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Friends and family gather to welcome the salmon

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The return of salmon to the Puyallup River Watershed received a festive welcoming on Oct. 11 at the Puyallup Hatchery. Adults and children alike were there to take part in the day’s activities that included guided tours to watch migrating salmon in Clarks Creek, tours of the hatchery, informational tables, science and art activities for the little ones, Native American storytellers, bluegrass music from Mountain Highway and photos with Fin the giant salmon sculpture that kept kids highly entertained.

During opening remarks, Jim Jinkins with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife told the crowd why the return of the salmon is so important, noting that salmon were spawning in Clarks Creek at that very moment.

“The majority of the eggs that go into that stream won’t survive but they will contribute to the next generation. They’ll contribute to the trout and cutthroat in the stream…and to the plants in the riparian zone and all around,” he said. For the eggs that do hatch, the little fry swim up Clarks Creek to the Puyallup River then out to Commencement Bay looking for an estuary where salt marshes will provide nutrients for their long migration. “From there they will head out to Puget Sound where they will pass many urban areas...then out to the Salish Sea and either go through the inside passage or out the Strait of Juan Defuca for Alaska and the bounty of the ocean.” He explained that in 2017-2018 the salmon will swim back to Clarks Creek “where they will perish as they hand on to the next generation their bodies for nutrients and ourselves as well,” Jinkins told the crowd.

Jinkins said that with their drive and tenacity, the salmon do their part for the next generation just as we on land are expected to do our part in this great cycle of life. “Our challenges are the complexity of issues – what the river is used for… There are land use issues, irrigation, agriculture, flood control, hydroelectric power… These are the community discussions we have. We know the salmon will give their best effort for their next generation; the question is will we give ours? Events like today make me think that we’ll do our part as well and have a future together.”

Puyallup tribal member Connie McCloud, the tribe’s culture coordinator and captain of the tribe’s Canoe Family, had the crowd’s fixed attention as she talked about the First People’s relationship with the salmon going back for many thousands of years.

“We have always lived here,” she said. “At one time the human beings and the animal people could speak to one another. There was a time of great chaos, there was little food and the creator told the people to go to the forest and gather the skeletons of the trees and to gather the skeletons of the deer and from there came what’s called the Bone Game. It was a challenge between the human beings, the salmon, the deer, the plants and the berries. And whoever won that challenge would be the food for the people. This challenge lasted for days. The human beings won that challenge, but in winning that challenge they promised the salmon and the deer and the plants and the animals that they would always respect the natural laws of the land.”

McCloud told of the tribe’s annual First Fish Ceremony held each spring, when the tribe acknowledges and honors that the fish gave their lives to feed the people for generations past and will continue to do so for generations to come.

“Our fishermen go out early in the morning, and the very first salmon that’s caught is set aside. We welcome the salmon with our songs, usually sung by our children. Our songs and our prayers welcome that first salmon that comes ashore. We greet it like it was a chief – a person of high standing – and is given great respect. That salmon is brought in to our community. Our fishermen fillet the fish, leaving the head, backbone and tail intact. The flesh of the salmon is cooked and everyone at the ceremony has piece of that fish so that we will always understand and know and give respect to where our food comes from, and in particular to give respect to the salmon – this is one of our first foods, a very important food.

“When our fishermen return the head, backbone and tail to the river, they place the fish as if it would go downstream, and that salmon will tell the story of the people – the celebrations, the sadness, the gatherings, the potlatches, the birthdays, the deaths – but it tells our story of the last year to the other spiritual villages of the salmon out to the Puyallup River, out to Commencement Bay, out to the Salish Sea to the Pacific Ocean so that our stories are told and never forgotten. Our community comes together to share a meal, to share in this feast so that we too would receive a part of the medicine that comes from our salmon.”

McCloud then sang a blessing song. “Today this will bless your gathering here and it will also acknowledge and remember the salmon that have returned to our rivers and our creeks.”

The celebration attracted many of the area’s elected officials, including Puyallup Mayor John Knutson; Puyallup City Councilmembers Steve Vermillion, Julie Door and Heather Shadko; Tacoma City Councilmember Ryan Mello, who is also on the Pierce County Conservation District; State Representative Dawn Morrell; and Joyce McDonald, a Pierce County Councilmember and chair of the Pierce County Flood District.

“Since 1999 the Pierce County salmon recovery team has brought in almost $40 million in state and federal funds to improve salmon habitat,” McDonald said. “I do love salmon, but I also care about all the homes and businesses that are up and down the Puyallup River and I want to make sure they are protected. So while we are protecting salmon and providing habitat for them to come and spawn, we’re also providing flood control and that’s a wonderful thing when we can partner with all of these people to get the job done.”

Others who participated in the event included the Muckleshoot Tribe, South Sound Salmon Enhancement Group, Foss Waterway Seaport, Wolf Camp and the Wolf College, Puget Creek Restoration Society and Trout Unlimited.

The salmon homecoming celebration was sponsored by Pierce County Public Works and Utilities, Puyallup River Watershed Council, Pierce County Lead Entity Puyallup and Chambers-Clover Watersheds, Puyallup Historical Hatchery Foundation, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Citizens for a Healthy Bay, Pierce Conservation District, Port of Tacoma, Fix Auto and University of Puget Sound.