Totem Salmon

by L. Freeman House

This piece was originally published in Home! A Bioregional Reader, edited by Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright, New Society Publishers, copyright 1990.

“An Indian gave me a piece of fresh salmon roasted, which I ate with relish. This was the first salmon I had seen and it convinced me we were in the waters of the Pacific Ocean.”

from the journal of Meriweather Lewis at the headwaters of the Lehmi River, August 3,1805.

Salmon is a totem animal of the North Pacific Range. Only salmon, as a species, informs us humans, as a species, of the vastness and unity of the North Pacific Ocean and its rim. The buried memories of our ancient human migrations, the weak abstractions of our geographies, our struggles toward a science of biology do nothing to inform us of the power and benevolence of our place. Totemism is a method of perceiving power, goodness, and mutuality in locale through the recognition of and respect for the vitality, spirit and interdependence of other species. In the case of the North Pacific Rim, no other species informs us so well as the salmon, whose migrations define the boundaries of the range which supports us all.

For time without increment, salmon have fed and informed bear, porpoise, eagle, killer whale. For the past twenty to thirty thousand years, salmon have fed and shaped the spirit of Yurok, Chinook, Salish, Kwakiutl, Haida, Tsimshian, Aleut, Yukagir, Koryak, Chuckchi & Ainu—to name a few of those old time peoples who ordered their daily lives and the flow of generations according to the delicate timing and thrust of the salmon population.

Asian and North American salmon range and feed together in great thousand mile gyres, in schools numbering in the millions, all around the North Pacific, then divide into families and split off from this great species celebration to breed and spawn in specific homes in the great rivers and innumerable streams of the North Pacific Rim. The great rivers, the Klamath, the Columbia, the Fraser, the Skeena, the Stikine, the Yukon, the Anadyr, the Amur, are spawning homes for the ubiquitous salmon and drainage routes for vast portions of the planetary watershed.


The central North American plains, until a century ago, were served and informed by their own totem population, the buffalo. (Imagine for a moment what this range might be like today, had the buffalo there been respected and protected.) The buffalo were destroyed through the need for expansion by industrial capital, and by that ultimate expression of heedless anthropomorphism, the American political concept of Manifest Destiny. First the enormous herds were divided by the new transcontinental railroads, then they were shot down one by one by an adventurous and enormously inefficient fur trade. Within a generation, the species that had informed humans how to live indigenously was gone. From that time on, peoples of that range have wandered a course of random environmental destruction, little informed by the power of the earth, and generation by generation have become less alive because of their loneliness.

Now international industrial capital has set its sight on the North Pacific, the penultimate theater for unlimited industrial expansion. A whole new technology is tooling up for the purpose of mining the ocean floors of minerals which have been exhausted terrestrially. The Japanese, in the course of their wild adulation of growth economy, having exhausted their terrestrial and marine resources, now have huge factory ships fishing the mid-Pacific salmon migrations, taking immature fish and decimating that population immeasurably.

It is the nature of industrial capital that it has no interest in preserving indigenous populations, since capital is mobile and can move on once a “resource” has been exhausted. Indigenous populations cannot flee this rapacity because of their biological marriage to habitat. What is not generally recognized is that the human species is also an indigenous population. We, too, are inextricably married to place. We can only be kept constantly informed of our situation as a species through regard and recognition of brethren species. The life of the wild salmon population is of essence to the life of the human population.

The Names of Salmon

The English “salmon” derives from the Latin “salire”, to leap. The word for salmon in the Chinook Jargon, a put-together language made up of elements of native dialects in Northwestern North America and of elements of English and French, is derived from the English, “sammon.” The Pacific salmon, Onchorynchus, is to be distinguished from the Atlantic salmon, Salmo. The names of subspecies are generally derived from native Siberian names for the fish. There are seven varieties of salmon which range and feed in the North Pacific. At the northern extreme of their range they frequent and feed in the Bering Sea, but at the southern extreme are rarely found south of forty-one degrees. These are their names:

Onchorynchus chavica: called King, Chinook, Tyee, Spring, Quinnat

(Northern Hokkaido to the Sacramento River);

O.kisutch: called Coho, Silver

(Monterey Bay to the Kamchatka Peninsula);

O.nerka; called Sockeye, Red, Blueback, Nerka (Fraser River to the Kurile Islands);

O.gorbucha: called Pink, Humpbacked, Humpie

(Columbia River to Korea);

O.keta: called Chum, Dog, Keta (Puget Sound to Korea);

O.masu: called Cherry, Masu

(Amur River to the Pusan River of Korea);

Salmo gairdneri: called Steelhead Trout (Monterey Bay to the Stikine in Alaska).

