Salmon Potlatch

A very interesting article about an idea to reestablish the historic relation between the salmon and the Indian Tribes through the use of Potlatch.

An excerpt.

A Modern Potlatch?
Privatizing British Columbia Salmon Fishing
By D. Bruce Johnsen

Tensions run high between native and commercial fishermen in British Columbia. One reason is that the Pacific salmon fishery is being depleted. Another is the case law determined by the Canadian Supreme Court, which gives First Nations tribes priority to a fixed claim over commercial fishermen for the seasonal salmon catch.

Unfortunately, the legal discourse on these issues is framed by the Canadian courts’ reliance on cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropologists have traditionally regarded the British Columbia First Nations as “hunter-gatherers” who had the good fortune to reside in an environment naturally “superabundant” with salmon. But this view is contrary to an economic interpretation of the ethnographic record.

In this essay, based on a longer one (Johnsen 2006), I will paint with a broad brush a picture of how tribes managed Pacific coast salmon before the arrival of white settlers and will present a plan that is culturally consistent with past tradition, one that can end the disputes over tribal salmon rights and lead to a sustainable fishery. For more detail, see my longer essay.

When Europeans made first contact on the Pacific coast, many tribes had exclusive property rights to salmon streams (Johnsen 1986, 2001).1 Because Pacific salmon return to their natal streams to spawn, tribal ownership of streams provided secure ownership of native salmon stocks. Rather than being the fortunate beneficiaries of a naturally rich environment, the coastal tribes actually created an abundance of salmon through centuries of purposeful husbandry and resource management.

Tribes in British Columbia lost exclusive ownership of their salmon stocks with the arrival of commercial canneries, the first appearing at the mouth of the Fraser River in 1871. Commercial fishermen began intercepting salmon in the ocean rather than in streams, beginning the long downward trend in salmon stocks. Government regulation has been unable to stop this decline.

Between 1950 and 1997, nearly fifty percent of the salmon populations in British Columbia were wiped out due to overfishing and other intrusions. Degradation of spawning habitat also occurs through industrial pollution, erosion from logging roads, silt deposits due to clear-cutting, organic wastes, dams, changes in water temperature, and changes in water flows owing to real estate development. In the absence of public outcry, federal and provincial governments apparently lack the incentives to properly protect the stocks.


The importance of salmon to the pre-contact native economy cannot be overstated. Most coastal tribes’ livelihood revolved around the yearly cycle of salmon runs. Except on larger rivers such as the Fraser, each tribe normally claimed a large territory oriented around one or more rivers small enough to be owned throughout their entire length. The tribe consisted of several shifting subdivisions, sometimes called clans, which in turn were divided into local group houses. These tribal groups took much of the salmon harvest in tidal or fresh water with elaborate fish weirs (small dams or fences) and traps, or with dip nets, harpoons, and spears, primarily at upstream summer villages controlled by local clan-house leaders. Almost uniformly up and down the coast, wealthier title holders were known by a name that translated roughly into “river owner.”

It would be difficult to find a genus in the animal kingdom better suited to husbandry than Pacific salmon. The time between generations is short enough, and the struggle to reproduce keen enough, that during a person’s lifetime the characteristics of a given salmon stock can evolve dramatically in response to minor environmental changes, whether induced by nature or by human influences.

The tribes’ fishing technology was suited to salmon husbandry. Many tribes relied on fish weirs. During a run, salmon entered a holding trap, and the attendants could select which salmon could continue to the spawning beds. To increase the average size of fish, a chief could have required the attendants to harvest the smaller fish, leaving the larger fish to spawn and, in turn, to reproduce larger offspring. It is plausible that the tribes engaged in purposeful genetic selection of stocks this and other ways.

Tribal organization was also suited to knowledge accumulation. Tribal chiefs held title to streams and other resources on behalf of their tribe. A tribal leader’s reputation was part of his payoff from superior salmon husbandry, and tribal chiefs were known to possess a corpus of “secret” knowledge about how best to use their resources to create wealth (Drucker and Heizer 1967, 7).

Potlatching evolved as a way to define and enforce exclusive tribal property rights to salmon streams and stocks. This ceremonial gift-giving has been described as “the ostentatious and dramatic distribution of property by the holder of a fixed, ranked, and named social position to other position holders” (Codere 1950, 63). The practice redistributed wealth both within and between tribes and seems to have increased at the time of European contact.

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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