The Origin of Fish in the Columbia

From the creation of the earth itself to the formation of mountains and to the introduction of wildlife, Native American legends offer rich explanations of the world around us. An explanation of the presence of salmon in the Columbia River is the subject of the following Wasco legend involving the cunning of Coyote.

Coyote also heard about two women who had fish preserved in a pond. Then he went to them as they were collecting driftwood from the river. He turned himself into a piece of wood trying to get them to pick him up. He drifted along. But then they did not get hold of him. He went ashore, ran off to way yonder up river, and transformed himself into a boy. He put himself into a cradle, threw himself into the river, and again drifted along. The two women caught sight of him wailing. They thought, "Some people have capsized, and this child is drifting towards us." The younger one thought, "Let us get hold of it." But the older woman did not want to have the child. Now it was drifting along. The older one thought, "That is Coyote." Nevertheless the younger woman took the child and put it in a canoe.

The two women started home towards their house. The child was wailing, and they arrived home with it. They took off the cradle from it and looked closely at it. As it turned out, the child was a boy. The younger one said, "A boy is better than driftwood." And then she went and cut an eel and put its tail in his mouth. Then straightway he sucked at it and ate it all up. She gave him another eel, and again he sucked at it, eating up only half. Then he fell asleep, and half the eel was lying in his mouth. The two women said, "He is asleep; now let us go for some more wood."

And then they went far away. He arose and saw them going far off. Then he made himself loose and seized their food. He roasted the fish on a spit; they were done and he ate. He caught sight of the fish, which were their food, in a lake. Then he examined the lake carefully and discovered a spot where it would be easy to make an outlet from it to the river. " Here I shall make the fish break out and then they will go to the Great River." He made five digging sticks, made them out of young oak. And then he put them down in that place. He started back home towards their house. Again, just as before, he put himself into the cradle. Again there in his mouth lay the eel's tail. Again he fell asleep.

Now the two women arrived. "The boy is sleeping," they said, "Very good is the boy, being a great sleeper." And then they retired for the night. Daylight came, the boy was sleeping. Again they went for wood. Again he saw them going far away. Then he got up and took their food. He roasted it on a spit and ate it all up. Then straight away he went to where his digging sticks were. He took hold of one of his digging sticks. Then he stuck his digger into the ground; he pulled it out, and the earth was all loosened up ; his digging-stick broke. He took hold of another one and again stuck it into the ground. Then he loosened up the earth, and his digger was all broken to pieces. He took hold of another one of his digging sticks. Again he stuck it into the ground. He loosened the earth all up, and his third digger was all broken to pieces. He took hold of the fourth one. Again his digger broke. Now at last he took hold of the fifth and stuck it into the ground. He loosened the earth all up. And then the fish slid over into the Great River.

Now then the older woman bethought herself. She said to her companion, "You said, 'The child is good. I myself thought, 'That is Coyote.' Now this day Coyote has treated us two badly. I told you, 'Let us not take the child, that is Coyote.' Now we have become poor, Coyote has made us so." Then they went to their house, and he too went to them to their house.

He said to them, "Now by what right, perchance, would you two keep the fish to yourselves? You two are birds, and I shall tell you something. Soon now people will come into this land. Listen!" And the people could be heard like thunder rumbling afar. "Now they will come into this land. Those fish will be the people's food. Whenever a fish will be caught, you two will come. Your name has become Swallows. Now this day I have done with you. Thus I shall call you, 'Swallows.' When the people will come, they will catch fish. And then you two will come. And it will be said of you, 'The swallows have come; Coyote called them so.' Thus will the people say, 'From these two did Coyote take away their fish preserved in a pond; now they have come.'" Thus did Coyote call those two.

To Start You Thinking

1) Describe the trick that Coyote played on the two women. What does the trick and its results suggest about Coyote's character and in this case his importance to the Wasco and the other tribes of the Columbia region?

2) Explain what the story suggests about the seasonal arrival of both salmon and swallows on the Columbia River?

The map below includes a layer showing a rough approximation of regions within the Columbia Basin
occupied historically by various tribes as well as a layer showing contemporary Native American reservations.

Native Tribal Boundaries

3) Language is obviously an important unifying cultural characteristic. Change symbols in the Historic Boundaries layer to show each tribe by Language. Describe the relationship between tribal languages and the major rivers of the Columbia Basin.

4) Turn off the Historical Boundaries layer and turn on the Tribal Boundaries - 2012 layer. As you can see, most of the tribes have lost direct contact with the major rivers that historically were at the heart of their culture. Identify exceptions to this generalization.

5) The contemporary reservation boundaries seen in the map typically define confederated tribal units - groups of tribes thrust together as a result of wars in the late nineteenth century between the tribes and the U.S. Army. The Warm Springs reservation in central Oregon, for example, is a confederation of Northern Paiute, Warm Springs, and Wasco tribes. Use the link to tribal sites on the internet in the Tribal Boundaries - 2012 layer pop-ups and identify the tribal composition of each confederated group.

6) Native communities throughout the Pacific Northwest regard the salmon with religious reverence. The First Salmon Ceremony is an annual tradition to give thanks for the return of the fish up the Columbia from the Pacific. Research the topic and describe this event and its meaning for the natives of the Columbia Basin.


“The Origin of Fish in the Columbia” in Edward Sapir, editor, Wasco Tales and Myths, (Leydan, Holland: American Ethnological Society, 1909) found online at the Internet Archive.

Last modified in November, 2021 by Rick Thomas