The Salmon Coast

On the Water - Salmon Coast Section Head

For centuries, North America’s native peoples turned to the water for sustenance.

Native people have lived along the northwestern coast of the present-day United States for thousands of years. Most have lived by fishing, and mostly for salmon. These people expressed their relationship to the fish and waters that sustained them in dance, song, ceremony, and social relationships. Beginning in the 1850s, they found their way of life threatened, as waves of settlers and forced treaties took their lands, rivers, and fishing rights. The struggle to regain and preserve these rights goes on to this day.


Netting Salmon

Little Ike (Yurok) fishes for salmon with a plunge net at pame-kya'-ra-m, Klamath River, California, before 1898.

Courtesy of the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution


Yurok Canoe on Trinity River, about 1923

Photograph by Edward S. Curtis, courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries


Fishers’ Tools

The waters of the Pacific support an abundance of fish, shellfish, and marine mammals. And the region’s five species of salmon were critical to the survival of Native Americans along the coast from present-day California to Alaska. To partake of this bounty, native peoples invented a variety of effective tools and techniques. All the objects here were made in the 1800s.

All objects lent by the National Museum of Natural History

Canoe model (Yurok)

Yuroks and Hupas made dugout canoes from the tall trees of the Northwest.

Halibut hook (N.W. Coast)

Net/seine needles (Hupa)

Salmon spear points (Chinook)

Halibut hook (Quileute)

Stone sinkers (Hupa)

Salmon plate (Hupa)

Sturgeon hook (Tulalip)

Eel knife (Hupa)

Fish club (Quinault)

Fishing bag (Quinault)

Fish hook with leather line (Quileute)

Eel net needle (Hupa)


Abalone Adornment

Delia Albert, a Tolowa woman, wears a native dance apron and skirt over a non-Indian bodice. The apron is made of buckskin with shell decorations and fringed with obsidian tinklers. The beaded skirt is fringed with abalone shells.

Photograph by A. W. Ericson, about 1890

Courtesy of the Ericson Photograph Collection, Humboldt State University Library


Life from the Waters

The everyday objects of native peoples of the Pacific Northwest have always spoken of their relationships to the waters and marine creatures. Abalone, clamshells, whale ivory, bone, and dentalium shells are part of their clothing, tools, utensils, adornments, and spiritual life.


All objects lent by the National Museum of Natural History

Dentalium necklace (Hupa)

Shell necklace (Hupa)

Basket (Quileute)

Men’s abalone earrings (Hupa)

Elk antler purse with dentalium (Hupa)

The dentalium shell was a form of money and power as well as decoration. Traded all over the Pacific Coast, dentalium was the currency through which these people expressed their wealth—material and spiritual.