Sacred Salmon Tradition at Suttle Lake

wilsonwewaby JEFF SPRY Cascade A&E Feature Writer

Eternal spirits of the sacred salmon returned September 29 to Suttle Lake for a traditional salmon bake hosted by Ronda Sneva and her Suttle Lake Lodge. Wilson Wewa, an elder member of the Warm Springs Indian confederation was master of ceremonies along with a brightly costumed clan of Native American drummers, dancers and singers.

Wewa began the filleting process as guests arrived and the afternoon sun started to sink across the lake, laying the huge fish out on a chef’s table, swiftly removing the heads and tails before exposing its bold pink flesh.

“These are Chinook salmon caught right in the Willapa Bay area,” he said, his sharp knife cleanly separating the halves. “We’ll bake eight fish total, each one weighing about twenty pounds. There should be plenty to eat.”

The night before, Wewa spun some vivid native legends to a group of fifty visitors in a chilly storytelling session around a roaring campfire.

“Everybody stayed warm, even when it started getting cold. I would have kept talking but I got cold too and excused everyone.”

As the alder wood fire blazed nearby, a sell-out crowd of nearly 250 mingled with drinks and watched curiously as Wewa prepared the salmon beside an authentic Plains-type teepee beneath the stirring pines.

Wewa and his expert crew tended the coals in the fire and skewered the raw slabs with long ironwood sticks, then placed them around the glowing pit.

“Alder is a good seasoning wood for smoking,” he said. It’s a wood with no pitch and burns down to some super-hot ashes. I’m 56 and I’ve been doing this since I was 17. I can tell the temperature just by the feel.”

Head chef Michael Valoppi and his staff set up an amazing buffet on the lawns for all assembled salmon-lovers, decorated with floral arrangements, wild salmon sculptures and chainsaw-carved horses. In addition to fresh fish, guests feasted on sugared Indian fry bread, wild rice, gourmet salads and apple-huckleberry cobbler for dessert.

eaglethundersingersAfter everyone was stuffed to the gills with baked salmon, Wewa and his extended family entertained everyone with a series of traditional dances like the Basket Dance, the Owl Dance and the Grass Dance, simulating the stamping down of prairie grasslands. Accompanied by the rousing drums and voices of the Eagle Thunder Singers, Warm Springs brothers Charles and Timothy Kalama whirled, stomped and spun, wearing intricately-made costumes fashioned with fine beadwork and rare eagle feathers.

“We were sold out, this is awesome,” said Sneva, resting after joining Wewa in a friendship dance. “We brought this back to pay tribute to the land and the Warm Springs tribes. It’s really their land, I’m just the caretaker of it.”

Wewa, sporting a grand eagle-feather bonnet, stood with his four-year-old grandson, JaVaughn, and remarked, “Long ago the salmon came to spawn in this lake and they were food for eagles and wolves and badgers and our people set up camps along these shores,” he said. “I am always asked why this area is so special to my Indian people. It is because these lakes that cross over to the Willamette Valley are sacred. We keep dreaming and wait for a day they will return.”

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