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Living with salmon, sharing in the gift

Since time immemorial, the warm waters of earth’s equatorial belt had been a boundary that none of the Atlantic or Pacific salmon ever ventured across. Salmon, these cold-loving fish, were a decidedly northern expression of life. The annual pulse of their migration drew coastal and river peoples across the northern hemisphere into recurrent experiences of wonder, awe, and gratitude. From the West Pacific’s volcanic islands to the dark-blue rivers that branched through Russia’s taiga, from Scandinavia’s great Arctic streams to the foothills of the Alpes, from the storm-beaten Newfoundland coast to Pacific America’s temperate rainforests, inquisitive humans everywhere bore witness to, and celebrated, the annual return of the fish as the world rejuvenating itself as gift.

Indigenous cultures emerged across millennia of living attentively alongside salmon, each crafting their unique responses to the experience of living in the gift. The Sámi word bivdit describes the strangely reciprocal ties between fisherman and fish. Bivdit means to fish, but also to entreat the fish to give themselves. The fish are not an ‘It’ as much as a ‘Thou’, a sentient being who must be encountered with respect, as Solveig Joks and John Law (2017) have written. Coast Salish stories speak of an original agreement between salmon and the other creatures. The salmon commit themselves to returning from the ocean year after year, but only on the condition that the other people will not become too proud. The Coast Salish story of Salmon boy tells of grandson who ignores grandmother’s demand to gift the salmon’s bones back to the river. Near-death by drowning is his punishment, but the salmon come to his rescue. They welcome him as a guest of honors and invite him to travel together. Later, when salmon boy returns to his village as a grown man, he joins the ranks of elders. He understands now that to be in the gift is to be asked to keep the gift moving, lest all suffer the consequences. Potlatch ceremonies also express the experience of living in the gift. To host a potlatch is to give with the expectation of a return gift. It is to weave the social web of human housekeeping into the ecological web of more-than-human bonds of reciprocal responsibility. It surely is no co-incidence that potlatch culture spans from Northern California’s redwood forests to the Arctic – the precise range of salmon.

As widely unique and place-specific as indigenous salmon peoples are, we dare say that they all share an alertness to the ways in which salmon not only feed the flesh of our bodies, and not only feed the flesh of so many other, more-than-human lives, but also feed the flesh of the mind, the landscape of the imagination. They are united in having carried the salmon’s original gift into story, ritual, technologies of participation (rather than extraction), as well as a moral universe honoring interbeing. For as long as salmon are granted the chance to journey out to sea, and to return, they will ask us humans to join the reciprocal dance of becoming through the gift and through sharing.


Joks, Solveig & Law, John. (2017). Sámi salmon, state salmon: TEK, technoscience and care. In The Sociological Review Monographs. 2017, Vol. 65(2) 150 –171.

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