Indigenous Value Systems as Vessels for Knowledge: An Example from the Pacific Northwest

Wood sculpture of a salmon, whereby the lower half is a human child.

“It may safely be said,” wrote naturalist and U.S. Commissioner for Fisheries Spencer Fullerton Baird in 1878, “that wherever the white man plants his foot and the so-called civilization of a country is begun, inhabitants of the air, land, and the water, begin to disappear.” Particularly salmon at the heart of the thriving Pacific Northwest fishing industry were subject to this “fatal influence.” Baird’s warnings regarding overfishing and habitat destruction were among the earliest written accounts to caution against overexploiting the region’s resources. In other parts of the world, like northern Europe and Japan, it had long been “evident to every one how important it is to carry on the fisheries in accordance with certain well-defined rules based on a thorough knowledge of the nature and mode of life of the fish,” as Baird phrased it. He concluded that such knowledge was crucial for Americans, too, “if the future of the fisheries is not to be seriously endangered.”1 Today, salmon are at five percent of the abundance recorded at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest is perhaps irreparably damaged.2

It had all started rather promisingly. In 1804, the Lewis and Clark Expedition set out to map the United States’ newly acquired land west of the Mississippi and east of the Rocky Mountains. Known as Louisiana, its purchase arguably marked the onset of a serious and more substantial consideration of the West for potential expansion of the American empire. But after months of charting high plains and lowlands, it was the land just west of the Rockies that began to excite American imaginations. Owing to its strategic location and incredible resources, the Pacific Northwest, as we know it now, became extremely desirable to American expansionists. In the early 1830s, it was presented to the U.S. government as “the most valuable of all the unoccupied parts of the earth.”3 It was the perfect spot for a new Eden, for the manifestation of American destiny. By midcentury, close to half a million Americans had migrated to the region via the Oregon Trail, and trade and industry there were booming.

The part about the Pacific Northwest being unoccupied was complete nonsense, of course. It had already been one of the most densely populated parts of the continent before European-Americans set foot there. We know of at least two dozen distinct linguistic divisions that encompassed hundreds of different nations, bands, and tribal affiliations. One of these linguistic groupings is Salishan, which branches into Interior Salish (Columbia Plateau) and Coast Salish. The Coast Salish peoples alone include more than fifty nations and bands, such as the Squamish, the Swinomish, the Tulalip, the Duwamish, and the Lummi Nation, each with their own language or dialect, political system, and economy. This large number might at first be hard to fathom, especially given that for reasons of simplicity and indifference, Western popular culture tends to fall back on the terms “Native American” or “American Indian,” as if referring to a single ethnic group. As Duane Champagne, citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, North Dakota, explains, “Indian country is more like the multitude of nations that form the United Nations than a shared ethnicity.”4

For millennia, most all of the Pacific Northwest nations depended on salmon. Over time, the anadromous fish came to be understood not only as a food source but as vital for the ecosystem. Now American researchers are starting to grasp the science behind this. Salmon helped shape the flora and fauna over thousands of square kilometers, their influence detectable as much as five kilometers beyond their streams.5 The problem is that linking a fish to a tree without the kind of research and scientific evidence mustered by oceanographer Dale Stokes in The Fish in the Forest is easily dismissed as baseless talk about the “interconnectedness of all things,” which Western sciences tend to regard as spiritual hogwash. In any case, juxtaposing materiality and spirituality, science and philosophy, is a very Western approach to knowledge. Sometimes—and this is an essential point—spirituality is based on knowledge and not the other way around.

In her important book Rights Remembered: A Salish Grandmother Speaks on American Indian History and the Future, the late Lummi elder Pauline Hillaire told of a “spiritual reverence for salmon,” inherent in Indigenous value systems. This reverence derives from an understanding of the salmon’s importance and “an intimate knowledge of all the factors that affected fish life.” It’s the sort of knowledge that very much sounds like what Spencer Fullerton Baird had been after. But it developed and evolved within oral traditions, spirituality, mythology, and philosophy, all of which are expressed or “stored” in Indigenous value systems. Hillaire explained that her ancestors’ experiences turned into stories that were repeated over time and gradually became a philosophy upon which Indigenous value systems are based. These value systems, she wrote, are “manifested in Indian communities through songs, dance, legends, talk, games, art, and ceremonies.”6 Oral tradition, then, is a means of expressing, practicing, and transmitting knowledge. Part of it is ever-evolving knowledge in the form of new stories, new experiences. Another part is ancient knowledge, knowledge we find in myths, which Carolyn Dunn (Cherokee/Creek/Seminole/Choctaw) defines as “the truths of a people whose existence has been spoken and breathed into being for thousands of years.”7 When “non-Indian cultures invaded the land and oral stories became replaced with written accounts,” ancient truths and environmental knowledges were disregarded.8 Euro-Americans were looking for a “fresh start” or “blank slate” for a superior civilization that saw “salmon as commodities to be taken for personal gain.”9