Salmon Mind

Salmon eggs are deposited in more or less evenly graded gravel with enough cold water running over them to maintain an even temperature but not enough to disturb the eggs. The eggs are a brilliant translucent orange-red, about the size of buckshot. Sockeyes will spawn in lakes rather than streams. A single female will deposit up to several thousand eggs in a single “redd” or nest.

After a gestation period of 50 days to three months, the “alevins” hatch out with yolk sacs still attached. The babies nestle in the gravel for several weeks until the yolk sac is gone and they have gained an inch in size. At this point, they emerge from the gravel as “fry”, quick and light-shy. It is at this stage of development that life is most perilous, the small fish being vulnerable to hungry larger salmon, other fish, water birds and snakes.

The fry feed at dawn and dusk and into the night on plantonic crustacea and nymphs, growing fastest in the summer when insects are most available. Many salmon remain in lakes and streams for a year, though pinks, dogs, and kings begin their journey to the sea in the first year, as fry.

The migration to salt water is an epic event involving millions of smolt (as the little salmon are called at this stage). On the Yukon River, this journey can be as long as 1800 miles, on the Amur 700-800. The fish travel in schools, at night to avoid predators, following the guidance of a single larger smolt who seems to make decisions for the school at obstructions, rapids, etc. Out of two million eggs, perhaps 200,000 fish have survived to make the migration.

On the way downstream, the smolt can be killed by 1) natural predators; 2) irrigation ditches which confuse and trap the fish; 3) undissolved human sewage; 4) turbine intakes at dams which act as meat grinders; 5) nitrogen rich water on the downstream side of dams; 6) wastes from pulp mills; 7) wastes from chemical plants; and 8) warm or oxygen-depleted water created by industrial flow-through or sedimentation.

Now the smolt will spend three to five months in estuaries and bays, gradually acclimatizing to salt water. They begin by feeding on zooplankton. As they grow larger and develop stronger teeth, they will eat crustaceans such as shrimp (which some biologists believe colors their flesh), euphasids, amphipods, copepods, pteropids and squid.

It is at this point in the consideration of salmon that biologists begin to slide off into weary human-centered metaphors for the talents and strengths of the fish. We are talking about the great ocean migrations of the salmon, wherein they range and feed for thousands of miles in the North Pacific, grow to maturity, and navigate unerringly back to the stream of their birth on a time schedule which can be predicted to within a few days.

In general, North American salmon make this circular journey in a counter-clockwise direction while Asian salmon move clockwise. Often the great schools’ paths will mingle, sharing the search for food that has brought them halfway across the Pacific. Pinks make the circuit once and race home to spawn after two years; kings may take as much as four or five years. The enormous schools travel at a general rate of ten miles per day until the spawning urge takes them and they increase their speed to thirty miles per day. The fish are nearly always found in the top ten metres of water during the migrations.

No one really understands the mechanisms that guide the fish through the trackless ocean and back to a specific spot at a specific time. Evidence would seem to indicate that the circuits are printed on the genes of the individual fish. It is probable that neither a consciousness common to a school nor memorized information guides them. There is, however, plenty of room for speculation. This evidence is in as of 1968:

  • The migration is in a circular motion, rather than to and fro, eliminating the possibility of the fish backtracking on themselves.
  • Salmon find their ways to the spawning grounds as individuals, not in schools.
  • Arrival of the fish at the spawning grounds is less variable than the seasonal changes in the weather, making the use of temperature gradients as guidance cues unlikely.
  • The nearly constant overcast in the far North Pacific makes celestial navigation unlikely (but not impossible).
  • Migration routes tend to be across open water even in areas where it would be easy to follow the coast, so that the use of physical landmarks is eliminated.
  • The fish swim actively downstream in and across the currents of the Pacific. The currents have subtle differences in salinity, but in order to use these differences as cues, the salmon would have to group up to near the edges of the streams, which they do not do.
  • Seawater is an electrical conductor moving through the planet’s magnetic field, thus the ocean currents generate small amounts of electrical potential. Some fish are able to detect such small amounts of voltage and there is reasonable speculation on the part of William Royce et al. that salmon may have similar receptors and use the electricity as a navigational cue.

