“My people believe that salmon looked like us and that they lived in beautiful cities below the ocean floor and they choose every spring and every fall to swim upstream and feed us two-leggeds.” — Agnes Pilgrim, Takelma Elder
Recently members of the Siletz Confederated Tribes came together in Southern Oregon to partake of the first salmon of the year — a tradition which had died out for more than a century until tribal elder Agnes Pilgrim revived it 20 years ago.
The ritual of the First Salmon Ceremony has a rich history among Oregon’s Native Americans. For thousands of years, tribes along the Rogue River gathered at a village near present-day Gold Hill which they called Ti’lomikh (tillowmeek). The tribal leaders met to evaluate the fish runs and decide how many salmon they should allow upstream to spawn before they started fishing the resource. After the tribes caught the first fish, they participated in a ceremony which involved cooking and eating the fish. Then a diver took the skin and bones and returned the fish to the river to honor the life it sacrificed to feed the tribes.
The ritual ended when treaties forced the Rogue River Indians from the valley in 1856. Two decades ago, Pilgrim says the Spirit called her to revive the tradition.
Over the years, as they have continued the tradition of the celebratory feast, the tribes have perfected cooking salmon for mass consumption. At this year’s ritual, Pilgrim’s son, Keith Taylor, supervised the process.
“On the fire we usually use alder, sometimes madrone,” says Taylor.
Pilgrim’s grandsons dug a shallow trench and surrounded it with mounds of soil. The wood in the trench burned for a couple of hours before it reached the ideal ember stage.
Meanwhile a team cut the salmon into steaks. Taylor threaded the salmon onto sticks of redwood and sprinkled it with seasoning.
“We use redwood because it doesn’t affect the meat as far as flavor goes,” says Taylor.
And here’s a valuable tip: Taylor always arranges the steak with the stomach side at the top. “The salmon belly has a lot of oil, so when you cook that way, the oil from the belly area runs down into the fish and so it keeps it moist and gives it lots of flavor.”
The chefs plunged the end of the skewers into the mounds of soil, and like a vertical rotisserie, they turned the salmon steaks every 15 minutes. The feast includes every part of the fish, from head to tail. Some consider the cheeks the most flavorful part of the salmon.
Taylor says with the efficiency of this method, he could easily cook for 2,000 people. At this year’s feast, they prepared for 700.
“Cooking fish around the fire like this, it’s kind of a combination of roast, baked and smoked all rolled into one.”
In the end, it took about an hour to cook a flawless salmon steak and thousands of years to perfect the process.