The annual Salmon Homecoming at Oxbow Regional Park near Gresham is inspired by the upstream migration of aquatic life, but the event is really a larger celebration of fall in the Pacific Northwest and the region's indigenous community.
Visitors to the Metro regional government-sponsored event, to be held on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 19 and 20, can enjoy the Sandy River flowing, wind rustling through trees displaying fall colors, the smell of salmon baking and soup cooking, the sounds of birds singing, children playing and the singing of traditional songs.
And of course, plenty of participants will gather along the Sandy to see if salmon have returned home to spawn and complete their life cycles.
Two years ago, indigenous community members helped re-envision Salmon Homecoming to incorporate their cultural traditions into a popular event that for decades had been framed around Western concepts of nature education, indigenous storytelling, tea preparation, drumming, a salmon bake and native plant walks introducing indigenous perspectives on plants, animals and water are among the enhanced offerings.
Judy BlueHorse Skelton, assistant professor of Indigenous Nations Studies at Portland State University, considers the event "an invitation to deepen understanding of indigenous cultures and practices. It's an experiential event. People are invited to participate, observe and experience our traditional practices when it comes to salmon."
The activities and interest are extensive enough to essentially dominate the lush natural environs of Oxbow.
"We pretty much take over the park," said Loni Black, event coordinator with Metro regional government's Parks and Nature division. "We'll have some native merchants and vendors up at one part, along with hot beverages and a traditional salmon bake happening. Three of the largest shelters at the park are where the Salmon Homecoming happens."
In the mid 1990s, when the event was called Salmon Festival, indigenous artists Christine and Clifton Bruno started hosting a booth, bringing photos and information about salmon, bead work and basketry demonstrations, sold their arts and crafts and shared information on Native American culture.
The festival then was bigger but not necessarily better, Bruno said, noting a formal stage with speakers was unnecessary.
"Today, we want more focus on salmon and nature," she said in an email exchange with Metro. "We want storytellers standing on the ground (rather) than on the stage. We're really focusing on people coming out, not for a big show, but for an experience."
As the event grew, the Brunos added a salmon bake demonstration and made salmon soup.
"Soup will be made from salmon heads and backbones, which is very healthy and shows how no part of the salmon goes to waste," Bruno said. "Our son, Joshua, is one of the younger story carriers, bringing traditional teachings — focused on Northwest culture — to today's generation."
The event was scaled down between 2009 and 2017, with Metro filling the gap with guided salmon viewing and education programming.
The event was revamped when Metro staff realized their Western-oriented environmental education lacked acurrate histories and stories of indigenous celebrations.
"In nature education, you're inherently speaking about the land and the natural elements of the land," said Alice Froehlich, Metro nature education supervisor. "As an education team, none of us were indigenous people, (and) we're not from here."
Metro hired resource specialists to improve the education programing regarding indigenous peoples, places and traditional uses of plants.
"Those relationships led to work on Salmon Homecoming," Froehlich said. "We contracted to co-create the event with members of the community. That's when the salmon bake came back and other elements that they would like to share."
Torrential rainfall during the 2017 event led to the second day being cancelled, inspiring indigenous community members to gather fallen cedar trees to build a traditional cedar plank shelter at Oxbow for future events.
Looking forward, they hope to provide a cultural educational experience for schools and the public at Oxbow or another site.
"There are so many things Oxbow has to offer, and it would be really nice to do more of that," Bruno said.
If You Go
Here is a schedule of events and offerings at this year's Salmon Homecoming event at Oxbow Regional Park, 3010 S.E. Oxbow Parkway (off Lusted Road), just outside Gresham:
View salmon: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19, and Sun. Oct. 20
Join Metro staff and volunteers at the river's edge to spot spawning salmon and learn about the behavior and life cycle of salmon. Borrow a pair of polarized fish-viewing glasses. All ages.
Hot drinks: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Oct. 19-20;
Enjoy a cup of hot chocolate or cider around the campfire. First-come, first-served.
Plant walks: 1-2:30 p.m., Oct. 19-20
Meet at Alder Shelter to participate in a native plant walk led by an indigenous community member and learn about the region's unique ecology.
Sandy River restoration walk: 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. or 3-4 p.m. Oct. 19
Meet at Alder Shelter to walk along the Sandy River and learn about the restoration work to improve water quality and restore habitat for native fish. Participants will look for fish spawning and learn the characteristics of healthy fish habitat.
Lichen and moss: 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. or 2:30-4 p.m. Oct. 20
Grab your hand lens and join a naturalist in taking a closer look into the enchanting world of mosses and lichens.
Pets policy: To protect plants, wildlife and people, Metro does not allow pets at most regional parks and natural areas. Only seeing-eye dogs or other service animals are allowed. Please bring cleanup materials.
Admission: Oxbow park charges $5 per car; and $7 per bus. Pre-pay for parking. Registration is not required.
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)