Return to the water: First Nations relations with salmon


Salmon are a valuable resource and an important part of Coastal First Nations’ cultural identity, spirituality and way of life. When European settlers arrived in Vancouver they claimed the land and resources for themselves, endangering the communities and traditions that thrived along the water. Although colonization affected First Nations people, their connection to water and salmon remain strong.

The Legend of the Salmon People

Salmon are themselves a proud race. They are happy to come ashore each year and give their rich flesh to feed the people, but they must be treated with respect.

                                                                                                                   Donna Joe, Salmon Boy

The legend of the Salmon People is told by many First Nations cultures and these stories helped shape the traditions and lifestyles that were passed down from one generation to the next. First Nations believe in a spiritual world interconnected with the physical world. It is believed that the Animal People have spirits and enter the human world to give their bodies to supply men with food, fur and other materials. After their flesh is used the animals return home, put on new flesh and re-enter the human world whenever they choose (Kirk 81). Therefore, the First Nations revere and work in cooperation with the Animal People to ensure their return.

In a popular Salish First Nations legend, Raven traveled by canoe from the Bella Coola River to the Salmon People’s village in the Pacific Ocean. The chief invited Raven for dinner, but warned him not to eat any of the bones of the salmon. Raven was mischievous and hid a bone in his mouth. After dinner, when the chief threw the bones into the river, they turned into salmon, but the people knew something was wrong. Raven reluctantly returned the missing bone and the fish transformed into the chief’s daughter. Raven grabbed the girl, brought her aboard his canoe and returned to the Bentick Arm. There he made her promise to return each year with salmon and released her. Ever since, sockeye come to the Bella Coola River and the Salish return their salmon bones to the water (Kirk 82).

Other First Nations cultures also carry on the tradition of returning their salmon bones to the water. For instance, the Kwakwaka’wakw people hold a Salmon Ceremony every year at the beginning of the salmon run. During the ceremony the head, bones, and entrails are separated from the flesh of the salmon. The fish is carried by twins, who are signs of good luck and believed to come from the Salmon People, to the river’s edge where the chief thanks the Salmon People and returns the remains to the water. After the ceremony, the people gather in the big house to feast and perform a traditional salmon dance (BC Heritage).

There is also a rich history of salmon knowledge and fishing methods intertwined with First Nations traditional beliefs. Traditional methods of fishing such as dip netting and spearing salmon were passed down through oral history. The Lil’Wat First Nations tell the legend of the Transformer who pulled a hair from his leg and made a net. He then taught the people how to use a dip net and catch salmon (Nelson-Moody 15). In the Squamish First Nations’ Great Blue Heron legend, a transformer was turned into a blue heron when he tried to teach an elder how to fish with the slime of salmon. These legends contain lessons and traditions still used by First Nations fishers today.

Salmon Fishing: a traditional way of life disrupted


Left to right: A traditional weir for catching salmon (Indigenous Foundations); a Chief returning the salmon to the water during the Salmon Ceremony (Photo: Kwakiulth Museum)


Salmon have an important role in First Nations culture and as a result they also play a significant role in the communities’ livelihood. Since time immemorial, Coastal First Nations established harvesting agreements and sophisticated techniques to share, monitor, and fish local salmon populations. According to the University of British Columbia Indigenous Foundation’s report, “since fishing required allocation and sharing of seasonal resources between families and tribes fisheries management was not a distinct practice separate from government and law; it was integrated in systems of privileged and rank, distinct forms of production and exchange, including extensive networks of ceremonial redistribution and trade.” This distinct form of exchange included the First Nations potlatch – in which individual rank was based on the distribution of wealth rather than accumulation of it. The Indigenous people had a productive economy based on salmon long before the arrival of European settlers. While salmon was an important part of their traditional and social practices, it was also a major form of trade and communication between villages. The First Nations did not give up their right to manage their own fisheries; it was taken from them.