Salmon always find their way back to the stream or lake where they were born and spawn there again, generation after generation. As they approach fresh water, they have reached the peak of their physical and instinctual genius. Fat and shining and leaping, schools will swarm restlessly at the mouths of rivers and streams, waiting for optimal conditions of run-off. They feed voraciously now, generally on herring, for they will not feed again once they enter fresh water. This is the time to take salmon for meat. The flavor and texture of the flesh is at its very best and, eaten fresh, the strength of the fish will stay with the eater.

It is likely that the salmon use their keen sense of smell to identify their home estuary and to choose the right forks as they push upstream. Biologists have run experiments on the fish at this stage of their journey, plugging the salmon’s nostrils. Without a sense of smell the spawning run tends to move in a random manner and the fish get lost.

The trip upstream is an enormous effort. Even in the absence of human improvements on the rivers, cataracts, rapids and waterfalls must be overcome. In spite of obstacles, the fish travel between 30 and 90 miles a day until they have reached the spawning ground. The salmon now undergo striking physiological changes. Humpbacks will grow the hump for which they are named. Dogs grow long, sharp teeth and the upper mandible grows out and extends down over the lower. The body of the sockeye will turn fresh-blood red, its head an olive green. In general, the fish turn dark and bruised; the organism begins to consume itself. Drawing its last strength from ocean-gained fat, the flesh turns soft.

Now the salmon perform the breathtaking dance for which their entire lives have been in preparation. As they reach their spawning home, the fish pair off, male and female. A sort of courtship ensues, the male swimming back and forth over the female as she prepares the nest, rubbing and nudging her, then darting out to drive off other males. The female builds the nest with her tail, scooping out silt and smaller stones to a depth of several inches and in an area twice the length of the fish. Finally all that is left in the nest are larger stones. The crevasses and fissures between the stones will provide shelter for the eggs. The nest completed, the female assumes a rigid position over the center of it and the male approaches, curving his body up against hers. The eggs and clouds of milt are deposited simultaneously. The sperm, which stays alive in the water for seconds only, must enter the egg through a single tiny pore or micropyle, which itself closes over in a matter of minutes. In situations where the current is extremely fast, two males will sometimes serve a single female to ensure fertilization. The nest is covered and the process is repeated, for a day or a week, until the eggs are all deposited.

A single female will deposit from 2000 to 5000 eggs, but only a small percentage of these are destined to hatch. The rest are eaten by fish or birds, attacked by fungi, or washed downstream.

Now the fish, already decomposing, begin to die, and within days all have finished their migration. Their bodies are thrown up on the banks of streams and rivers, providing feast for bear and eagle.

Immortal Salmon: Native Relationships

Peoples who inhabited the North Pacific Range so successfully up until a few hundred years ago learned to eat fish from bears and eagles; learned to catch fish by wit and invention—bone hooks and seaweed lines, elegant weirs of hemlock root, spears and dipnets. The salmon were accorded the respect demanded by another people. When two peoples are bonded together by geography or find themselves at different levels on the same food chain, such respect is pragmatic rather than rhetorical. Fishiness is not alien, only different. Lines of communication between species are kept open and fresh by means of ritual, hunger tempered by respect on the occasion of each new spawning run.

All around the North Pacific Rim, with notably few tribal exceptions, a First Salmon Ceremony was practiced on the occasion of the year’s first run up the rivers. The difference between these ceremonies is noted in Erna Gunther’s monograph, First Salmon Ceremonies in the Pacific Northwest. More interesting are their similarities. Throughout the Rim there existed the notion that conscious spirit resides in all plants and animals. The salmon is always perceived as a person living a life similar to that of the people who catch it. Therefore, before it is safe to eat any plant or animal it is necessary to assure the creature that there is no desire to offend. Thus the ceremonies.

