’d never seen before — like currants, wild licorice, the starchy tuber wapato, wild artichoke and wild onions.
Most of all, the men needed protein to energize them for the hard labor of carrying heavy loads and lugging the cumbersome canoes overland. They ate almost anything they could shoot or catch such as deer, elk, bear, buffalo, rabbit, birds — and even dogs they’d trade for with the Indians.
On July 13, 1805, Clark wrote: “We eat an emensity of meat; it requires 4 deer, or an elk and a deer, or one buffaloe to supply us plentifully 24 hours.”
By the time they arrived in Idaho, there were few buffalo, but plenty of salmon.
From Idaho to the Pacific Ocean, salmon proved to be a big item on the Corps’ menu.
On Aug. 13, Lewis and Clark had a momentous day: First, they found the Shoshone tribe from which Sacagawea was kidnapped years earlier by a Hidatsa band, and she was delighted to find out her brother, Cameahwait, was tribal chief — and second, they tasted salmon for the first time.
“This was the first salmon I had seen and perfectly convinced me that we were on the waters of the Pacific Ocean,” Then he described how the Indians caught the salmon with “wairs (fish traps), gigs, and fishing hooks.”
Salmon reach the Lemhi by swimming up the Columbia River to the Snake River and its tributary the Salmon, then to the Lemhi and other mountain streams. The Shoshone would catch hundreds of salmon and steelhead in the traps, and then dry them to last through the winter.
Further west, the Nez Perce also relished the salmon — the fish proving four-fifths of the protein in their diet.
On April 18, 1806, the expedition was below The Dalles when they witnessed the arrival of the first few spring salmon — an event traditionally celebrated by the Tenino and Watlala Indians with a sacred ceremony, in which by custom they gave each child in the village a small piece of the harbinger fish.
The Indians knew huge schools of salmon would be arriving within the next few days.
An article by the Columbia River Tribes tells a tribal legend from Sacagawea’s people:
“When the Creator was preparing to bring forth people onto the earth, He called a grand council of all creation.
“From them, He asked for a gift for these new creatures — a gift to help the people survive, since they would be quite helpless and require much assistance from them all.
“The very first to come forward was Salmon, who offered his body to feed the people. The second to come forward was Water, who promised to be the home to the salmon. In turn, everyone else gathered at the council gave the coming humans a gift, but it is significant that the very first two were Salmon and Water.”
Salmon have been important to the indigenous people of North America for perhaps 11,000 years, according to a Cabrillo College report. “Salmon was the most important staple food source…300 pounds per year per person (is eaten) among some Nootka-speaking groups; 500 pounds among Tlingit-speaking groups; and up to 1,000 pounds among some Coast Salish-speaking groups.”
In a 1901 Oregon Historical Quarterly article, writer Louis Labonte told about the Willamette Waterfalls, the Indians and the salmon — a narrative that also applies to other locations: “Native American legends taught that the falls were placed there by a great god so that their people would have fish to eat all winter.”
Another Indian legend is about the “Salmon People,” handed down from one generation to the next. They believe the spiritual world is connected to the physical world.
Historian Ruth Kirk explains in “Tradition and Change on the Northwest Coast,” that Indians believe when animals are eaten by humans, their spirits enter the human world, and after they are eaten, the animals return home, put on new flesh and re-enter the human world whenever they choose.
Vancouver, B.C., educator Laiwan at Goddard College tells a Salish tribal legend:
“Raven (read last week’s History Corner about the Seahawks) traveled by canoe from the Bella Coola River to the Salmon People’s village in the Pacific Ocean. The chief invited Raven for dinner, but warned him not to eat any of the bones of the salmon.
“Raven was mischievous and hid a bone in his mouth. After dinner, when the chief threw the bones into the river, they turned into salmon, but the people knew something was wrong.
“Raven reluctantly returned the missing bone and the fish transformed into the chief’s daughter. Raven grabbed the girl, brought her aboard his canoe and returned to the Bentick Arm.
