Salmon is a main dish at almost every meal, reflecting its central place in the cultures of Plateau tribal life in the Columbia River Basin. Each year Plateau peoples hold feasts to celebrate the return of the salmon. The salmon’s homecoming is a promise of plentiful food to help people grow healthy and strong. Salmon are also a part of the tribes’ religions. One creation legend teaches how important salmon is:
When the Creator was preparing to bring humans onto the earth, He called a grand council of all the animal people, plant people, and everything else. In those days, the animals and plants were more like people because they could talk. He asked each one to give a gift to the humans—a gift to help them survive, since humans were pitiful and would die without help. The first to come forward was Salmon. He gave the humans his body for food. The second to give a gift was Water. She promised to be the home to the salmon. After that, everyone else gave the humans a gift, but it was special that the first to give their gifts were Salmon and Water. When the humans finally arrived, the Creator took away the animals’ power of speech and gave it to the humans. He told the humans that since the animals could no longer speak for themselves, it was a human responsibility to speak for the animals. To this day, Salmon and Water are always served first at tribal feasts to remember the story and honor the First Foods.
Most modern Indians don’t eat as much salmon as their ancestors, but they still eat more than other people. Salmon continue to help feed the tribes, and many Indians still practice their culture by fishing for salmon and observing First Food traditions. The tribes still value the ancient promise that was made to honor the gifts of the animal and plant people and to speak for them. If we don’t honor that promise, these foods will go away.