Rain poured down from the cloudy gray skies above as community from the Cowlitz Indian Tribe gathered at the tribe’s property on the Cowlitz River. The smell of fire smoke wafted through the air, mingling with the delighted screams and laughter of young children.

Welcome to the First Salmon Ceremony, an important and long-standing tradition for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe – one that took on added significance after the tribe regained federal recognition as a sovereign nation in 2002.

“It has been happening for eons,” said Bill Iyall, recently elected for his second stint as chairman of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe. “After recognition, we decided this is a critical element of our culture to return.”

On June 2, over a hundred people, mostly Cowlitz tribal members, gathered at Cowlitz Landing in Toledo, Washington. They came together at the tribe’s 32-acre property despite the dreary weather to share laughter, food and ceremony, and to thank the salmon for feeding their community since time immemorial. This year, Cowlitz youth played a central role in preparing and cooking the salmon to feed their community.

Pullers in the canoe carrying the ceremonial salmon stepped onto shore at Cowlitz Landing, greeted by singing and drumming from community members at the Cowlitz Indian Tribe First Salmon Ceremony on June 2, 2024. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith Underscore News / ICT)

To ‘share with their future generations’

At Cowlitz Landing, dozens greeted a canoe carrying the ceremonial salmon while children gathered around plastic folding tables covered with salmon carcasses ready to be prepared for the bake.

Older youth helped younger kids tie on olive green aprons with the logo for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe First Foods Project Youth Programs emblazoned on the front. Before taking salmon out of the cooler to prepare, they formed a circle around the fire. Clay Koch, a Cowlitz citizen and coordinator for Healing of the Canoe, offered a prayer through the smoke of the fire and a bundle of smudge resting on a log nearby.

At this year’s First Salmon Ceremony, youth had the opportunity to learn to prepare salmon from older Cowlitz community members. The salmon all came from the Cowlitz Fish Distribution Program.

Donald Ryan, a Cowlitz tribal member, taught nearly a dozen youth how to properly clean and cook salmon to feed the community during Cowlitz’s First Salmon Ceremony at Cowlitz Landing on June 2, 2024. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith Underscore News / ICT)

While learning to use a knife to cut along the bones of the salmon, creating one big filet, youth asked questions of the adults guiding their learning.

“What do you do with the heart?,” one kid asked, watching Donald Ryan, a Cowlitz tribal member, carefully remove the organs from the fish.

“Well, our ancestors used to eat all that stuff,” Ryan replied, explaining that other uses include fertilizer and fishing lures.

Some of the older youth began to take the lead, teaching the younger ones proper knife handling skills, how to hold the salmon steady and how to slice through its flesh to cut the perfect filet.

Dressed in a red ribbon skirt and a cedar headband she got at canoe journey in August 2023, 12-year-old Lexi Okert, Cowlitz, coached a younger kid through preparing and cleaning a salmon. This year marked the first time that youth took on a central role in preparing the salmon at the First Salmon Ceremony, according to Okert.

“I love my tribe very much and it makes me very happy to be here,” Okert said. “I'm just really blessed that I have this community to be around.”

After Okert and her mentee finished fileting a salmon, they cleaned it and brought it to Koch to help secure it to cedar sticks to roast over the fire.

While most kids headed to the ceremony by the river after helping prepare the salmon, Tyreace Ashton, 12, stayed by the fire to watch over each roasting salmon until all the fish had been cooked and everyone had full bellies.

“It's so important, the natural curiosity of those children,” said Chairman Iyall. “They will remember that for all their life and share with their future generations.”

After cutting and cleaning each salmon from the Cowlitz Fish Distribution Program, Cowlitz tribal members Clay Koch, Austin Halvorsen and Donald Ryan helped the youth secure filets to cedar sticks to roast over the fire. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith Underscore News / ICT)

‘Honoring the salmon’

A pitterpatter of raindrops dribbled down the leaves of a tree-lined pathway, splashing onto the faces and clothes of people walking down toward the water’s edge. The sound of drumming and singing drew them forward to welcome the canoe approaching on the bank of the river.

Carrying the ceremonial salmon in a cooler at their feet, the pullers of the canoe landed on shore, greeted by dozens of smiles.

Stepping onto the muddy shore, a tribal member greeted one of the pullers with a hug.

“Today is a good day,” he responded.

Salmon for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe First Salmon Ceremony on June 2, 2024 came from the Cowlitz Fish Distribution program. Cowlitz tribal members planned to use some of the remains as fertilizer. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith Underscore News / ICT)

This year, 15-year-old Lydia Hodges, Cowlitz Canoe Princess, had the honor of preparing the ceremonial salmon. She carefully divided the large salmon into two filets, guided by an elder who placed one filet on cedar sticks to roast over the open flames and another wrapped in tin foil to cook by the coals.

“I was a little bit nervous, but I know mostly what to do,” Hodges said.

Hodges has taken part in the First Salmon Ceremony for her whole life and first learned to prepare salmon at 8 years old. But this year marked her first time helping prepare salmon for the ceremony. Being asked to cut the ceremonial salmon itself was a particularly huge honor.

“It’s what we do to thank the salmon for what they give and to hope they come back next year,” said Hodges. “It’s mostly just honoring the salmon.”

Waiting for the ceremonial salmon to finish cooking, Chairman Iyall and Cowlitz spiritual leader Tanna Engdahl asked current and former ceremonial witnesses to come forward and share about what the ceremony means.

Many shared about the resiliency of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe. Some offered songs. Others spoke in the Cowlitz Coast Salish language.

Tanna Engdahl, spiritual leader for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, helps place the ceremonial salmon carcass in a canoe, to be returned to the Cowlitz River following the First Salmon Ceremony on June 2, 2024. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith Underscore News / ICT)

Engdahl asked the crowd to repeat after her:

“We will not retreat.”

“We will not give up.”

“We will never surrender.”

Those words echoed across the water, a mantra of pure resilience.

Once the ceremonial salmon finished cooking, Hodges and Okert walked through the crowd, offering each person a small piece of the salmon to eat.

Salmon consumed, the pullers got back in the canoe with the salmon carcass resting on cedar weavings. They pulled out into the water and returned the carcass to the river.

“It's honoring the salmon – its return,” Iyall said. “Honoring the flesh of the salmon and thanking it for giving us life and giving us its life.”

The carcass of the ceremonial salmon rests on a plank covered in woven cedar during the Cowlitz First Salmon Ceremony at Cowlitz Landing on June 2, 2024. Once the salmon was consumed and the ceremony complete, the carcass was returned to the river. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith Underscore News / ICT)

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Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to center the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Of Osage and Oneida Nations descent, with Northern European...