Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
May 20, 2000 - Issue 10

Salmon Boy
(Haida-Pacific Northwest Legend)

Long ago, among the Haida people, there was a boy who showed no respect for the salmon. Though the salmon meant life for the people, he was not respectful of the one his people called Swimmer. His parents told him to show gratitude and behave properly, but he did not listen. When fishing, he would step on the bodies of the salmon that were caught and after eating he carelessly threw the bones of the fish into the bushes. Others warned him that the spirits of the salmon were not pleased by such bad behavior, but he did not listen.

One day, his mother served him a meal of salmon. He looked at it with disgust. "This is moldy" he said, though the meat was good. He threw it upon the ground. Then, he went down to the river to swim with the other children. However, as he was swimming, a current caught him and pulled him away from the others. It swept him into the deepest water and he could not swim strongly enough to escape from it. He sank into the river and drowned.

There, deep in the river, the Salmon People took him with them. They were returning back to the ocean without using their bodies. They had left their bodies behind for the humans and the animal people to use as food. The boy went with them, for now, he belonged to the salmon.

When they reached their home, in the ocean, they looked just like human beings. Their village there in the ocean looked much like his own home and he could hear the sound of children playing in the stream which flowed behind the village. Now the Salmon People began to teach the boy. He was hungry and they told him to go to the stream and catch one their children, who were salmon swimming in the stream. However, he was told, he must be respectful and after eating return all of the bones and everything he did not intend to eat to the water. Then, he was told, the children would be able to come back to life. But, if he didn't return the bones, to the water, salmon child would not come back.

He did as he was told, but one day after he had eaten, when it came time for the children to come up to the village, from the stream, he heard one of them crying. He went to see what was wrong. The child was limping because one of its feet was gone. Then, the boy realized he had not thrown all of the fins back into the stream. he quickly found the one fin he had missed, and threw it in and the child was healed.

After he had spent the winter with the Salmon People, it again was spring and time for them to return to the rivers. The boy swam with them, for he belonged to the Salmon People now. When they swam past his old village, his own mother caught him in her net. When she pulled him from the water, even though he was in the shape of a salmon, she saw the copper necklace he was wearing. It was the same necklace she had given her son.

She carried Salmon Boy carefully back home. She spoke to him and held him and gradually he began to shed his salmon skin; First, his head emerged. Then, after eight days, he shed all of the skin and was a human again.

Salmon Boy taught the people all of the things he had learned. He was a healer now and helped them when they were sick.

"I can't stay with you long," he said, "you must remember what I teach you."

He remained with the people until the time came when the old salmon who had gone upstream and not been caught by the humans or the animal people came drifting back down toward the stream. As Salmon Boy stood by the water, he saw a huge old salmon floating down toward him. It was so worn by its journey that he could see through its sides. He recognized it as his own soul and he thrust his spear into it. As soon as he did so, he died.

Then the people of the village did as he told them to do. They placed his body into the river. It circled four times and then sank, going back to his home in the ocean, back to the Salmon People.

Print and Color your own picture of Salmon Boy

Salmon Boy

Now, reread the story, and without peeking, answer these questions!

  • What do the salmon do when the young boy treats them disrespectfully? Why did the salmon make the boy one of their own?
  • How is the young boy changed by his experience? What does he learn?
  • How can Salmon Boy die and come back to life so many times in this story? What finally happens to him?
  • How did Native Americans fish using their traditional fishing methods? How do they fish today?
  • Do you eat fish? How do people catch the fish that your family buys? What happens to the populations of fish when great numbers of them are caught?

The salmon in this story are anadromous species that live and grow in salt water, then return to ancestral freshwater spawning grounds when mature.

Salmon travel great distances on their life's migration to the sea and back. The chinook salmon of Idaho swim west to the central Aleutian Islands when they mature. They then travel 2,500 miles back to spawn in the headwater of the Snake and Columbia Rivers. Some salmon die once they spawn.

No one is sure how the salmon navigate to make their migration. They may follow the sun, moon or stars. Or maybe it's from a primal memory of their beginnings.

Once in their home rivers, salmon show a great desire to move upstream--leaping up to 10 feet high over waterfalls and rapids. Spawning salmon do not eat along their journey.

by Vicki from various sources

General Information about Chinook
Chinook are also called, king, spring, quinnat, fall-bright, blackmouth and Tyee. The scientific name, is oncorunchus tshawytscha. Oncornunchus means hooked snout. Tshawutscha is what people of the Kamchatka Peninsula call the fish.

Chinook are the largest salmon. They can weigh over 100 pounds an can reach 58 inches in length. The average weight is 18-22 pounds. Weight varies geographically. The largest fish come from the north.

Chinook salmon are dark greenish blue on their backs and bright silver on their stomachs. They have large black spots on their back and entire tail. Chinooks have black gums and are sometimes called black mouths.

At spawning time the chinook turn dark olive brown. Male chinook develop a hooked snout and a slightly humped shoulder. After the Chinook spawn fungus appears on the males and females and looks like white patches. The Chinook then dies within a couple of weeks.

King salmon live in large rivers and their tributaries. They migrate down stream at about 3 months of age. They live in an estuary and adapt to the salt water. As soon as they are large enough to eat small fish they journey into the ocean. This usually takes about one year.

Chinook spawn in deep fast water with ping pong ball sized gravel. The female deposits 3,000-7,000 eggs in several redds in 11 to 15 inches water. Chinook have spawning runs from May to January. They will travel over two thousand miles to return to their spawning river or stream.

Life span
Ocean type Chinook migrate seaward within one year. They spend two to four years close to the coast. The chinook return to freshwater a few days or weeks before spawning. Stream type chinook spend one or more years in freshwater and two to four years at sea. They return to freshwater several months before spawning.

Salmon From A to Z

The Salmon Page

Color of Chinook during spawning (Bottom Right Picture)
Art Work by Mary Elliot

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