TULALIP – Two fires burned on the dirt floor of the Tulalip longhouse, giving off smoke and bits of ash that wafted upward through openings in the top of the building. Hundreds of people filled the wooden platforms built into each side of the structure.
Tulalip tribal members sat next to public officials from Marysville and Everett. Visitors from nearby tribes such as the Makah and Suquamish, and even a member of the Hopi and Laguna Pueblos, bumped elbows with guests from Seattle. Three wide-eyed sailors in dress whites watched from a front-row bench.
About 50 costumed men, women and children danced counterclockwise around the edge of the floor, singing, drumming and shaking gourds.
When they finished, Tulalip tribal member Glen Gobin, the master of ceremonies, moved to the center of the longhouse.
“Great turnout! It feels good to see this longhouse full. It lifts our spirits. It lifts our voices.”
We were at this year’s annual First Salmon Ceremony, held earlier this month to welcome back the returning salmon and to ensure a good run. We listened as Gobin explained the day’s agenda.
“This ceremony was revived in 1979,” he said. “Before, we were forbidden to practice our ceremonies. Then the elders got together and remembered. They asked their grandparents. We may not do it the way it was done 200 years ago, but we do it the best way we can.
“At the salmon ceremony, we come together for two reasons. To bless the fishermen, and to welcome back Haik ciaub yubev (“big important king salmon” in the Lushootseed language). He comes to scout for the other salmon. We go down to greet him and treat him with respect, because he’s going to provide for us all through the year. He will return to the salmon people and report to them how well we treated him, how well he was received. We’ll take his remains, and we return him to the water and send him on his way.
“If we could only work on the price of fish, though!” The audience roared.
Placing the salmon nets
Four days earlier, I had gone out on Tulalip Bay with tribal employee Jerry Torres to watch men catch fish for the ceremony. Two nets were in place inside the bay, a technique called set netting. One end of the net is anchored to the beach or just offshore; the other end is anchored in the bay. Visitors are welcome to the tribal beaches to watch the traditional fishing methods all season long.
“The fish mill around in the bay, and when the tide goes out, they go with it, following the shore. So they set up the net from the beach out, catching them near the beach,” explained Torres.
One of the nets was tended by Cy Fryberg, in charge of cooking the fish for the First Salmon Ceremony luncheon. He’d caught five kings so far. He would need 2,500 pounds of salmon to feed all the visitors, so he’d have to order more salmon from Alaska or the Columbia River to augment the catch.
We sped out of the bay to check on Lance Williams, his teenaged sons Christopher and Charlie and his nephew Johnny. They were round-hauling, a system where an anchor holds one end of the net while the other is attached to the boat.
The boat then circles to close off the net. As some of the men hauled in the heavy 600-foot net by hand, others took turns slamming a plunger attached to a staff into the water beside the boat to keep the fish from escaping. Small crabs and a flounder struggled in the net.
But no salmon.
The first salmon ceremony
As the ceremony continued, Gobin urged all the fishermen – including several women and the three uniformed sailors – to come forward.
“We bless the fishermen and remember those lost at sea. The waters are good to us, but they are dangerous,” he said.
The blessing had just ended when a youngster ran into the longhouse to announce the approach of a canoe.
The crowd filed out of the longhouse and down to the shore, where a black carved canoe with a high prow was nearing the beach. One of the rowers raised a king salmon and everyone applauded.
The fish was placed on a pallet of sword ferns and cedar branches, and two men carried it up the gravel road to the longhouse. It would become the ceremony’s symbolic first returning salmon.
“Our visitor has arrived to honor us,” said Gobin. “Thank you for helping us celebrate the first returning salmon, our scout, our reporter.”
Chief Joseph Gosnell from the visiting Makah Nation spoke next: “We acknowledge the beauty of the connection that we have with our Creator through the salmon.
We have many ethnic groups here today, and we share the same Creator. During today’s ceremony, each person was welcomed. The longhouse door was never closed.”
Gobin then invited us to the tribal gymnasium, where, after being served a small piece of the ceremonial salmon, we would eat a meal together.
“We do this to ensure that we’ll have a good salmon return,” said Gobin. “We need it – we depend on that salmon to keep us alive, even though we may all have other jobs now.”
Gobin’s words were poignant. Many of the fishermen I had spoken with earlier in the week had to augment their income by crabbing or by taking other jobs.
According to Kit Rawson, the Tulalip Tribes’ senior fisheries management biologist, the tribe has substantially reduced its wild salmon catch to help restore the salmon fishery.
“Most of the fishing areas are closed, most of the time, with the goal being to restore natural production,” said Rawson.
Hatchery fish make up for some of the loss of the wild catch; the Tulalip raise chinook, coho and chum salmon in their hatchery, and all of the catch is reported.
As the ceremony ended, the singers and drummers, followed by the visitors, walked behind the remains of the ceremonial salmon as they were carried back to the beach. The salmon remains were placed in a canoe, taken far out into Tulalip Bay and then returned to the water.
The canoe was similar to those used on another June day, 212 years ago, when the Tulalip welcomed their first white visitors – Capt. George Vancouver and his men.
The hospitable tribe invited the sailors ashore and fed them.
“But you know what they did first?” Rawson said. “They took them fishing.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Cathy McDonald is a free-lance writer who lives in Renton.