Today we know that the resulting decline in biodiversity is but one of the predicaments brought forth by unprecedented industrial endeavors in combination with a colonialist mindset that ignores Indigenous experiences and knowledges. For instance, when some fifty years ago American researchers found a massive fault line that runs along the Pacific Northwest Coast and threatens to destroy most of the region, the news came as a bit of a shock. Dubbed the Cascadia subduction zone, it’s an area where two gigantic tectonic plates meet and produce a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami every 243 years on average. In 2016, journalist Kathryn Schulz won a Pulitzer Prize for her acclaimed story on this impending mega-earthquake, although the initial viral brouhaha soon cleared without any significant aftershocks. Schulz warned: “that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America,” and the unfathomable tragedy is “how unprepared the Pacific Northwest is to face it.” Had the explorers of the nineteenth century “had any inkling that the Pacific Northwest was not a quiet place but a place in a long period of quiet,” that is, had they found out more about the region’s history, maybe today we would not be steering towards a major catastrophe involving millions of people.10 Maybe.

The knowledge of the area’s dormant disaster was there, just not in writing. Still today, oral histories include information about the destructive force of a colossal quake and subsequent tsunami. There is no way of knowing how many stories existed earlier and how many were lost to colonial violence and disease. Along the Pacific Northwest Coast, the grimmest of estimates is that 95 percent of the Indigenous population died as a result of genocide and epidemics. “But even in the few stories that are left, earthquakes and tsunamis are still so vivid that the complete range of stories must have been full of them,” maintains Ann Finkbeiner. The accuracy of some of the contemporary oral history even made it possible to date the last quake back to 1700, give or take a year (yes, we are overdue). But it still took science for this experience to garner credibility. “It does not speak well of European-Americans that such stories counted as evidence for a proposition only after that proposition had been proved,” Schulz notes.

The example of the Cascadia subduction zone highlights a central factor that plays into Western knowledge claims to superiority, namely the definition of literacy. As there were no scientific studies or other written accounts where Westerners would expect knowledge to be stored, such knowledge was assumed not to exist. Current U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo (Mvskoke) remarks:

When the first colonizers from the European continent stepped into our tribal territories, we were assumed illiterate because we did not communicate primarily with written languages, nor did we store our memory in books and on papers. The equating of written languages to literacy came with an oppositional world view, a belief set in place as a tool for genocide.11

The fundamentally different world view at the heart of misunderstanding and discrimination refuses to understand value systems as expressions of knowledge. Still today in Western contexts, value systems and knowledge systems are more often than not regarded as separate. But it is a misconception to assume we can generalize this Western dualism of knowledge and values and apply it universally. Historiography has for some time now explored different ideas of cultural knowledges and truths, and it’s a fascinating field of research. In an earlier contribution to this blog, Mark Stoneman notes that much of this scholarship “recognizes that all authentic truth claims are part of the same cluster of mental, social, and cultural processes that we grasp as knowledge, whether said truth claims are objectively correct, false, unprovable, or a combination of these things.” The brilliant bit about this conception of knowledge is that it allows us to embrace differences and similarities at the same time. At least in theory. “If we want to understand people and their knowledge practices,” Stoneman continues, “we have to learn to see seemingly mutually exclusive knowledges as part of a common story, if one of differences.”

