Salmon and the Spokane Falls

For thousands of years, American Indians gathered here at the base of Spokane Falls to fish for salmon. In June of each year, giant 60 to 80 pound Chinook would make it to the Spokane River. Though the falls were in Spokane Indian Territory, this was a shared bounty, and tribes from all over the Columbia Plateau would make their way to Spokane. In fact, when Lewis and Clark came through Nez Perce country, hundreds miles south of Spokane in 1805, they asked about where all the Nez Perce were? They were told that most of the Nez Perce were on the Spokane River fishing.

The Natives in the region used many methods to take the salmon. One method used by the Natives at the Spokane Falls was fishing from platforms above the falls. There they would stand and spear these giants. Another fishing method used by Natives on the Spokane was fish traps. A barrier made out of wood and other natural materials would be strung across tributaries of the Spokane. The barriers would trap the fish. Then they would be speared. Thousands of fish would be captured in this way.

The massive gathering of people required elaborate social organization. Chiefs were chosen from among those gathered. One of the most important was the Salmon Chief, often coming from the local Spokane Tribe. He was in charge of fishing and distributing the salmon fairly to all the people there.

The men did the fishing, and the women had the vital task of processing the salmon for the year. Processing was labor intensive, and required great skill, especially in the drying and smoking process. They had to ensure the salmon did not rot, and lasted through the hard winter months otherwise people would starve.

When Europeans had formed the town of Spokane; the early settlers relied heavily on the chinook for food and business. Spokane even became a tourist destination due to these giant Chinook. When Spokane's lumber industry expanded with the resulting wood chips and other pollutants were dumped into the river the by lumber mills people complained, wanting them to stop because they were killing the salmon.

The behemoth Chinooks stopped coming up the river to the Spokane Falls with the building of the dam on Long Lake in 1915. Below the dam salmon still came, but that stopped completely in 1939 with the building of one of the largest dams in the world, Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River.