Sunday, January 28, 2018


Salmon, Nainamo Petroglyph
Park, Vancouver Island, BC.
Photo: Peter Faris, 1992.

At Nanaimo Petroglyph Park, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, is a panel that has been identified as representing salmon, but, instead of illustrating the fish naturally, or even in the interior design motifs common to Northwest Coast peoples art, these fish are hatched with interior lines, sort of like interior scaffolding. These are generally meant to represent  a portrayal of the internal skeletal structure of the fish. Virtually all Northwest Coast peoples depended upon the yearly salmon runs for food, and virtually all of them had some variation on the First-Salmon Ceremony to influence the availability of the salmon and the size of the catch.

Ceremonial Feast in long-house.
Northwest Coast First Nations.
Public domain photo.

"Historically, first-salmon ceremonies differed from tribe to tribe, but all had some things in common. The salmon chief of the tribe would select a fisher to catch the first salmon. This was an honor, and before entering the river the fisher would undergo a blessing or a purification. Once a fish was caught it would be brought to shore and carefully prepared, cooked and distributed to the people in a manner unique to the location and tribe. The head of the fish would be kept pointed upriver to show the salmon's spirit the way home. The bones would be carefully cleaned and returned to the river, where it was believed the salmon would reconstitute itself and continue its journey. Throughout, there was an underlying theme of respect for the salmon as a gift, and the hope that by properly respecting the fish the salmon king would continue his benevolence through the coming months of salmon returns and again the following year." (Harrison 2008)

Leaping salmon in Deschutes River.
Olympia, Washington.
Photo: 1995, Peter Faris.

Brian Fagan described this in detail in his 2017 book. "The First Salmon Ceremony was the most important ritual, an expression of reverence and respect when the run's first fish was caught. Some groups honored the first salmon with a praise name. Often, shamans conducted elaborate ceremonies before the fish was butchered and served. Prayer and ritual also greeted the first eulachon or herring caught, an occasion for joyous celebration and renewal. The fishers recognized the natural cycle of human and animal live by clubbing the first fish with one blow and then honoring it with a prayer. The normal routines of butchering and cooking received exceptional care and attention. When the fish had been eaten, most groups threw the eating mats and bones into the sea, both to ensure that the salmon would become whole again and return to let the other salmon know the first had been well treated so that they would duly proceed up the river. All prayers and rituals conveyed respect for the foods of river and ocean." (Fagan 2017:94-5)

Nanaimo Petroglyph Park on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, is located in an area traditionally occupied by Nootkan people. This unique panel could well represent the bones of salmon being returned to the water after the ceremonial First-Salmon meal, and may illustrate this belief cycle as it was expressed by these Nootkans.

NOTE: One image in this posting was retrieved from the internet after a search for public domain photographs. If this image was not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them. For further information on these reports you should read the originals at the sites listed below.


Fagan, Brian
2017 Fishing, How the Sea Fed Civilization, Yale University Press, New Haven, p. 94-5.

Harrison, John
2008 First-Salmon Ceremony, Oct. 31, 2008,

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