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Mattole River Salmon-Welcoming Celebration, 2023

To begin my story near the end … we were on a beach at the northern border of the Lost Coast of Humboldt County in northwest California on a Saturday afternoon in mid-November, standing beside the mouth of the 60-mile-long Mattole River, near the town of Petrolia, home of CounterPunch. We bystanders, about 25 whites More

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Mouth of the Mattole River. Photo: Bill Hatch.

To begin my story near the end … we were on a beach at the northern border of the Lost Coast of Humboldt County in northwest California on a Saturday afternoon in mid-November, standing beside the mouth of the 60-mile-long Mattole River, near the town of Petrolia, home of CounterPunch. We bystanders, about 25 whites and Indians, were standing outside a ring of small rocks about 40 feet in diameter. Inside the rocks, 16 dancers from the Bear River Band, the men bare to the waist in the wind and rain, elk capes decorated with shells on their backs, the women in long, full skirts, colorful blouses and vests, some wearing patterned basket caps, and two or three children shaking clappers, danced and sang songs of healing to the beat of a drum and clappers in the third Mattole River Salmon-Welcoming Ceremony. This is the restoration of a ceremony Indians from this band had not performed since 1912. Barry Brenard, one of the lead dancers and cultural coordinator for the Band, described this dance as a ”high dance–to the Creator on behalf of all living beings,” to distinguish it from a more local, tribal ceremony.

The wind whistled, the surf rolled loudly, the rain was in my face. Like a few others in the audience, I was trying to do the simple shuffle dance myself on my rebuilt hip, stopping and starting in the wet sand. The weather, the surf and the gulls confused my senses until all I heard was the steady drumbeat, like a community heart, creating our human rhythm on a sand spit in a stormy afternoon. Then, above the drum and the sound of the wind and surf, I heard a woman’s voice, keening as she sang her song in the circle.

Then time stopped and I was a quarter mile out to sea under the protection of the omniscient Great Spirit.

I only mention my experience because I believe it’s a testament to the real power of this ceremony that still eases the spirits of native people up to Alaska waiting and praying for the all-important, mysterious salmon to return. It is also good for the spirit of white people who struggle daily in environmental conflicts in this region.

I had recently retired from 20 years of environmental activism elsewhere. When I heard about the Mattole ceremony, I eagerly took the long drive.  The last hour was through forests of old growth redwoods and fir, with occasional maples bright yellow in autumn, through sparsely populated valleys, past occasional hoop-house skeletons, until I arrived in Petrolia, near the river mouth.

There I learned that resumption of the Mattole River salmon-welcoming ceremony was answering two local needs: the need of the river-restoration community for some restoration of their spirits; and the need of the tribe to restore a traditional ritual widely practiced by other Pacific Coast tribes near and far.

Heavy logging over several decades caused erosion that will put sediment in the river for an estimated 10,000 years, according to the president of the board of the Mattole Salmon Group, Michael Evenson. “These things happen in catastrophic episodes after major sustained storms.  They don’t always appear the first winters.”

Ironically, “’Mattole’ means clear water,’” he added. From a hill above the estuary, he pointed out a small, clear creek that entered the river and made a line where it hit the river’s silt.

There are so many variables in the lives of anadromous fish, which are born in freshwater, go to sea, and after three or four years return to where they were born to lay and fertilize eggs and die, that it is a real challenge to see what factors are causing the decline in fish numbers. But silt, global warming, and drought appear to have major impacts. The Mattole hit its target of 4,000 for Chinook in the 2017-2018 water year after a wet season, but the years since have been disappointing despite the decades of work on the habitat of the river and its tributary creeks. The Coho-salmon redd (nest) count has dwindled to almost nothing, but snorkelers using another form of counting in 2022 were pleasantly encouraged, according to the Mattole Watershed News, Summer/Fall 2023:

