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For hundreds of thousands of years, the state of Washington has been associated with many species of salmon. Due to the fertile environment and the accesibility to the sea, millions of salmon have thrived in this region. Prior to the large-scale settlement of many people traveling out west in search of opportunity and wealth in the 19th century, salmon had been an established part in the daily lives of the indigenous people of the region. Salmon had been, and still is seen as an important part of the cultural identity to many native tribes in Washington state. Not long after the European-American settlers found their way to the west coast, they quickly discovered the abundant salmon population. This discovery led to the launch of many canneries, starting in the 1860s. With many newcomers making Washington their new home and starting off a new career in a once peaceful and serene environment, the lifestyle in Washington changed quickly and dramatically in many largescale ways.
The impact that the booming salmon industry had on the people living in the Pacific Northwest affected their day to day lives in a number of ways. This included many indigenous tribes who had lived on their land for thousands of years being displaced when they could no longer live off of salmon, the constant racial discrimination that Asian immigrants experienced when they came in search of work at local canneries, as well as the environment in Washington state, and how the state government had been overworked trying to find solutions to the many problems that arose from the fishing and canning industries.
To begin a discussion about how the salmon industry affected the lives of those living in the Pacific Northwest, it is important to start at the beginning. Salmon have been, and still are culturally significant to many Native American tribes. In the book Salmon Nation, Elizabeth Woody describes the history behind her tribe, the Wyampum.[i] The land where the Wyampum tribe lived on for centuries is called Wyam, also known as Celilo. Wyam can be found about 90 miles east from Portland, Oregon along the Columbia River. It has been estimated that the Wyampum tribe has been at Wyam for over 12,000 years, and it is one of the longest continuously inhabited communities in North America.[ii] The Wyampum became quite popular for their fishing practices, and many people would travel far distances to come watch the tribe fish, and then they would buy the freshly caught salmon. The Wyam tribe was very respectful in their fishing traditions, only taking what they needed. They would use every part of the salmon, except the fish guts. Meat from the fish would either be eaten fresh or dried, which could be preserved for two years maximum. Any bones or cartilage was used in soups.[iii] Prior to a new salmon season, the tribe came together to pray for an abundant fishing season. Each year, they saved and preserved the head and tail of the first salmon caught in their previous season, and they would return it to the N’ch-iwana, otherwise known as the Columbia River.[iv] This celebration of the salmon is a symbol of the fondness and appreciation the Wyampum people had for their land and the ways that they felt it provided for them. Salmon was a major element in their diet, but it was also a love letter to their tribe from their Creator. Of course, this is not consistent with every tribe in the Pacific Northwest. Each tribe has different traditions and ceremonies to celebrate the upcoming fishing season.
Subsequently, the news of fresh and abundant salmon runs spread rapidly. Within a number of years, there were bustling towns that were solely the result of one of the foremost industries in Washington state in its time. The majority of the people who came to live in cannery towns were there to search for work, mostly difficult and labor-intensive jobs. As a result, many Asian immigrants immigrated to the west coast looking for a job. In the 18th and 19th century, it was common to discriminate against people of color, in fact there were many laws which legalized discrimination, which essentially promoted and rewarded discrimination. These laws applied directly to the fishing and canning industries. In the early days of the canning industry, many Chinese and later on Japanese immigrants came to work in the canneries.[v] Due to political instability and a decline in economic opportunity in China, Chinese laborers began to arrive in the United States in the mid 19th century in large masses. Many entrepreneurs were inclined to hire Chinese laborers as they were willing to do cheap and difficult labor, which had become hard to find in post-Civil War America.[vi] In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, which suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years, while allowing the entry of students, teachers, diplomats, and travelers.[vii] The act essentially set a foundation for discriminating people by their race and class. It’s been claimed that the Chinese Exclusion Act was a clear example of government mandated racism.[viii] It was passed again in 1892, and by 1902 Chinese immigration and naturalization was made illegal in the United States until 1943. These acts were passed due to mass irrationality about the morals of Asian immigrants, and because of the racist and horrific idea that the American race must be kept “pure”.[ix] In the workplace, this idea of racial purity translated into ideas that anyone who was not white was not trustworthy, was not a hard worker, and would be a difficult employee. These views were an excuse for white cannery owners, and white supervisors to employ Asian people and pay them less than their white counterparts. There was intense backlash from many white people in search of work who claimed that their jobs had been stolen from them by Asian immigrants. There were demonstrations led by people who were Asian, protesting their citizenship status and lack of pay, but they were never taken seriously.