Each May the Native students at our university host a salmon bake, inviting the campus community to an outdoor feast in celebration of the return of the salmon. The event is intended to embrace the community: to build bridges rather than remind us of our differences.
The importance of salmon to the traditional communities of the region cannot be understated, and as an outsider, I am reminded of how little I understand the interweaving of core meanings: spirituality, place, home, family, earth, water, sustenance and life.
I read an historian’s description of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s encounters with Indians in this region of the country, who offered shelter and food to the troops of bearded men traipsing through their homes. The historian wrote the visitors ate salmon and berries, which upset their bowels. From that point, the intruders refused to eat salmon.
In many ways, immigrants to the West tried to ignore Native customs and cultures. The historian noted that the bearded-men-who-refused-salmon journeyed onward to the Pacific, where they encountered coastal people and offered to buy their canoes. The Indian tradition was to barter (and bartering was a respected art) which the thick-headed invaders didn’t comprehend, so they ended up stealing the sea-crafts. The historian wraps up the story by noting that 80 percent of the coastal Indian population died as a result of the invaders: not from combat, but from diseases brought by the explorers.
Following the annual salmon bake on our campus, an editorial appeared in the student newspaper that slammed the event for polluting the air with wood smoke and fish. I found it difficult to muster a mature response to the editorial: the event signals a peace offering–an olive branch to a campus rich with individuals from across the nation and the world who have gathered in Portland to build community. An offering to share the harvest with strangers.
I pity the student who wrote the editorial for her ignorance and hope she enrolls in one of the courses our fine professors offer in Indigenous Studies. She might learn something about the traditions she so readily dismissed.