North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World

Partners with Nature

Pacific Salmon

salmonThere are five species of Pacific salmon found in North America: sockeye, pink, chinook, chum, and coho. Their range extends north to the Arctic Ocean and as far south as Monterrey Bay in Northern California.

The upstream odyssey of the salmon is one of nature's greatest spectacles. Salmon are unique among the fishes because of their anadromous life cycle--they hatch in freshwater, spend part of their lives in the ocean, and are driven by a homing instinct to their stream of birth to spawn, or reproduce. The long journey from sea to birthplace is marked by a series of remarkable transformations, which occur in each stage of the salmon life cycle.

Salmon was the most valuable natural product of the Northwest Coast as well as the staple food of the Tlingit people. The supply of salmon harvested from the annual runs was abundant enough to sustain one of the most heavily populated areas of Native North America.

The Tlingit considered salmon a sacred people as well as a valuable resource. They showed their respect by greeting the fish with songs, prayers, and special ceremonies. After catching and eating salmon, the Tlingit returned the bones to the ocean. The bones came back to life as more Salmon People.

iconAccording to Tlingit belief, the Salmon People were a plentiful and powerful tribe that lived somewhere in the ocean. Salmon Country was surrounded by an ever opening and closing ring through which the Salmon People had to jump quickly to preserve their clean silver sides. Those that were caught in the ring were cut or marked, accounting for the stripes on their sides. Salmon Boy is a Tlingit legend that demonstrates the importance of salmon to this native culture.

Salmon were believed to travel in invisible canoes. The chiefs of the different families stood in the stern to direct their movements landward. When spring came, a great meeting was called, and all started at once for their streams, resulting in the annual migration home from the sea.

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