During colonization in the late 1800s, Indigenous people lost their traditional territories by the water and many of Vancouver’s natural salmon carrying streams were destroyed. The Department of Fisheries created laws and regulations that prevented Indigenous communities from practicing their traditional fishing methods. For instance, in 1912 a discriminatory policy banned Indigenous fishing technology. Aboriginal weirs were blamed for salmon depletion, even though fishers argued that weirs kept track of salmon runs to prevent overfishing (Kirk 242). Depleting salmon runs and pressure from sports and industrial fisheries caused the government to open up restricted Aboriginal fishing grounds and required that all Aboriginal people to have permits to fish for food. These regulations infringed upon the inherent right of the First Nations people.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Indigenous economies that were once self-sufficient on the resources of the land and the sea came to rely on money. The 1867 Federal Indian Act suppressed the First Nations potlatch and created a separation between fishing for food and fishing for trade and sale. This prevented bands from fishing commercially, causing many Indigenous people to leave their villages to work aboard boats as employees of white men or in canneries that offered individual wealth. When salmon runs depleted and canneries began to close, many Indigenous people had “become dependent on cash [and] had no way to earn wages. Many of them moved to the cities resulting in a great social and psychological displacement” (Kirk 224).

This separation from tradition and loss of salmon populations had a large impact on First Nations communities. The Province of British Columbia and the Department of Fisheries continue to face legal negotiations regarding Aboriginal rights and title. The economic value of commercial salmon fishery in British Columbia is estimated at $1 billion annually, ensuring tension between fishing groups and Aboriginal people over access to this depleting resource. The First Nations are not giving up their inherent right to the resources and fishing practices that have been a significant part of their lives. In the 1984 Sparrow court case, Ron Sparrow was arrested for fishing on the Fraser River with a drift net longer than those allowed by his band’s fishing license. The Musqueam people challenged the restrictions placed on their fishing licenses and won their claim to exercise their existing rights. The “Sparrow decision forced the government to respond to partly-defined and evolving Aboriginal right to fish, protected by the Constitution, without prejudicing the ultimate resolution of issues through comprehensive claim settlements” (Allain 13). Cases like these continue to shape First Nations history and instil dedication to traditions that connect to water and salmon in Vancouver.

Evolving and Resilient Traditions and Culture

Throughout history, salmon have remained a symbol of the perseverance of First Nations’ traditions and culture. Modern legends reflect the continuing importance of salmon, but also include lessons learned since European settlement. Today’s stories, traditions and artwork show the struggles faced by Aboriginal people to maintain their cultural identity and their connection to natural resources, such as the Salmon People. For instance, in the Yakima Legend of the Lost Salmon (2005), the Creator warns the people not to “neglect this food. Be careful that you do not break the rules in taking care of this salmon. Do not take more than you need”. When the people became greedy and searched for individual wealth the salmon disappeared.

Similarly, in the children’s story Salmon Boy (1999), a young boy goes for a swim and is taken by the Salmon People. While living with them he learns their way of life and how to preserve salmon for the winter. He shares his knowledge with the Sechelt Nation. The Sechelt First Nations  show their gratitude to the Salmon People by never breaking the neck of salmon caught at the beginning of the run and ensuring that salmon creeks and rivers are kept clean and healthy. When the Sechelt people fish, they only take as many as they need never wasting any.

In another Squamish First Nations story a woman witnesses the ghosts of salmon floating in and out of the water. She asks them what is the matter and they tell her that the humans have stopped bringing their bones to the water and the salmon are unable to return home. This story reflects the loss of tradition and the need to maintain ones cultural heritage and natural resources.

These stories preserve First Nations culture and teach future generations to respect the Salmon People. Traditional legends have been revised to pass on lessons learned through history. They warn people not to be greedy and over-fish the water for commercial purposes, but instead maintain their traditions and natural resources by appreciating and living in harmony with the Salmon People.




“Aboriginal Fisheries in British Columbia.” Indigenous Foundations. First Nations Studies Program, 2009. Web. 20 April 2015.

Allain, Jane, Frechette, Jean-Denis. The Aboriginal Fisheries and the Sparrow Decision. Ottawa: Canada Community Group, 1994. Print.

Blackstone, Michael. “Water: A First Nations’ spiritual and ecological perspective.” BC Journal of Ecosystems and Management. 1.1. (2001): 1-14. Web. 20 April 2015.

Kirk, Ruth. Tradition and Change on the Northwest Coast: The Makah, Nuu-chah-nulth, Southern Kwakiutl and Nuxalk. Seattle: University of Washington, 1986. Print.

“Legend of the Lost Salmon.” Firstpeople. Uconnect. n.d. web. 20 April 2015.

Nelson-Moody, A., George, G., Tweanee, J. People of the Land: Legend f the Four Host First Nations. Penticton: Theytus, 2009. Print.

Joe, Donna. Salmon Boy: A Legend of the Sechelt People. Gibsons: Harbour, 1999. Print.

“The Salmon Ceremony.” Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre. BC Heritage, n.d. web. 22 April 2015.



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