Thomas Doty – Storyteller

Sacred Salmon Ceremony

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When the Salmon Have Sore Backs

By the time the salmon reach this middle stretch of the river, they look battered. Their fins are torn and their sides bruised. They've struggled against miles of strong rapids and leaped many a waterfall on their journeys upriver. By the time the salmon reach our village of Ti'lomikh, their backs are sore, at the very least. This is a triumph, and a time of celebration.

– From All Night Salmon Leap the Falls

An Ancient Ceremony Comes Home

The Sacred Salmon Ceremony came home to its original site in 2007 for the first time in over 160 years. The ceremony was conducted by Agnes Baker Pilgrim, Takelma elder and Keeper of the Sacred Salmon Ceremony. The ceremony's home is the ancient Takelma village of Ti'lomikh, along the Rogue River in southern Oregon. For the previous 13 years, the ceremony had been held along the Applegate River.

On December 23, 2006, Grandma Aggie blessed the land, the first step in bringing the Sacred Salmon Ceremony back to its source. On January 24, 2007, Stephen Kiesling located the ancient stone Story Chair near the falls at Ti'lomikh, and two days later Stephen Kiesling, Kim Marie Murphy and Thomas Doty waded the Rogue River and confirmed the discovery. For thousands of years, the chair played an important role in the Sacred Salmon Ceremony.

On June 4, 2007, when the Sacred Salmon Ceremony came home to Ti'lomikh, the diving platform carved into the rock above the Story Chair was once again part of the ceremony. Divers returned the bones and skin of the first salmon to the bottom of the pool below Ti'lomikh Falls. Traditional Takelma stories were also brought back to the ceremony. Thomas Doty was joined by guest storytellers Lindagail Campbell and Chet Nickerson. Once again, the stories of Daldal, Coyote, and Panther and his brother Wildcat, were shared on the riverbank at Ti'lomikh.

While the ceremonies at Ti'lomikh the past several years have done much to bring people together, and to educate the public about the Sacred Salmon Ceremony, the sacredness of Ti'lomikh, and the Takelma view of the river and the Salmon People, many native people -- including Grandma Aggie -- believe that changes need to be made to make the annual ceremony more traditional, and to bring it back into the heart of the Takelma culture.


To fully understand the ceremony, it is necessary to understand the importance of duality in Takelma culture. There are two directions: upriver and downriver. In Mythtime, two Dragonfly brothers travel up the river, making the world ready for the arrival of the Human People. Even their name in Takelma, Daldal, is a dual repetition of a single sound. As the brothers establish Ti'lomikh as the salmon place, they place two stone chairs at the site which will become extremely important in the Sacred Salmon Ceremony.

The Story Chair is the stone chair carved into the rock near the falls where the Salmon Watcher sits, waiting for the arrival of the Salmon People, and netting the first salmon of the spring run.

Another stone chair, called the Storytelling Stone (sometimes also called a Story Chair) was originally a smaller, portable chair on the riverbank that most likely washed away in the 1964 flood. These days it is a large stone at the overlook where folks are invited to sit and share stories.

To maintain the Takelma tradition of keeping the balance between storytelling and ritual, it is important that both stones are active during the ceremony. Many of the stories told from the Storytelling Stone at the overlook tell of rituals being acted out at the Story Chair by the falls, as it has always been done.


Another concept crucial to the ceremony is the Takelma belief in reciprocity. Grandma Aggie says, "The Old Ones used to believe that salmon were people who looked like us, the two-leggeds. They lived in beautiful cities beneath the ocean floor. Every spring and fall they chose to put on the form of salmon to come back and feed the two-leggeds. They teach us that you have to give back."

In Takelma oral tradition, there is a story that back in the Old Time, after the Daldal brothers established Ti'lomikh as the salmon place, the Human People and the Salmon People made a deal. "You provide us with food," said the Human People, "and we will make sure that your people -- the Swimmers -- will remain a vibrant people." Thus began the essence of the Sacred Salmon Ceremony: allowing thousands of salmon to swim upriver to spawn before anyone goes fishing, to ensure that there will always be salmon. This is true reciprocity.


A New, Old Time Ceremony

For the ceremony to become more authentic and genuine, I believe it is time to create an "updated" ceremony, making it as close as possible to how it was done in the old days. It is my hope that this proposed New, Old Time Ceremony will take place in the near future.

