Salmon Stories of Puget Sound Lushootseed-speaking Peoples

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 2/07/2001
  • Essay 2942

This essay describes the place of salmon in Puget Sound Native culture, spirituality, and story. In 1916, Arthur C. Ballard (1876-1962) began collecting the legends of the Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Snoqualmie, and other tribes of Puget Sound, and translating them into English. In the Lushootseed stories, salmon appear as individuals, as spiritual beings known as Salmon with a capital S, and as a food source that is being withheld from or shared with groups of people.

The salmon that swam in the region's waterways were essential to the maintenance of life in the villages in the Puget Sound basin. Their prevalence in everyday life is mirrored in the numerous mentions of the fish in stories.

The Lushootseed stories from Ballard's Mythology of Southern Puget Sound that relate to salmon are as follows:

  • North Wind and Storm Wind, 1st version (p. 55-57);
  • How Raven Tried to Get Dried Salmon (p. 96);
  • Moon, The Transformer (p 69-80);
  • Raven and Pheasant Go Fishing (p. 99-100);
  • Mink Traps a Monster, 1st version (p. 124-125);
  • Spring Salmon and Humpback Salmon, 2nd version (p 134);
  • Humpback Salmon (p. 134-135);
  • The Rash Youth and the Salmon (p. 135);
  • Coyote Gets Salmon for the Naches People, 1st version (p. 144-147);
  • Coyote Gets Salmon for the Naches People, 2nd version (p. 147-150);

In the stories, salmon are at the center of many situations involving other beings before and during the great change when Moon, the Transformer, traveled the region making the world as it is today. The stories as a group describe how people should treat salmon and emphasize that salmon runs are not an annual certainty. They could and did fail for any number of reasons, sometimes because people had acted inappropriately.

Action and Consequence

In one type of story, there are direct consequences for beings who stray from the proper way to do things. Raven finds out, after a day of fishing with Pheasant, that if you are greedy and unwilling to share the salmon that you have been allowed to catch, you won't get to eat the salmon either. As a consequence of hoarding the day's catch just for his family, Raven ends up eating the herring that have replaced his catch of salmon.

Because salmon souls never die, but return each year in a new salmon body, it is important to treat the caught fish respectfully, as the young man in "The Rash Youth and the Salmon" discovers. The youth does not really believe in the salmon's immortality and harms the carcass of the salmon he has caught. When he catches the same salmon the next year, he immediately falls dead.

The tale "Humpback Salmon" tells of Hado, the humpback salmon, and his desire not to be ridiculed, but allowed to come up the river and die so his soul can return home. The story warns that if Hado is displeased, he will bring sickness to the people.

The Origin Story

The Lushootseed origin story, "Moon, the Transformer," emphasizes the fact that salmon were given to the people by Moon for their subsistence. As Moon traveled around Puget Sound, he came across all the animal species and all of the elements of the earth and transformed them into what they are today. His first transformation changed dog salmon into "food for the people." At the end of the transformation, Moon tells the people, "Fish shall run up these rivers, they shall belong to each people on its own river. You shall make your own living from the fish, deer and other wild game."

Several stories explain how certain species of salmon came to run on particular rivers and why they swim upstream annually. Salmon do not run above Snoqualmie Falls because a boy accidentally spilled dried salmon into the river as he tried to eat the salmon when his parents were away. Eating while your parents were gone was not allowed then, and in breaking the rule he made it so the salmon would not be above the Falls.

Disagreement and Controversy

A disagreement between Tyee Salmon and Steelhead resulted in only Tyee Salmon going up the north fork of the Puyallup River and red salmon only going up the south fork. Salmon run all the way up into the Cascades because Coyote broke the weir constructed by the Sandpiper women and cleared the way for salmon to go upstream. Because of that, the Naches people could also fish for part of their food. But, as easily as salmon could be given, they could be taken away. A dispute between the rain wind people and the cold wind people led Cold Wind to build an ice fish weir across the Duwamish River, keeping the salmon below the weir and leaving the rain wind people to starve. Salmon's habit of running upstream originates in Moon mistakenly telling the dog salmon to swim upstream instead of downstream to the Sound at the Transformation.

Lushootseed Spirituality

Spiritual beliefs held by Lushootseed people also indicate the importance salmon had in their lives. In the early twentieth century, anthropologists Hermann Haeberlin and Erna Gunther gathered cultural information from a number of native communities in the Puget Sound region. They described various spirits and ceremonies related to salmon fishing in their 1930 book, The Indians of Puget Sound. The Snoqualmi and Snohomish identified the sgudi'late or gude'latc spirit, a spirit that, "stays under the water all the time, either in a river or in the Sound, and never travels. It is good for catching fish, especially salmon." Haeberlin and Gunther described the ceremony conducted by the owner of the spirit as follows:

"The board used in the dance is a flat piece of wood about one and one-half feet long. Painted red and black. Before the dance board was used it was heated at a fire into which some fat of dried salmon had been thrown. This was called 'finding the spirit.' The single board is used by the Snuqualmi, but the Snohomish use two boards, one larger than the other, representing an older and a younger brother. Two men dance with each of these boards, each putting one hand through the hole in the board. The two men who dance with the larger board - the older brother - lead the dance, which always progresses in a counterclockwise direction. Should it be danced in the opposite direction, the owner of the spirit would soon die. The owner of the spirit never dances with the boards himself. He sits to one side and sings songs while four hired men do their services. Other people also sit around and sing. They likewise receive presents. The singing and dancing lasted four days and four nights. The songs were always sung four times in very fast tempo and four times slowly."

Another spirit that aided in fishing was called tc !adzo'. It lived in the water also and Haeberlin and Gunther thought it was related to the sgudi'late spirit.

Rite and Ritual

To celebrate the season's first salmon run, a sgwe'gwe' ceremony was held by a member of the tribe with the tiolbax or the heyida spirit. People from neighboring communities were invited to attend and each group would perform their particular dances on a stage constructed from roof boards laid over canoes (in the water) to form a platform. The first salmon caught each year was treated carefully and prepared and eaten according to rituals so that the salmon would be sure to return the next year.

Right Living in Relation to Nature and Spirit

The presence of salmon in the stories and beliefs of Puget Sound native people is not surprising, considering the abundance of salmon in local waters and its importance as a food. The stories instruct people in how to behave appropriately toward plants and animals and in how to act to ensure continued plentiful fish harvests. Spiritual beliefs instruct people how to relate to the spirit world and to enlist its assistance. These stories, spiritual beliefs, and ethical concepts formed part of the cultural context that kept the Lushootseed people integrated with the natural world as they made their way through life in the Puget Sound region, living with and off the salmon.


Jay Miller, Lushootseed Culture and the Shamanic Odyssey: An Anchored Radiance (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999); Arthur Ballard, Mythology of Southern Puget Sound (Seattle: Snoqualmie Valley Historical Museum, [1929] 1999); Hermann Haeberlin and Erna Gunther, The Indians of Puget Sound, University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, Vol. 4, No. 1, (September 1930); Erna Gunther, "A Further Analysis of the First Salmon Ceremony," University of Washington Publications in Anthropology Vol. 2, No. 5 (June 1928).

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