Elwha River: Sanctified by Salmon

After long travel across the Pacific, the jet stream meets the coast range in the soggy environs of the Salish Sea.  This confrontation wrings from the sky the greatest amounts of precipitation seen in the continental United States (about.com), flowing from the sky into the multitudes of rivers, streams, rivulets and runnels carving this landscape.


Elwha River – http://www.nps.gov/olym/naturescience/elwha-faq.htm

In addition to this atmospheric water, another torrent from the Pacific annually inundates the Salish Sea and it’s neighboring rivers- a torrent of life, nutrients and food: the pacific salmon migration.  As the rivers fall in the end of summer, the salmon charge back to their natal sites to spawn and die (Groot and Margolis, 1991). Since long before the United States existed this salmon run has sustained and inspired a group of First Nations.

“It has been said that the fishery was of no less importance to Coast Salish Indian Tribes than the atmosphere they breathed”. These anadromous fish became the very namesake of “The People of the Salmon” (Tulalip Tribes).  Salmon provided the basis of the diet. They were eaten fresh as well as caught in the summer to be smoked and saved for the harsh winter.  The salmon wove itself throughout the mythology and tradition of the Salish peoples as a life sustaining force (Salmon, the Life-giving Gift).  The salmon harvest has been ritualized through the “First Salmon Ceremony”.  Before anyone may catch a salmon, tribal elders ceremonially prepare a “first salmon” and return the bones to the sea. This ritual involves thanking the salmon for their continued return, asking them to continue sustaining the group, demarcating the different roles between males and females in society as well as celebrating the cycle of reproduction itself. The ceremony involves the use of powerful Salish symbols such as “fire, water, red ochre, white down and cedar bark”(Amoss, 1987). In addition, the celebration hearkens back to salmon origin myths in which the salmon people sacrifice a child to feed the humans but the child was reborn after its bones were returned to the sea (Gunther, 1926).


First Salmon Ceremony – http://whatcomwatch.org/wpww/?p=348

Through this ceremony the indigenous groups make a demarcation between the sacred and the profane. The salmon is sacred because it is more than its physical self. It points toward the infinite realm of spirit and higher forms (Eliade).  In sanctifying the salmon, indigenous groups acknowledge the fish as “sentient subject” and themselves as “sensible object” (Lane, 67).  The sacrementality of the fish cannot be separated from its role as nourishment nor can the perspective of the fish on the human be forgotten.  In this way the salmon becomes “sacred space”. However, a creature is not a space and cannot exist, be experienced or be captured in the absence of a space.  For the First Nations of the Salish Sea, the salmon sanctified the rivers themselves through the eternal “miracle” of their return (Salmon, the Life-giving Gift).

Prior to the mid 1800’s the Klallam people, a group of Salish Indigenous People occupied villages on the north coast of the Olympic Peninsula.  One specific tribe, the Lower Elwha Klallam Nation lived in the environs of the Elwha River (Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe).  At this time, the Elwha River had one of the “richest salmon runs outside of Alaska” (United States).  In the year 1855, with conflicts between Natives and White Settlers growing, the Klallam, along with other Salish groups signed the Treaty of Point-No-Point transporting them to a reservation further south on the peninsula but guaranteeing them “the right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations”.

Even as these fishing rights were already being challenged, Entrepreneur Thomas Aldwell saw the hydroelectric potential of the Elwha in the early 1900’s. By 1910 he had secured funding and constructed the Elwha dam five miles upriver from the mouth. In 1927 the Glines Canyon Dam was constructed, a further 8 miles upstream.


“Elwha Dam” – http://www.nps.gov/olym/naturescience/elwha-ecosystem-restoration.htm

Thesedams supplied power to a growing logging industry in Port Angeles at the mouth of the Elwha but neither included fish ladders to allow for the passage of migratory fish upstream (United States). The Klallam people had been evicted from their homeland and their sacred salmon locked out of the Elwha River. In addition, the US government mandated fishing licenses, available only to US citizens. As non-citizens, First Nation Peoples were excluded from legal fishing anywhere but their reservations in spite of earlier guarantees. (Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe).  The government of the United States relocated the Elwha people from their sacred space and then blocked out the very creatures that sanctified the space for the people. Finally, the government attempted to destroy the phenomenological connection of sustenance and spirituality by restricting fishing access.

In the years since, the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe has fought back against these three violations. Their first success was the creation of the Lower Elwha Klallam reservation at the mouth of the Elwha River in 1934 under the Indian Recognition Act.


Watershed + Reservation (brown) – https://www.naturebridge.org/elwha-science-education-project-river-restoration

In 1972, the tribe sued the state of Washington to regain fishing rights. In 1974 this right was finally affirmed in the Boldt decision of US vs. Washington.  Starting in the mid 80’s, the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe joined forces with environmental groups to bring down the dams and restore the salmon fishery.  (Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe).

Finally, in 2012, their long fight paid off with the removal of the Elwha dam and two years later in 2014 the Glines Canyon Dam.  https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=830230780355635&set=vb.116387105073343&type=2&theater  (Dam removal video)  The removal of these dams was no guarantee of the restoration of the fishery, however. Scientists were uncertain at the time whether and to what degree the fish would return.  As of late 2014 results are decidedly positive.  John McMillan a NOAA biologist reports that “Those fish are finding the clear creeks, and they’re spawning” (AP). After the fall of the Elwha Dam, salmon were reported in the middle zone of the river (between original dam sites) and immediately after the Glines Canyon Dam was removed salmon were seen in the upper Elwha for the first time in over 100 years. Cristopher Torr a researcher with the Smithsonian declared:  “It’s incredible, I can’t believe how fast everything has happened” (AP). Over the next 20 to 30 years, Elwha salmon populations are expected to reach 400,000 up from a mere 4,000 several years ago (Seattle Times).  Robert Elofson, the river restoration project director for the tribe has stated that: “This project means that probably within my lifetime we’ll start harvesting natural-run salmon again.” (Cosier, 2012).  Despite their harsh treatment by the United States, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has taken back their sacred lands, taken back their traditional fishing rights and opened their river to be made sacred once again by the salmon.

elwha5 http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/gallery/images/photos/7837846400.html

Works Cited

Amoss, Pamela T. “The Fish God Gave Us: The First Salmon Ceremony Revived.” JSTOR. Arctic Anthropology, 1987. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.

“As Dams Fall, Elwha River Makes Stunning Recovery.” Save Our Wild Salmon. AP. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.

“Back to Nature: Last Chunk of Elwha Dams out in September.” The Seattle Times. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.

Cosier, Susan. “Born Free.” EBSCO. Audobon, 2012. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.

Groot, C., and L. Margolis. Pacific Salmon Life Histories. Vancouver: UBC, 1991. Web.

Gunther, Erna. “Analysis of First Salmon Ceremony.” JSTOR. American Anthropologist, 1926. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.

Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.

“The People of the Salmon.” Tulalip Tribes. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.

“Salmon, the Lifegiving Gift.” American Indians of the Pacific Northwest Collection. University of Washington. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.

“Treaty of Point No Point, 1855.” HistoryLink.org. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.

United States. National Park Service. “History of the Elwha.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, 01 Oct. 2014. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.

“Wettest Places in the USA.” About. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.

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