[x] After the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, and especially after the official illegalization of Chinese immigration in 1902, Chinese populations in cannery positions has dropped significantly, and many Japanese people took the jobs that were now available. However, the Chinese Exclusion Act had set a precedence for the way that white Americans looked at Asian immigrants.[xi] By labeling Chinese immigrants as undesirable, many people now associated all of Asia as questionable. Situations began to escalate on July 28, 1915. Lamborn describes a situation highlighting the tension between white workers and Japanese workers, “On the night of this eventful day the city water main was dynamited, leaving the city without any water supply for some time. The significance of the deed was reflected in a placard posted at the scene of the explosion, which read as follows: ‘Put out the Japs or there will be something worse than this happen.’”[xii]
The final aspect of how the salmon industry affected the lives of people living in the Pacific Northwest is the impact that the salmon had on the environment, and how the fishing practices were so wasteful that the state of Washington had to step in and assign a State Fish Commissioner to investigate the many wrongdoings in the fishing industry. There was rampant waste in the fishing industry from the beginning in the mid 19th century, and there were little to no laws or legislations in place to protect the salmon, or the environment surrounding the salmon. In the first report done by State Commissioner James Crawford in 1890, he recounts discovering that there were “certain persons” setting off dynamite in a river to kill many salmon at once.[xiii] Not only is this wasteful beyond belief, this was polluting, and dangerous to not only the surrounding environment but also to human beings. There were many cases of fishermen illegally fishing on days when they were not allowed to or leaving their traps out during prohibited times of the day. These practices went on for years and years before the state finally took action in designating James Crawford to right the many wrongs that had been made. Even though this happened somewhat early on in the grand timeline of the salmon fishing industry, the damage had been done. In his report, James Crawford outlines what laws he believes should be enacted to enforce safer fishing practices. James Crawford closes with a statement addressed to state legislators, hoping they will understand the deeply immoral acts that have been made common in the fishing industry and that there should be consequences for those who continue to disregard the land.[xiv]
The Pacific Northwest salmon have been a part of the land and the life of those who have lived here for thousands of years. From the indigenous people whose life, livelihood, survival, and spiritual needs has depended on the salmon, to the settlers that came to start a new life who placed their hopes and dreams in the success of the industry. The salmon industry had a meteoric rise, and regardless of someone’s age, race, or social standing, everyone was deeply affected by the impact the industry had on life in Washington state. As time goes on, it becomes more and more difficult to see if there was any real benefit from the salmon and canning industry.
- Crawford, James. First Report of the State Commissioner. Olympia, Washington: O.C. White, 1890. https://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/digital/collection/salmon/id/574/rec/3
- Gunther, Erma., A Further Analysis of the First Salmon Ceremony Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1928. https://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/digital/collection/lctext/id/7550
- Lamborn, Frank M. Special report on the salmon canning industry in the State of Washington and the employment of oriental labor. Olympia, Washington: Washington State Bureau of Labor, 1915. https://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/digital/collection/salmon/id/241/rec/10
- Anderson, Emily. “Anti-Japanese exclusion movement,” Densho Encyclopedia
- Matsumoto, Meiko. “Chinese Exclusion Act,” Densho Encyclopedia
- Woody, Elizabeth. Edward C. Wolf, and Seth Zuckerman. Salmon Nation: People, Fish, and Our Common Home. Rev. ed. Portland, Or.: Ecotrust, 2003.
[i] Woody, Elizabeth. Edward C. Wolf, and Seth Zuckerman. Salmon Nation: People, Fish, and Our Common Home. Rev. ed. Portland, Or.: Ecotrust, 2003.
[iv] Gunther, Erma., A Further Analysis of the First Salmon Ceremony Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1928. https://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/digital/collection/lctext/id/7550
[v] Lamborn, Frank M. Special report on the salmon canning industry in the State of Washington and the employment of oriental labor. Olympia, Washington: Washington State Bureau of Labor, 1915. https://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/digital/collection/salmon/id/241/rec/10
[vi] Matsumoto, Meiko. “Chinese Exclusion Act,” Densho Encyclopediahttps://encyclopedia.densho.org/Chinese%20Exclusion%20Act/
[x] Lamborn. Special report on the salmon canning industry in the State of Washington and the employment of oriental labor
[xi] Emily Anderson. “Anti-Japanese exclusion movement,” Densho Encyclopediahttps://encyclopedia.densho.org/Anti-Japanese%20exclusion%20movement/
[xii] Lamborn. Special report on the salmon canning industry in the State of Washington and the employment of oriental labor
[xiii] James Crawford. First Report of the State Commissioner. (Olympia, WA: O.C. White, 1890.) https://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/digital/collection/salmon/id/574/rec/3
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