Eating in the Americas: Salmon People

Long ago, among the Haida people, there was a boy who showed no respect for the salmon. Though the salmon meant life for the people, he was not respectful of the one his people called Swimmer. His parents told him to show gratitude and behave properly, but he did not listen. When fishing he would step on the bodies of the salmon that were caught and after eating he carelessly threw the bones in to the bushes. Others warned him that the spirits of the salmon were not pleased by such behavior, but he did not listen.
One day, his mother served him a meal of salmon. He looked at it with disgust. “This is moldy,” he said, though the meat was good. He threw it upon the ground. Then he went down to the river to swim with the other children. However, as he was swimming, a current caught him and pulled him away from the others. It swept him into the deepest water and he could not swim strongly enough to escape from it. He sank into the river and drowned.
There, deep in the river, the Salmon People took him with them. They were returning back to the oceans without their bodies. They had left their bodies behind for the humans and animal people to use as food. The boy went with them, for now he belonged to the salmon.

When they reached their home in the ocean, they looked just like human beings. Their village there in the ocean looked much like his own home and he could hear the sound of children playing in the stream which flowed behind the village. Now the Salmon People began to teach him. He was hungry and they told him to go to the stream and catch one of their children, who were salmon swimming in the stream. However, he was told, he must be respectful and after eating return all of the bones and everything he did not intend to eat to the water. Then, he was told, their children would be able to come back to life. But if the bones were not returned to the water, the salmon child could not come back.
He did as he was told, but one day after he had eaten, when it came time for the children to come up from the stream, he heard one of them crying, he went to see what was wrong. The child was limping because one of its feet was gone. Then the boy realized he had not thrown all of the fins back into the stream. He quickly found the fin he had missed, threw it in and the child was healed.
After he had spent the winter with the Salmon People, it was spring and time for them to return to the rivers. The boy swam with them, for he belonged to the Salmon People now. When they swam past his village, his own mother caught him in her net. When she pulled him from the water, even though he was in the shape of a salmon, she saw the copper necklace he was wearing. It was the same necklace she had given her son. She carried Salmon Boy carefully back home. She spoke to him and held him and gradually he began to shed his salmon skin. First his head emerged.
Salmon Boy taught the people all of the things he had learned. He was a healer now and helped them when they were sick. “I cannot stay with you long,” he said, “you must remember what I teach you.”
He remained with the people until the time came when the old salmon who had gone upstream and not been caught by the humans or by the animal people came drifting back down toward the sea. As Salmon Boy stood by the water, he saw a huge old salmon floating down toward him. He was so worn out by his journey that he could see through its sides. He recognized it as his own soul and he thrust his spear into it. As soon as he did, he died.
Then the people of his village did as he had told them to do. They placed his body into the river. It circled four times and then sank, going back to his home in the ocean, back to the Salmon People. –


When we think of the word Civilization we often think of cities, armies, and complex social structures. Other groups of people we would call Cultures – one’s lacking in written language, large cities, or stratified social classes. Yet we use the word “civil”  as opposed to “Barbarian” to indicate that a culture is somehow more refined, more sophisticated, more – well – civil. The very idea of civilization is an old-world construct. It comes from the Latin word Civitas – which means to relate. Barbarian is a term we inherited from the Greeks, who used it to describe the Turks, whom they felt were uncivilized.

There were people, like Rousseau, who did not hold the idea of Civilization in quite as high a regard as the rest of civilization did. And Oswald Spengler, in his “Decline of the West” rejected Petrarch’s chronological division, and suggested that there had been only eight “mature civilizations.” Growing cultures, he argued, tend to develop into imperialistic civilizations which expand and ultimately collapse, with democratic forms of government ushering in plutocracy and ultimately imperialism. This suggests that Civilization is not progressive at all, but simply the step before autocratic rule in a cyclical pattern of birth and destruction. Wait – does this sound familiar to you?

The word Civilization is a controversial one even today. It immediately implies two, somewhat incompatible things –  improvement and inequality. The word Culture, on the other hand, does not imply either progress or inequality and through the lens of the European Enlightenment or the Roman Legions a Culture became a lower type of social organization than a Civilization because they came from a Civilization (an unequal social organization). Additionally, most Civilizations view time as lineal (like their society is hierarchical) and most Cultures view time as cyclical (and their society as egalitarian). Of course, there are exceptions. India, for example.


Civilization and Culture are, by no means, mutually exclusive. It was the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution in the West that raised up the idea Civilization as a pinnacle of human development. But I think we have to ask our selves a few questions in determining the value of a Civilization over a Culture. One, is social stratification an improvement? Two, is writing superior to oral tradition (or is John Grisham superior to Homer)? And three, is progress more important, less important or equally as important as social stability? The assumptions inherent in our concepts of Civilization are ones that we make every day without a second thought and they affect everything – from the way we treat the person on the corner asking for money, to the way we justify wars, to what we eat. We imagine Cultures being built on inherited and often out-dated traditions, but I would submit to you that our very concept of Civilization is it’s self, inherited.

And perhaps a bit out dated as well.


For thousands of years, eulachon have been prized for their oil and are one of the most valuable trade items. There were numerous grease trails connecting coastal and interior communities with the largest trading center on the Nass River. 

Smoked Eulachons


Preparation for Smoking
1. Wash the eulachons well under running water.
2. Place the fish in a barrel of fresh water to which has been added enough coarse salt to float a potato (about 2 cups [500 ml] coarse salt in 3 gallons [12 Litres]
3. Soak for about ½ hour to 1 hour or until their eyes turn white.
4. Hang the eulachons for smoking by threading on cedar sticks. Push the strip of red cedar in through the gills and out through the mouth. usually 12-25 eulachon are put on each stick.
5. Hang the eulachon heavy sticks from the rafters in the in the smokehouse, making sure the fish are not touching each other. There needs to be enough space between each rack and the fish so that the smoke is even.
6. Start the fire after the eulachon finish dripping. use alder wood for smoking.
7. Smoke the eulachon for 2-6 days. Smoke longer for drier fish. Half smoked eulachons (i.e., left one to two days in the smokehouse) may be canned.


“I did not see anything [New York 1886] to help my people. I could see that the Wasichus [white man] did not care for each other the way our people did before the nation’s hoop was broken. They would take everything from each other if they could, and so there were some who had more of everything than they could use, while crowds of people had nothing at all and maybe were starving. This could not be better than the old ways of my people.” ― Black Elk, from Black Elk Speaks


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