A Salish Traditional Story: Bear and the Steelhead

Flanking the totem pole that in October becomes the focal point of the NLM’s new Native Voices exhibit will be two “story-telling” benches.

Carved from the same sturdy western red cedar tree that is traditionally chosen for totem poles, the benches depict the Salish traditional story of Bear and the Steelhead, and how Raven delivered the sun, moon, stars and fire to humanity. These ancient, powerful stories of the Salish people, of the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, teach respect for nature and the natural cycles of life, and, in the Steelhead story — never to abuse salmon or their habitat.

As the Salish relate, the Steelhead is the only salmon to survive spawning. And here is why: When Salish people were starving, Raven searched for help, and came upon Salmon Woman and her children (the different species of Pacific Northwest salmon). Salmon Woman married Raven, and gave her children to the Salish so they would not starve to death.

In time, and because the salmon were abundant, people forgot what it was like to be hungry. After the Salish began to abuse the salmon, the Salmon Woman reclaimed her children and fled with them to the longhouse of her father, the Salmon Chief, under the ocean. She vowed never to return and starvation soon returned.

But Raven begged his wife to forgive the people and return to them with her children. She did, but not without changing her children’s lifecycle to teach the Salish a lesson.

Before, the salmon lived year-round, at the mouth of the river, near the Salish village. But Salmon Woman changed it so that the salmon would spawn upriver, then return to live in the ocean, and not return to the Salish until spawning season.

The people also were ordered never to go up river to harvest the salmon. They could only take the salmon during the harvesting moons. (Note: Salmon are anadromous, that is they are born in fresh water, migrate to the ocean, and then return to fresh water to reproduce.)

However, the message did not reach everyone, especially Bear  — the brother of Raven. During a year that Bear’s wife was pregnant, Raven did all the hunting and fishing for Bear’s family because a woman pregnant with the gift of life was powerful and treasured.

During this time, Bear became restless. He went upriver and began to harvest salmon. Each species he touched died off and floated downstream. Worried about starving, the Salish called Raven to come find his brother. Raven knew that Bear was upriver in the salmon spawning beds and Raven quickly raced to stop his brother. But on arrival, Bear had touched every species of salmon except the steelhead.

So, unlike other salmon, steelhead survive the full cycle while other species of salmon return to spawn and then die in the spawning beds.


8 thoughts on “A Salish Traditional Story: Bear and the Steelhead

  1. I love your story, and would love to speak with you about it. I am currently writing a book, and would love to quote your story. Please email me for info.

    Thank you

  2. Hi, I’m a student at Seattle Central Community College doing research and I wanted to point out that both Raven and totem poles are not a part of the Salish history, but belong to the folks of the north and central coastal areas like Alaska and B.C. It seems to be a really common muddle for us in this state, but as far as I have been taught Salish is a broad term to categorize the language group of the area above the Columbia River which reaches north through much of the state. I believe that Raven is important in the Kwakwaka’wakw legends.

    • Ms. Tooker:
      I appreciate your interest and time. There seems to be some disagreement between the indigenous sources we cited (that included tribal leaders) and the information you provided.
      While it is important to acknowledge your concerns, we stand by our original account of the stories.

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  5. I would love to share this with my students but do not know who to credit the story with. Is it public and sharable? Salish is an umbrella term, or it is my understanding, knowing which Nation or location would be useful also.

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