“Each summer, the Mattole Salmon Group conducts snorkel surveys focusing on coho salmon rearing habitat. Given the unlikelihood of witnessing an adult coho salmon in the Mattole, these surveys are the best source of population data for coho salmon. In the summer of 2022, divers observed 3,052 coho juveniles. From this information we can estimate the number of successful redds (nests), and therefore spawning pairs of coho salmon. Based on the number of juvenile coho observed, we estimate that up to 25 coho salmon females spawned successfully in the Mattole in the winter of 2021-22, an encouraging change from observations in 2017 and 2019 where it appeared there were only one or two successful coho redds. While coho salmon numbers remain exceptionally low, in the last three summers juvenile numbers have been 2-5 times greater than the previous generation… Based on the population estimate formula used by CDFW, the 2022-23 return of Chinook salmon was 932. This will be the fifth consecutive year that the Chinook population estimate was below 1,500 individuals, however, it is a slight bump up from the winter of 2021-22 which estimated 416 individuals.”

The work of the Mattole Salmon Group and the Mattole Restoration Council has been supported by CalFire, the California Wildlife Conservation Board, the Conservation Fund, and numerous other charitable foundations. Yet, working with anadromous fish is a frustrating business, which is why native nations of the Pacific Coast from California to Alaska, heavily dependent on salmon for food, have held ceremonies for many centuries to pray for, honor and welcome the return of the salmon to the rivers and creeks where the fish were born and the people lived.

Evenson, president of the board of MSG, felt that spirits were flagging in 2021. It was Covid times and a drought year. “Restoration has a spiritual dimension, too,” he said. He and his partner, Ellen Taylor, a frequent CounterPunch contributor, approached the Bear River Band with the idea of renewing a Mattole River salmon-welcoming ceremony. Tribal director Hank Brenard was enthusiastic and soon tribal members were preparing for the first ceremony in more than a century. With help from Taylor and Evenson, they bought elk skins, Dentalia shells for necklaces, pine nuts from Owens Valley, the girls began sewing dresses for the dance, they went to other tribes to learn salmon songs, and found elders who taught them songs about water, acorns, and healing. They prepared fans of eagle feathers. By the time the river had breached the sand bar that blocks it in the summer and early fall, they were ready.

The ceremony I attended included a practice on Saturday, the full ceremony on Sunday, and a feast of salmon smoked in the campground. People built fires and an expert from Petrolia, who told me he’d learned the technique from a tribe farther north, fitted salmon filets to redwood sticks he’d made and stuck them in the ground near the fires.

While the ceremony was performed at the mouth of the river, the salmon filets smoked, and the result was very delicious, along with many potluck salads and other dishes. A wonderful feast followed the dances, everybody was catching up, exchanging information and news, laughing, Indians and whites together, relaxed in parkas, beanies and weatherbeaten cowboy hats. Children played. Mothers, daughters, and grandmothers brought and arranged the potluck tables. The dancers changed their clothes. Old folks sat on rocks and pickup tailgates. An Indian baby bundled in a car seat on a picnic table stared out at the scene with complete passivity. Folks lingered close to the salmon sticks and lined up with plates for a share, served out of the back of a pickup. This ceremony pleased everybody and strangers were welcome that day into those tightknit, isolated, communities. I chatted with a journalist from Japan while a Hispanic couple sitting on a rock nearby discussed the ceremony in rapid-fire Spanish.

I talked to several of the dancers after their performance. They told me the titles of some of their songs:  Water, Two Bears, one Bear, Salmon, Healing, One Big Foot, and a Healing or Light song. Quincy Donald, the young man who sang the Water Song, summed up the meaning of the dance: “Everything is a circle; We are giving back to the earth for what it is giving us. We are welcoming the salmon back for all the people, not just the tribes. We feel we did our job. Others around us agree. The essence is that everything is a circle.”

It is important for those of us who do environmental work to learn how Nature responds to our good effort, for which our law courts, politics, economics, science and technology have no concepts. We should seek out and cultivate ceremonies that celebrate this circle of spirit into which our work has drawn us.

Thanks, Bear River Band and the Mattole Salmon Group, for a terrific ceremony.

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This content originally appeared on and was authored by Bill Hatch.

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