The First Salmon Ceremony – A tale of Thanksgiving

The First Salmon Ceremony – A tale of Thanksgiving

The origins of our current Thanksgiving Holiday revolve around giving thanks and sacrifice for the blessing of the harvest and of the preceding year, but giving thanks certainly didn’t originate with the Pilgrims in the 1600s. Consider the Native Nations in the Pacific Northwest.

There are very few things that have more importance to the ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest than Salmon. As they return from the ocean to spawn, they hold an important role of nourishment by providing important nutrients to the land, animals and people. As a matter of fact, we often think of salmon only in terms of nourishment, but these beautiful fish are solely responsible for shaping the society and cultural identity of regional Native Nations for literally thousands of years. Fishing remains the most prevalent form of livelihood. The First Salmon Ceremony, for example, is a cultural tradition celebrating the trade and sharing techniques that have been passed down through many generations.

There is a story told that goes something like this: As the creator was preparing to bring people to the earth, he called upon the plants and animals to offer a gift that would sustain and nourish them because they would be helpless, and need assistance. The first who offered to help was Salmon, who offered its body to feed the people, followed by water who offered to home the salmon. Although there are many different versions of this tale, every tribal group who fish for salmon has a form of first salmon ceremony. 

The ceremony begins by the salmon chief selecting a fisher to catch the first salmon-this is a great honor. Before entering the river, the fisher receives a blessing and purification. After catching the fish it is brought to shore, carefully prepared, and cooked before being handed out to the people. Each group is doing this in a way that is unique to that geographic location and tribe. The bones are cleaned and returned to the water where it is believed the salmon would continue its journey. During the ceremony there is a universal respect for the salmon being presented as a gift. The intention is that the fish god will recognize this and continue to allow the salmon to return the following year.

The First Salmon Ceremony holds so much significance because it is a celebration of life for the salmon people. Without the salmon, there would be no tribe, no community, no history. At this time of year, as we begin our holiday season, we, too, give thanks for salmon and believe that it should be celebrated with a place of honor on our Thanksgiving table. We are also thankful for you, our Pride of Bristol Bay customers, as you make up our community. For that, we are grateful.

Photos by NW Treaty Tribes