On the Water

The Salmon Coast

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.

Salmon spear points (Chinook)

Salmon plate (Hupa)

Fish club (Quinault)

Fishing bag (Quinault)

Halibut hook (N.W. Coast)

Halibut hook (Quileute)

Sturgeon hook (Tulalip)

Fish hook with leather line (Quileute)

Net/seine needles (Hupa)

Stone sinkers (Hupa)

Eel knife (Hupa)

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)

Basket (Quileute)

Men’s abalone earrings (Hupa)

Shell necklace (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.

Hupa and Yurok

The Hupa and Yurok peoples have lived along the Klamath River for thousands of years, sustained by the bounty of the waters and trade with one another and other tribes. Along rocky seacoasts, Yurok hunted seals and sea lions, occasionally harvesting whales. They also netted smelt and gathered shellfish in tidal flats.

Since the 1850s, the Yurok and Hupa have tried to protect their traditional ways of life from a series of threats: gold prospectors, settlers, and then dams on the Klamath and Trinity rivers that blocked the path of migrating salmon. Today, the tribes still strive to maintain the centuries-old relationship between the people, their homelands, and the waters.

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

Fish-Weir Across Trinity River—Hupa

Along the rivers, Yurok and Hupa constructed fishing weirs—barriers of wooden stakes and strips that let the water pass through but slowed fish. Native fishers harvested the fish with spears and nets. Members of the tribes were responsible for maintaining the weirs, ensuring that fish got through and preserving the spiritual balance between the fish and the communities.

The Klamath [River] is everything to me. It is my home, church, garden, highway, counselor, friend, brother, and provider.
—Barry Wayne McCovey Jr., Yurok Tribal Fisheries Department, 2002
The Trinity [River] is the heart of the Hupa Nation. The people depend on it for water, food, and spiritual solace.
—Jimmy Jackson, Hupa ceremonial leader

People of the Coast

On the coast of Washington State, native Salish people live at the mouths of the many rivers that spill into the Pacific Ocean. A seafaring people, they have always hunted seals and whales. But they also depend on the salmon that run from the ocean upriver to spawn.

The Traditional Lands and Waterways of Pacific Coastal Peoples

In the late 1800s, they ceded most of their ancient lands to the federal government and removed to the reservations where they now live. But after a century of broken treaties, a 1974 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court declared the tribes co-managers of their ancient water resources, entitled to 50 percent of the harvestable salmon.

They have returned to a life of fishing for sustenance, income, and spiritual restoration.

Salmon are the measuring stick of well-being in the Pacific Northwest.
—Billy Frank Jr., Chairman, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission