The way that I heard it— so I heard different versions of it over time, like all my teachers told me slightly different stories. Um one of the field trips we went on in elementary school was going to the salmon hatchery which is the place where you hatch salmon…as I’m sure you could tell by the name (laughing). So we heard the story there as well. But basically what I heard the story was that there was this young boy who was not very respectful to the salmon. He would like spear them and just for fun he would like… torture the fish basically and just treat them horribly and was not respectful of the all of the things that having salmon meant, for their family, for their society, for him and he just was not was not aware. If he was aware he didn’t care, he was just a really selfish dude. And the gods got angry at the way he was treating their gifts to their society basically, and to teach him a lesson they turned him into a salmon. And he was living with the salmon and living their way of life and, um, going through the process of, you know, laying eggs in the river and going to the ocean, and going back to the river and he befriended the salmon and gained a lot of respect for their way of life.
And this is where things get a little fuzzy and in the details of the different versions I heard was— one version I heard was that once he gained respect for the salmon, he befriended this other salmon that had taken him in and was like, making sure he was protected because he had no idea what he was doing as a fish… like you would if you were a human and turned into a fish… But there was another boy in the tribe that Salmon Boy knew, and that boy killed the fish he had befriended and was treating the fish horribly. And Salmon Boy was horrified and lost somebody that was very important to him and it, um, changed him and changed the way that he viewed salmon and the world, and having learned his lesson, he was turned back into a human and he was changed forever, you know. He was far more respectful and very careful with the way he interacted with salmon, and he still ate them because it was food, but he did it in a much more respectful way as opposed to actively torturing.
So that was one version, but I heard another one where instead of it being a friend of Salmon Boy’s that got hurt, it was he himself that got hurt, and so the friend he’d known from the tribe that still remained human speared him instead of the [fish] friend, and treated him horribly and then he, like, you know, turned back into a human. And the other dude was like “oh no!” This is not the proper terminology obviously but that was the gist of it, that then he was treated horribly and then he goes to the salmon and learned his lesson that way.
My informant, one of my friends, is a 20-year-old USC student from Washington state. Having grown up there her whole life, a significant part of her education from K-12 focused on the history of Washington state with emphasis on the Native groups that live there. She told me that Washington State History was a mandatory graduation required course for her and her peers, where they would learn “a lot about all the elements of their culture, words specific to the Pacific Northwest, so obviously salmon was one of them.” As stated in the main piece, this story was often told to her by various teachers. To my informant, the meaning of the story of Salmon boy was about “being respectful of the environment and being respectful even when you are using it. There are spirits and animals and you have to treat them gently, and not be cruel, and not think that you’re better than anything around you.”
This story came up after I asked my informant that in one of my previous classes, we studied the Native American groups in the Pacific Northwest, and I told her that I heard a story about Salmon Boy. I asked if she happened to know the story, when she said yes, I asked for the versions she’d heard.
The story of Salmon Boy is a well known tale (told as a among the people of the Pacific Northwest, whether they’re Native American or not. What I liked is that my informant was able to tell me two different versions of the story that she heard, showcasing Alan Dundes’ idea of multiplicity and variation within folklore that allows it to grow as it’s told over and over to different groups of people. With a story that has two very different endings, it’s interesting to consider the way that it was used and during what circumstances. For example, it could’ve been told to misbehaving children as a cautionary tale with a tragic ending, but simultaneously, the other version could have emphasized the themes of forgiveness and growth.
What I also found interesting about this piece is that it’s considered Native American folklore, yet it’s continuously taught in schools across the Pacific Northwest. As a whole, the United States doesn’t hold folklore on the same pedestal as it does anthropology in part because of the country’s colonialist roots, meaning that a good percentage of folklore within origins in the United States is that of Native Americans’. Additionally, this exchange serves as an example of active and passive bearers: I had only heard of the story of Salmon Boy in an academic setting, but couldn’t remember it enough to tell it on my own. My informant on the other hand, became the active bearer by being able to recite two versions of the story, having grown up hearing them so often in her youth.