Further, the spirits of plants and animals were considered immortal. Do not the creatures and plants return each year? Tribal people assume a certain amount of responsibility in the continuity of this immortality and use the ceremonies as methods of assuring that proper respect for the runs, proper methods of fishing them, and proper methods of disposal of bones and viscera are practiced from generation to generation. The ceremonies have the practical effect of assuring the continuity of both species, salmon and human.

Yurok First Salmon

The old man ate from a separate pile of acorns and drank no water for a long time before first salmon.

A short time before first salmon the old man called his helper over from Rekwei to Welkwau.

On the sixth day before first salmon the old man said to his helper, “This is the last day you may eat freely. Beginning with tomorrow, you will not eat until evening, so eat freely today.”

Then they built a path from the village to the sandspit, removing every pebble and leaf. They asked the people not to use the path.

On the night before, the old man prayed all night over his fire of angelica root. He prayed all night.

In the morning they came out of the sweat house, put on new deerskin blankets and tied back their long hair with otterskin, and walked down to the river on the clean path.

The men were lined up at the river fishing. “Continue to fish for eel, but not for sturgeon,” the old man said. They sat down to wait for salmon.

In the afternoon, the first salmon came. “Stop running!” the old man shouted. The fish stopped, “Now run again!” The fish ran on. They did that together five times.

The old man shook his harpoon twice and spoke to the salmon. “You will stop running. As you pass every fishing place you will leave your scales, to the head of the river, ending there. Now run on.” The fish listened and went on.

Soon the next salmon came up the river. The old man made four feints and speared the fish on the fifth. Across the river at Rekwei, a great wailing and crying went up, as if one of the people had died.

He hit the fish on the head with a rock and laid his otterskin tie across the salmon’s belly. “I am glad I caught you. You will bring many salmon into the river. Rich people and poor people will be happy. And you will bring it about on the land that everything will grow that is good to eat.”

As they took the salmon back to the village, all the people called out the names of all kinds of food they liked from the sea and everything else they wanted, dentalia shells and woodpecker scalps. The noise rose to the sky.

The fish was taken to the living house, cut into four pieces and cooked over a low fire of angelica root by the old man’s niece. The old man and his helper took a few mouthsful. Then they went to the sweat house where they stayed the rest of the day and all the next night but did not sleep.

The women took the first salmon, what remained of its meat, its head, its guts, its tail and back, took it back to the river and threw it in. The crows and seagulls did not fight over the guts that year and plenty of salmon came up the river. (Working from A.L. Kroeber, Indians of California.)

Salmon Energetics

In 1972 and 1973 I fished Puget Sound and Southeastern Alaska aboard purse-seiners. In the spring of 1973, I became familiar with Michael Perlman’s energetics analysis of agriculture in the United States; I wrote him at Chico State College in California and he sent me a copy. The energetics approach to the study of the growing and gathering of food measures the energy which goes into the work and compares that figure with the energy potential in the food retrieved, all figures translated into calories. Perlman found that one-crop agribusiness expended five calories for every one retrieved, whereas an organic gardener working a small plot might expend as little as one calorie for every 16 retrieved.

These figures impressed me, as did the intelligence of the approach. There can be no doubt that some such criterion must inform human technology on the planet, given that the solar bath which is the source of all translatable energy in the biosphere is constant and finite. I decided to do a similar study to determine the efficiency of purse-seining as a method of securing protein, following Perlman’s model.

During the summer of 1973, fishing out of Hoonah and Ketchikan, Alaska, I kept careful records of fuel consumed, calories expended by the men on board, fish caught in pounds, etc. I was pleased with myself. I saw myself as a rigorous lay scientist, Goethe studying botany. This mood of self-congratulation helped lift the depression caused by the generally repressed experience of random mechanical killing. (Purse-seiners carry no locker to stow the death in.)

To measure value in salmon is like trying to weigh spirit. For the moment, however, we will consider the value of salmon to lie in its high concentration of protein as a food source. I will use calories as a common denominator through which to consider the value of fuel consumed, man-hours expended, and protein retrieved. I used the following figures, culled either from Perlman or from Georg Borgstrom’s Fish as Food, Vol. II.

