The Sant Ocean Hall: Salmon Shape a Way of Life

You may think of salmon as a good choice for a weekday dinner, or enjoy it smoked and sliced on a bagel. But that salmon on your plate has a long and illustrious history as a subsistence food for indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest. It has a fascinating story – and one you can explore in the Smithsonian's Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History. Take a canoe ride through the past and learn the story of salmon and people.

Master carver Douglas Chilton rides in the Raven Spirit canoe at its ceremonial launch.


Don Hurlbert/Smithsonian Institution

Boats Connect Us to the Ocean
More than any other objects, boats symbolize human connection to the ocean. As you look through the center of the Ocean Hall, past the model right whale, you can see a magnificent carved canoe. This boat draws you in to read about its story, one that is threaded from the present to the ancient past and the very roots of human culture on the Northwest coast of this country.


Fish Shape a Way of Life

Crafted from the skins of salmon, these mittens are naturally waterproof.


NMNH Anthropology Collections/Smithsonian Institution

Fish actually changed the way people lived. The development of complex culture is dependent on a reliable food source – like agriculture, sheepherding, or fishing. Because salmon were so plentiful and reliable, the northwest Pacific coast became the most heavily populated Native American region.

This abundance of food also gave people time to create artistic items and develop elaborate social and cultural ceremonies and customs. They used salmon for everything: its flesh for food, its skin for clothing and bags, its oil for cooking, its bones for needles. In this anthropological display, you can see some of many salmon-related crafts and learn about modern Native American First Salmon ceremonies – during which people gather to pay respect to the salmon and its life-giving qualities. 


How to Catch a Salmon
As you admire the canoe, you can also learn about methods both ancient and modern native peoples use to catch and prepare salmon. Many fish-catching implements are on display, including spears and harpoons. Among the most important tools, of course, are boats. For more than 10,000 years, boats have held a special place in Native American culture. A number of models of native canoes demonstrate the sizes and types of canoes and explain how they signified status and control.


Douglas Chilton uses traditional carving tools to shape the Raven Spirit canoe.


Mark Kelly, courtesy Sealaska Heritage Institute

Carving a Canoe

Although over the past 100 years the salmon fishery has drastically declined due to declining salmon habitat, over-harvesting, and dams that prevent salmon from reaching their breeding grounds, Native American communities are now working with local and regional governments to save this resource. Along with ecological conservation, there has been a revival of native customs as well – including carving of large ocean-going canoes.

The 25-foot canoe was carved especially for this exhibit by a Tlingit master carver, in partnership with Smithsonian and the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Its log was carefully selected for its size and shape, and its design reflects motifs and symbols of its carver's culture.

Come to the Smithsonian's Sant Ocean Hall to learn more about the details of its construction, its history, and its significance.


Tags: Maritime history, Native people, Sant Ocean Hall, Salmon