Yesterday, I had the privilege and joy of attending the Squaxin Island Tribe’s First Salmon Ceremony (though, the video here is from Stillaguamish). This is the annual blessing and offering of the salmon in anticipation of the coming fishing season. The Squaxin are salmonpeople of the Puget Sound who have lived off of the good graces of salmon (in various ways) for generations. In the ceremony, the first salmon caught of the season is blessed and filleted and the skeleton is taken into the water as proof to the salmonpeople that the Squaxin treat salmon well. It is a way of asking the salmon to allow the Squaxin to catch and eat them.
And then everybody eats salmon cooked over open fire, clams, and fry bread.
It was a simple, beautiful ceremony. I enjoyed watching a few people that I’ve gotten to know over the last six months participate and I savored my delicious portion of the 300 pounds of salmon the tribe fed to more than 250 people. And, of course, it got me thinking about the real power of ritual in human life.
No one officiating the ceremony yesterday could remember exactly how long this particular iteration of the First Salmon Ceremony has been going on—15, 20, 25 years. But the Squaxin have been participating in the life cycle of Puget Sound salmon for, as one Elder put it, “many, many years.”
As we stood on the low-tide beach, I felt all the markings of ritual that I know well from my Catholic life. Elders sat in the front rows of folding chairs and young people stood behind them, holding their kids or chatting quietly with one another. The officiant gathered everyone together by thanking us for coming and explaining what would happen today. He explained the significance of the actions and welcomed Elders in the crowd to do the same. We watched as a tribal member filleted the salmon—and chuckled when he exclaimed “it’s a whale” when he saw how big the King Salmon was. Kids fidgeted and ran around, occasionally crying out. And then we broke fry bread & salmon together, and wished each other peace and wellness.
I drove away happy and connected. Ritual is powerful business. And I am indebted to Catholicism for tuning my body and soul and mind to recognize it.
Kate Dugan is a 29-year-old Catholic living on Harstine Island, Washington. She is co-editor of From the Pews in the Back: Young Women & Catholicism.