To the First Nation cultures of the Northwest coast, the salmon is a symbol of perseverance, self-sacrifice, regeneration and prosperity. For thousands of years, this fish has been the primary food source for coastal people, and is held in high esteem for the important role it continues to play in Northwest coast cultures and ecosystems today.
The salmon has shaped tribal culture and also facilitated the emergence of the art form we know today as Northwest Coast art.
Due to the hospitable climate of the region, the indigenous population did not need to travel far to hunt and gather food. There was an abundance of food resources nearby, chief among them the salmon. This afforded the coastal population time to pursue the arts, which led to the distinctive art form we can still appreciate today.
Salmon are typically easy to recognize in Northwest Coast art by their shape and curved, beak-like mouth (Haida Gwaii Salmon by Alvin Child, Spawning Salmon by Art Thompson, New Territory (Sea) by Dylan Thomas, Salmon Water Waves by lessLIE). Females have a less pronounced beak and are normally shown with small circles in their bodies, which represent eggs. In some cultures of the area, Salmon are associated with twins and are therefore often shown in pairs.
The salmon and the cycle of life are honoured and celebrated by Indigenous Nations all along the coastline.
There are five species of Pacific salmon: chinook, coho, sockeye, pink, chum. They differ in size, appearance and feeding habits, but they all hatch in fresh water, mature in the ocean, and return to their place of birth to spawn and die. This cycle of life is celebrated and respected by all Northwest coast cultures. As a sign of respect, salmon bones are returned to the water. The spirits will then rise, allowing the life cycle to begin again.
Northwest cultures believe that any shortages of salmon during any year can be attributed to a lack of respect for the salmon’s life cycle, so the seasonal return of the salmon to their spawning grounds is celebrated to show appreciation for the salmon’s sacrifice.
This celebration and the harvest are important aspects of Northwest Coast tribal life as they also involve the transfer of traditional values from generation to generation.
“My strength is from the fish; my blood is from the fish, from the roots and berries. The fish and game are the essence of my life. I was not brought from a foreign country and did not come here. I was put here by the Creator.”
– Chief Weninock, Yakama, 1915