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The Cycle of the Salmon

May 2, 2016

 

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It was such a beautiful day: the sun dappling through the forest, lighting up the shade, warming it.  High in the firs, robins flitted and chirped. It was a perfect day for eighty fifth graders to come to the Maxwelton Outdoor Classroom to release their tiny salmon  into the creek.

Since January, they had tended the eggs, watched them hatch, fed the tiny fry, and watched them grow. Now, it was time to let them go.

 

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I was waiting for them at the outdoor benches, gazing up into a huge old maple. They would come to me in classroom size groups to sit on the benches and discuss their task and it’s significance – and listen to a Native American tale. Then, they would take their small charges down to the creek – to set them free.

It was so quiet; a soft breeze made small branches sway and leaves flutter. I savored it, knowing that soon the forest would be full of chatter, laughter, and shrieks as the kids piled out of the bus. I took another sip of tea and waited.

And then – they came – not as noisy as I had expected, but lively, nonetheless. I tried to gauge their mood by the character and volume of the noise. And as they appeared on the path, I rose to smile and greet them.

Most of the time I really don’t like storytelling outdoors. There are so many potential distractions. I have watched other storytellers in outdoor settings work very hard to maintain the focus of their audiences. But today – cradled by the trees and warmed by the sun – was different. It was a perfect moment to help these kids understand that now – because of what they had done and were about to do – they were part of something big – very big…they were now part of the cycle of the salmon.

I spoke of some of the Native American beliefs about salmon; the Makah believed that salmon were actually transformed people whose duty was to feed the creatures of the earth as part of the sacred cycle of life. I told them about a feast of the First Salmon that I had witnessed on the Skokomish reservation. A whole salmon was placed on a wooden platter. It was then decorated with cedar branches, salal, and other forest plants. Then, after prayers and blessings, the salmon was carefully lowered into  the water – and floated away. And then I told an Athabascan tale – about a girl who becomes a salmon and, after learning how the salmon wish to be treated, is transformed back into a human being and shares what she has learned with her people. As I told the story, I pictured the girl – at exactly the same age as the young faces around me. The audience was quiet and attentive; they “got it”.

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With the final group, I had a last minute idea. I lined them up in front of a wall of the classroom building, a wall covered with brightly painted ceramic salmon. I asked them to reach out and touch the salmon in front of them, to run their fingers over it. There was no giggling or horseplay. I let them stand in silence for a moment and then told them of their new role in the salmon cycle – and praised them for their efforts. There were a few solemn nods… and then the spell was broken, the noise level slowly increased… and they were their usual boisterous, wonderfully energetic selves once again.

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