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You may think of salmon as a good choice for a weekday dinner, or enjoy it smoked and sliced on a bagel. But that salmon on your plate has a long and illustrious history as a subsistence food for indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest. It has a fascinating story – and one you can explore in the Sant Ocean Hall. Take a canoe ride through the past and present story of salmon and people.

Chumush boat on ocean
Modern-day descendants of indigenous cultures, such as the Chumush pictured above, have revived traditions relating to their maritime heritage. Image courtesy: Robert Schwemmer / NOAA CINMS

Boats connect us to the ocean

More than any other objects, boats symbolize human connection to the ocean. As you look through the center of the Ocean Hall, past the whale, you can see a most magnificent carved canoe. This boat draws you in to read about its story, one that is threaded from the present to the ancient past and the very roots of human culture on the Northwest coast of this country.

Fish shape a way of life

Coho salmon
Coho salmon. Image courtesy:Timothy Knepp/USFWS

Fish actually changed the way people lived. The development of complex culture is dependent on a reliable food source – like agriculture, sheepherding, or fishing. Because salmon were so plentiful and reliable, the northwest Pacific coast became the most heavily populated Native American region.

This abundance of food also gave people time to create artistic items and develop elaborate social and cultural ceremonies and customs. They used salmon for everything: its flesh for food, its skin for clothing and bags, its oil for cooking, its bones for needles. In this anthropological display, you can see some of many salmon-related crafts and learn about modern Native American First Salmon ceremonies – during which people gather to pay respect to the salmon and its life-giving qualities.

Salmon inspired crafts
Salmon inspried crafts
Crafts inspired by salmon. Images courtesy: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

How to catch a salmon

As you admire the canoe, you can also learn about methods both ancient and modern native peoples use to catch and prepare salmon. Many fish-catching implements are on display, including spears and harpoons. Among the most important tools, of course, are boats. For more than 10,000 years, boats have held a special place in Native American culture. A number of models of native canoes demonstrate the sizes and types of canoes and explain how they signified status and control.
Model canoe
Model canoe
Model canoe
These model canoes reside in the ocean hall and showcase diversity in design and construction. Images courtesy: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

Carving of a canoe

Although over the past 100 years the salmon fishery has drastically declined due to declining salmon habitat, over-harvesting, and dams that prevent salmon from reaching their breeding grounds, Native American communities are now working with local and regional governments to save this resource. Along with ecological conservation, there has been a revival of native customs as well – including carving of large ocean-going canoes.

The 25-foot canoe was carved especially for this exhibit by a Tlingit master carver, in partnership with Smithsonian and the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Its log was carefully selected for its size and shape, and its design reflects motifs and symbols of its carver's culture. Come learn more about the details of its construction, its history, and its significance.

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