On September 16, 1993, the first Salmon Homecoming Celebration is held on the Seattle waterfront. The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and the Seattle Aquarium, with the support of local tribes, have organized the event to attract attention to salmon-conservation issues and to local tribes' cultural connection to salmon and to the Seattle waterfront. From the beginning, the annual event will bring together people with a wide range of backgrounds, from schoolchildren to state-agency staff to tribal members from around the Pacific Northwest and beyond. The Salmon Homecoming Forum, held in conjunction with the celebration until 2008, will allow for in-depth discussion of issues affecting salmon. Pow wows with dancing competitions, salmon bakes, canoe-welcoming ceremonies, and other activities will help introduce the larger community to Native cultural traditions. In 1999, the Salmon Homecoming Alliance will be formed to manage the event.
By the late 1980s, public awareness of issues around salmon was growing. Government agencies, environmental groups, and Indian tribes had a number of initiatives underway to improve salmon habitat and increase runs. In the 1970s, 20 federally recognized tribes whose treaty fishing rights had been reaffirmed by the 1974 Boldt decision had formed the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission to coordinate their restoration efforts and to pool resources.
In the early 1990s, the commission also wanted to reach out to the public. It had become clear over the previous decades that, in addition to overfishing, indirect human influences on the landscape and waterways significantly harmed salmon populations. Habitat for many stages of a salmon's lifecycle -- spawning, brooding, transitioning between saltwater and freshwater, and migrating through Puget Sound -- had dwindled or been polluted. Advocates for salmon saw needs both for environmental cleanup and restoration projects and for changes in activities that caused habitat loss. Outreach was a way to educate the public, spur people to action, and help them understand the tribes' interests in and efforts to support salmon populations.
When the Seattle Aquarium, having had a successful Salmon Homecoming Month in October 1992, proposed holding the Salmon Homecoming Celebration at the aquarium and on adjacent piers (Piers 62/63 and Waterfront Park), Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission staff could see the benefits of having the celebration there. The Seattle Aquarium had long been involved in public education and it was situated in a highly visible and culturally significant place on the Seattle waterfront. Each year several salmon runs returned to the aquarium's fish ladder. Additionally, the location in the city made it easier to attract media attention and funding to the event.
Tribal leaders also knew that holding the celebration in Seattle would bring the return of organized tribal cultural activities to the Seattle waterfront for the first time in decades. Duwamish, Muckleshoot, and Suquamish people had lived, fished, held ceremonies, traded, and socialized on Elliott Bay for thousands of years until non-Native settlers forced them out of their villages and filled, dredged, and otherwise transformed the shoreline in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Salmon Homecoming Forum
After the first was held on September 16, 1993, the Salmon Homecoming Celebration continued as an annual event. Programming at the celebrations included components for various audiences. A Salmon Homecoming Forum was held each year until 2008 at the start of the festivities. The forum brought together agency and tribal staff members, environmental groups, and the general public to discuss and find common ground around environmental restoration and protection to support salmon populations. As Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission chair Billy Frank Jr. (1931-2014) described it:
"This is a bridge-building opportunity. Building a bridge between the ages, between the young and the old, between the tribes and other governments, between natives and non-natives and between people and the world in which they live. It is a two-way street. We must learn from one another and we must learn to work together toward common goals. There is much to be told. There is much to be heard. There is much to be understood" (Frank).
The forum consisted of speakers and breakout sessions that focused on different aspects of issues facing salmon. In 2008, the forum focused on the development of the Unity Accord, a statement in support of Salmon Homecoming's salmon-habitat restoration goals, with an emphasis on an equitable distribution of the costs and benefits of environmental protection:
"We the people who hail from near and far pledge to work with local, state, federal, and tribal governments and institutions to resolve these challenges in a way that achieves environmental and social justice for all, so that all share equally in the burdens of pollution and the benefits of healthy ecosystems" ("Unity Accord").
Each of the forum's participants signed the accord and it is available on the Salmon Homecoming Celebration website for additional supporters to sign.
Salmon, Culture, and Pride
At the annual celebrations, school groups learned about salmon and tribal cultures. They visited informational booths operated by environmental groups, government agencies, and tribal organizations, toured the aquarium, and saw performances of dances, heard stories, and learned about salmon's role in the environment and cultures of the Puget Sound region. Organizers developed programming for students knowing that what they learned would be instilled in them early in their lives and that they would share it with their families.
Outside of the school programs, visitors experienced other cultural activities at pow wow gatherings featuring dancing, music, and food. Pow wows were traditionally a Plains and Columbia Plateau cultural tradition, but they have been adopted by other Pacific Northwest tribal communities. Celebrations also included canoe-welcoming ceremonies following traditional protocol, in which members of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe welcomed canoes and their teams of paddlers after the "canoe families" had paddled across Elliott Bay from launching points in West Seattle or at the Bell Street Pier marina.
The canoe-welcoming ceremonies recognized an important aspect of Coast Salish cultures. Canoe construction and use had declined for decades until, in 1989, the traditional Canoe Journey was revived as part of the celebration of Washington's statehood centennial. Since then, canoe culture has made a resurgence. Canoe families from tribes around Puget Sound come together to paddle canoes on an annual journey that culminates in a celebration hosted by one tribe. Celebrating canoe culture became an important part of the Salmon Homecoming Celebrations.
In addition to increasing awareness of environmental issues, the Salmon Homecoming Celebrations have had a significant impact on local Indian communities. Walter Pacheco, member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and president of the Salmon Homecoming Alliance, notes that having their schools take field trips to Salmon Homecoming offers students who are members of area tribes a sometimes-rare opportunity to take pride in their heritage in the school setting. Likewise, he has seen that Seattle's urban Indians, some of whom are struggling personally or financially, also take pride in the celebration of Indian cultures. The event has always been open to all who are interested in participating formally or informally, including tribes from all along the West Coast.
By the late 1990s, the Salmon Homecoming Celebration had grown, attracting tens of thousands of participants each year, and required a tremendous amount of organizing and fundraising. A new nonprofit organization, the Salmon Homecoming Alliance, was formed to manage the celebration. Being an independent nonprofit also made it easier to raise funds. As of 2014, the alliance continued to hold the Salmon Homecoming Celebration annually on the Seattle waterfront.