“There he made her promise to return each year with salmon and released her. Ever since, sockeye come to the Bella Coola River and the Salish return their salmon bones to the water.”
“The salmon was put here by the Creator for our use as part of the cycle of life,” says Carla High Eagle of the Nez Perce. “It gave to us, and we, in turn, gave back to it through our ceremonies… Their returning meant our continuance was assured because the salmon gave up their lives for us.
“In turn, when we die and go back to the earth, we are providing that nourishment back to the soil, back to the riverbeds, and back into that cycle of life.”
Salmon are found almost everywhere in the world where there are rivers, creeks, lakes, wetlands or ocean — their natural habitats.
By nature, salmon are anadromous — born and grow up in fresh water, migrate to the sea, and then return to fresh water a year or more later (depending on species) to reproduce. They usually return to their birthplace, spawn there and die — but not all salmon. Atlantic salmon return year after year to spawn.
How do salmon find their way back to where they were born?
A study at Oregon State University by the Oregon Sea Grant and the National Science Foundation says, “What we think happens is that when salmon leave the river system as juveniles and enter the ocean, they imprint the magnetic field — logging it in as a waypoint…It serves as a proxy for geographic location when they return as adults. It gets them close to their river system and then other, finer cues may take over.”
Those other cues may be the salmon’s sense of smell — or something else.
The scientists claim that the “drift” of the Earth’s geomagnetic field correlates with the routes the salmon follow.
It’s not an easy task for the salmon, and few make the full migratory cycle because of the many hazards they face.
A University of Idaho study of dams on the Columbia River says, “Up to 20 percent of fish are killed trying to pass these dams. The water backed up behind the dams also slows the migration of fish to the ocean, rendering them more susceptible to diseases and predators.
“Today, with only some 2.5 million returning to enter the Columbia River each year, fewer than a dozen native salmon ever make their way back to Redfish Lake, at the head of the Salmon River, in central Idaho.”
Fish ladders help salmon negotiate the dams.
Most salmon in supermarkets today are raised on fish farms — never having braved nature’s greatest challenges in the open seas and mighty rivers, or being remembered for their role in an ancient culture.
The people who came to America first remember…
“The strength of the fire,
the taste of salmon,
the trail of the sun,
and the life that never goes away,
they speak to me.
“And my heart soars.”
— Chief Dan George, Coast Salish
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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“I think we’re going to the Moon because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul… we’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream.”
— Neil Armstrong, first man on the Moon
Saved from extinction…
“At one time, more than 150,000 salmon used to make the 900-mile journey each year from the Pacific Ocean to Idaho’s Snake River Basin. By the time the Snake River Sockeye were listed as endangered under the Endanger Species Act in 1991, the only surviving population in Idaho was at Redfish Lake and their numbers had dwindled to fewer than ten returning fish.”
— Sierra Club
Wild salmon lifecycle…
During their one to seven years in the ocean, adult salmon that survive have faced countless hazards — predators, ocean conditions and commercial fishermen. Once back in the Columbia River before they reach their home streams are more hazards — more fishermen, seals and sea lions, bears, raptors, dams and water pollution.
If they make it, females build a nest — or “redd” — in fine, clean gravel.
The females deposit thousands of eggs, and males fertilize them by releasing milt.
Both male and female salmon die soon after spawning — except steelhead and cutthroat, which may survive another year or more to spawn again.
— Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission
What are the odds?
“The statistics of salmon survival are instructive: Imagine 3,000 salmon eggs, a female’s normal output. From them, 500 fry will hatch, but only 45 fry will grow to smolt stage and reach the sea. Ocean fishing, natural predation, and the rigors of returning upstream will kill off all but 2 to 5 adults who succeed in returning to their spawning ground. If 5 return, they’ve beat odds of 600 to one against them.”
— NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service
Beavers help salmon…
University of Southampton researchers claim that beaver dams improve overall salmon habitat diversity by giving juvenile salmon a safe place to live and mature before they head for the open sea.