CELILO VILLAGE, Ore. – Opening my car door, I could smell the smoking salmon from way down the road. As I walked up to Celilo Village’s newly built longhouse, the sun shone and wind swept alder wood smoke across the area. Ceremonial drums beat inside the longhouse. “It’s always a beautiful day for Salmon Feast,” said Sara Thompson, enjoying the sun on her face.
She had invited me to the to the First Salmon Feast after I learned about the ceremony from Wilbur Slockish, Jr., the hereditary chief of the Klickitat Tribe, a part of the Yakama Nation.
But tribe members have had to push back the ceremony’s date, as salmon runs come later in the spring. Some worry that climate change could affect salmon runs and native plants. Thompson works with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. She says tribes continue to depend on the natural world, and that’s why they’re working so hard to restore fish populations.
The First Salmon Feast must take place each year, before tribal fisherman can harvest salmon. And there was no mistaking that this was going to be a feast.
For hours tribal women filleted and smoked fresh salmon. Pounds and pounds stacked up as they swiftly moved their knives through the fish.
“You won’t find better filleters anywhere,” Thompson said of the women’s knife work.
They were supposed to cook 61 fish, but it looked like a lot more work than that. We watched as the women sliced the fish, chopping off the heads to be grilled later. (I remembered Slockish telling me the eyes were his favorite part, “Oh, those are good!” He smiled at the thought.)
The women then smoked the fish over a traditional open pit. Men cooked game on a nearby grill.
Each type of food is important to this ceremony. Earlier Slockish had recounted a legend to me: Before man, the creator asked the animals and plants how they would contribute to his arrival. Salmon spoke first, saying he would provide food. After that deer, roots and berries offered themselves.
“Our water, our animal life, our salmon, our deer. All of them,” Slockish says. “We wanna make sure that their survival is there because if they’re there, then we’ll be there. And if they’re not, then we’ll disappear as people, native people, Indian people.”
That’s why in this ceremony tribal members honor the food. Thompson and I walked quietly into the longhouse and took our seats on the floor. Water cups and plates with small portions of salmon, game, bitterroot and chokecherries were placed on tule mats.
After praying, tribe members ate these sacred first foods in order, starting and ending the meal with water.
Once the meal ended, I spoke with two elders wearing traditional wing dresses, Gloria Jim and Nora Kahclamat. They say it’s getting harder and harder to find some of these culturally important foods: spring salmon runs are coming later; berry-picking locations just aren’t there any more.
“A lot of Indian foods are just healthy foods,” Jim says. “But it’s getting scarce. Sometimes when we’re digging we get kicked out of here and there.”
Kahclamat adds: “We used to get to go picking in fields, but after a while they started locking the gates. … We used to be able to go out and get stuff and nobody would bother you. Now we can’t even go.”
Jim says sometimes when she goes to pick huckleberries, they are all gone by the time she can access the land. And that’s got tribe members worried about what could happen if these scared foods disappear.
As the ceremony comes to a close, tribe members acknowledge the year has started again with the return of the salmon.
“This is why we do what we do,” Thompson says.
First Salmon Feasts move down river, and at least two more are planned this season. The feast at Celilo Village is the only one that is open to the public.
Congrats to David James for his winning submission, 'Annabella smelling the Balsam.'
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