We are at “a crucial time in history,” Joy Harjo observes, “a time in which the failures to acknowledge, listen to, and consider everyone when making the map of American memory has brought us to a reckoning.”12 When we look back at the example of the Pacific Northwest, the image of making the map of American memory and drawing it on a blank canvas wiped clean of any historical traces is tragically accurate. So where do we go from here? Maybe before we can learn to see different knowledges as part of one story, we have to learn to listen. Listening is indispensable for an awareness of the intersectional complexity of innumerable facets of this common story of differences. In the past few years, there has been much interesting development with regard to publications, podcasts and other projects by Indigenous activists, writers, scholars, and artists from whom we could learn.

The Dark Laboratory, for instance, focusses on non-Western storytelling in the study of race, ecology, and technology. Founded by writer, DJ, and professor Tao Leigh Goffe, it is a project to explore aspects of intersectionality and the power of stories. The blogs Native Appropriations and Project562 and the podcast All My Relations by Adrienne Keene (Cherokee) and Matika Wilbur (Swinomish, Tulalip) are other highly recommendable sources with regard to Indigenous representations and stereotypes in American culture. And Joy Harjo, for her signature project as Poet Laureate, created an interactive story map featuring the poets and poems in her most recent anthology, Living Nations, Living Words (2021). The poems give insights into Native life, teachings about the land, and ancestral knowledge, while also sharing the anger, frustration, hope, and resistance of Indigenous people across the country. Such projects offer opportunity for a consequential change of perspective. They invite us to dismantle the “subjugation of non-Western knowledge systems beneath Western thought in many forms of discourse.”13 Our present surroundings are continually shaped by stories that reverberate through time. We could start by looking out for them.

Chiara A. Fralick is a graduate student of North American Studies at the University of Cologne, Germany, where she has focused on art and literatures of the nineteenth century and Indigenous oral histories. Currently she is completing her MA thesis, provisionally titled “Nature Spirited Away: Exploring Ecological Empathy and Native Nations' Poetics.”

Featured image: "Salmon Child" (2013) by Rick Bartow (Mad River Wiyot, 1946-2016) and Jon Paden (Non-Indian), National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), Image rights reserved by the NMAI.

  1. Spencer Fullerton Baird, “Report of the Commissioner for 1878,” United States Commission of Fish And Fisheries (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1880), xlv–xlvi, 126. ↩︎
  2. See Dale Stokes, The Fish in the Forest: Salmon and the Web of Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014), 134. ↩︎
  3. Fred Wilbur Powell, “Hall Jackson Kelley: Prophet of Oregon,” in The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society 18 (1917): 27, ↩︎
  4. Duane Champagne, “The Term ‘American Indian,’ Plus Ethnicity, Sovereignty, and Identity,” Indian Country Today, June 16, 2014. Champagne is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology and American Indian Studies and has published a range of articles about knowledge, plutocracy, and identity in this freely available nonprofit venue. ↩︎
  5. See Stokes, The Fish in the Forest. ↩︎
  6. Pauline Hillaire, Rights Remembered: A Salish Grandmother Speaks on American Indian History and the Future (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press), 267 and 239. ↩︎
  7. Carolyn Dunn, “Deer Woman and the Living Myth of Dreamtime,” JoMA, The Journal of Mythic Arts (2003), ↩︎
  8. William L. Lang, “From Where We Are Standing: The Sense of Place and Environmental History,” in Northwest Lands, Northwest Peoples: Readings in Environmental History, ed. Dale D. Goble and Paul W. Hirt, (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1999), 84. ↩︎
  9. Dale D. Goble, “Salmon in the Columbia Basin: From Abundance to Extinction,” in Northwest Lands, Northwest Peoples, ed. Goble and Hirt, 230. See also James McKusick, “Stepping Westward,” The Wordsworth Circle 32, no. 3 (2001): 122, ↩︎
  10. Quotations: Kathryn Schulz, “The Really Big One: An Earthquake Will Destroy a Sizable Portion of the Coastal Northwest. The Question is When,” The New Yorker, July 13, 2015. ↩︎
  11. Joy Harjo et al., eds., When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Antihology of Native Nations Poetry (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2020), 1. ↩︎
  12. Joy Harjo, Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2021), xvii. ↩︎
  13. Stuart Cooke, “Indigenous Poetics and Transcultural Ecologies,” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 20, no. 1 (2018): 2. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Chiara A. Fralick, “Indigenous Value Systems as Vessels for Knowledge: An Example from the Pacific Northwest,” History of Knowledge, February 14, 2022,