I feel that moving away from the powwow atmosphere of the past several years is wise. The core of the ceremony at the falls should be private and done by native people chosen by the Keeper of the Sacred Salmon Ceremony. This includes catching the salmon, and ceremonially returning the bones and skin of the first salmon to the bottom of the pool below the falls. The public portion of the ceremony takes place at the overlook, with a view of the falls. This is not a party or a potluck or a forum for political speeches. There are no vendors, and alcohol and drugs are not permitted. The public gathering is focused on inviting the Salmon People back to Ti'lomikh through support of the core ceremony ... with prayers, stories, drumming, singing, and sincerity.

I have taken care to keep my description of the ceremony I would like to see as traditional as possible -- as it has been done at Ti'lomikh for thousands of years -- with a few concessions for contemporary times. Over centuries, all native traditions have evolved, making use of the best of what is new while keeping the integrity of the Old Time culture vibrant and true to original intentions.

Below is my scenario of a future ceremony based on what my ancestors and my native teachers told me about how the ceremony was done prior to the arrival of Europeans, on decades of research, and on my own experiences on the Applegate River and along the Rogue at Ti'lomikh. This scenario is my personal view. I do not speak for anyone but myself.

In the Spirit of Sharing Stories,


Grandma Aggie conducting a water blessing on the Storytelling Stone at Ti'lomikh in 2018.

At the Beginning of the Salmon Run

In the spring, a native person chosen by the Keeper of the Sacred Salmon Ceremony sits in the Story Chair by the falls and welcomes the Salmon People to Ti'lomikh. He is called the Salmon Watcher. A prayer is offered to apologize for the antics and goings-on of the Human People that have decimated the salmon population as well as compromised the health of the river -- the lifeblood of the Great Animal that is the World -- and lessened the native connection to this sacred place. A commitment to the Old Time agreement with the Salmon People is renewed, and a promise for a revived presence of native stewardship at Ti'lomikh.

For five days the Salmon Watcher witnesses the salmon run move past the old village site. He watches salmon leap the falls and continue their journeys upriver to spawn. It is essential that many salmon continue upriver before people arrive to do the ceremony described below.

At the Height of the Salmon Run

In late spring or early summer, the Keeper of the Sacred Salmon Ceremony invites tribes and communities to Ti'lomikh, as it's been done for thousands of years.

The Salmon Watcher returns to the Story Chair by the falls carrying a traditional dip net. He sits in the chair and offers a prayer to the Salmon People.

Prior to this, the Salmon Ceremony Leader, appointed by the Keeper of the Sacred Salmon Ceremony, has invited five people to be divers. They erect a sweat lodge on the island near the falls and engage in a purification ceremony.

As they arrive at the overlook, visitors are ceremonially smudged with cedar -- Ti'lomikh means "West of Here Live the Cedar People" -- and given an info sheet about the ceremony and their part in it. They gather around the Storytelling Stone. The Keeper of the Sacred Salmon Ceremony sits on the stone chair, welcomes everyone, and tells the story of Ti'lomikh, the history of the ceremony, both here and previously on the Applegate River. She offers a prayer for the return of the Salmon People.

Meanwhile, a few feet away, the Fire Tender and helpers build the traditional salmon fire. This area is roped off to give them room to work as well as designate it as a sacred place.

The Keeper of the Sacred Salmon Ceremony invites anyone else who wishes to speak on behalf of the salmon or tell their own story, or sing a song, to sit on the stone chair and share. The Storytelling Stone is the main focus during this time at the overlook. Respect and attention is given to those who wish to speak.

At the falls, the Salmon Watcher catches the first salmon with his net. The bones and skin of that salmon are wrapped in cedar, and given to the divers as they make their way to the diving platform on the rock above the chair. Prayers are said, and one by one, the divers dive into the pool below the falls, returning the bones and skin of the first salmon to the bottom of the river, back to the source and the homeland of the Salmon People.

If no salmon is caught, the divers still dive, returning bundles of cedar as offerings to the bottom of the pool.

Folks at the overlook bear witness to this sacred gesture. Drummers and singers share a song that can be heard by the divers at the falls.

After the divers have finished, they assist the Salmon Watcher in catching a few more salmon, and they make their way from the falls to the overlook.

At the overlook, everyone stands in a circle. There is drumming and singing as the divers make their way around the circle, welcomed back by everyone.

Salmon are baked on redwood stakes around the ceremonial fire. More stories are shared while this happens. Then everyone gets a taste of salmon.

The Keeper of the Sacred Salmon Ceremony sits on the Storytelling Stone, and shares her wisdom. Hopefully, this includes our gratitude for the return of the Salmon People. Whether the Salmon People come back or not, the Keeper of the Sacred Salmon Ceremony invites everyone back next spring. This kind of sacred gesture, done again and again, revives ancient connections and brings positive change. The Keeper of the Sacred Salmon Ceremony closes the ceremony.