  • The “average” man consumes 3000 calories per day. These men were working harder and longer than any average and ate more to make up for it. I know because I was cooking for them. I’ve allowed them 4000 calories per day.
  • One BTU=.252 calories
  • One gallon of diesel fuel produces 167,375 BTUs or 42,178.5 calories.
  • One pound of salmon provides 440.4 protein calories.

In the course of the season, 2466 gallons of fuel were consumed and 133 man-days expended in order to retrieve 95,604 pounds of salmon. Our boat made an average catch for the fleet that year.

Thus 104,544,181 calories were spent in order to retrieve 38,662,257.6 protein calories, a loss at the rate of approximately 2.7 to 1.

Long before the figures were added up, I realized that they were inadequate to any true picture of the situation. If these figures represent a warp in the practice of energetics values, “true” figures would demonstrate a complete break with natural conservation. For while the figures on the “credit” side remain constant, the figures on the “debit” side only whisper of the actual costs. There are no figures (nor are there likely to be very soon) on the costs in terms of energy of taking fuel out of the ground, of refining it, of transporting it to Alaska (or Siberia or Hokkaido). Neither are there figures on the costs of tooling up to produce diesel engines, nor on the bio-mass of trees cut to build the boats, nor the production of metals for the new steel boats, nor their maintenance. Then one must consider the cost of building and maintaining a proliferation of competitive canneries, the costs of canning, the costs of shipping the canned and frozen product to the richer sections of the world market.

The nature of fuel and material shortages becomes more understandable when approached with these criteria. The commercial salmon fishery and indeed most industrial technology has reached the last stages of self-cannibalization.

So this small study can only be used practically as a comparative index for the study of efficiency in various modes of taking salmon. It is immediately apparent that numbers of people (labor-intensive) are more efficient in this frame of reference than numbers of fuel-gobbling engines (energy-intensive). Trollers with their smaller engines are more efficient than seiners; reef-netters and fish-traps which use engines minimally are more efficient than trollers, etc. The further we pursue these sorts of studies, the more we will become aware that the essential attractiveness of salmon as food lies in the fact that the fish returns to the eater. It is not necessary to pursue them in expensive machines at all: every adult fish returns to the river of its origin.

Craig and Hacker in The History and Development of the Fisheries of the Columbia River estimate that before the arrival of white people in the Columbia River Basin, the 50,000 or so people who lived there caught up to 18 million pounds of salmon per year without damaging the stock. Certainly this was the peak of efficiency in the history of the salmon fisheries in the North Pacific. In 1970, a thoroughly industrialized fleet took only 12 and one half million pounds from the Columbia River.

Fish Without Spirit: Canneries and Hatcheries

The history of the fishing industry on this coast is the history of the cannery. Methods for safely vacuum packing quantities of salmon were perfected on the Sacramento River of California in the 1870s. The gold had petered out and people were looking around at the other amazing sources of wealth the Pacific drainage offered them. Within 20 years, scores of canneries were built: at the mouth of the Columbia, on Puget Sound, and in Southeastern Alaska. The canning remained laborious, depending basically on the handwork of imported Chinese labor, until 1903 when the “iron chink,” a mechanical fish dresser, was introduced. This machine increased the production capacity of the canneries tenfold and from that point, the race was on.

Early in the history of the fisheries, the canneries began to capitalize the process of fishing, acquiring outright the large and expensive purse-seiners and financing fishermen who were buying the smaller gill-netters. Thus the canning industry tends to control the fishermen. Skippers of cannery owned or financed boats must sell to the cannery at cannery prices or lose their boats. A fisherman who does not produce enough fish is also likely to lose his boat and so a fierce competitive rapaciousness is set up among the people who actually do the fishing.

It is characteristic of people who fish for a living that they want to continue to do what they are doing. One hears more well-informed conservation talk in fishermen’s taverns than at any board meeting of the Sierra Club. The allegiance of the canneries on the other hand, is to market and capital. Once a resource is diminished to the point where it is no longer profitable to market it, capital can pull out and move on to another market.

Much is made of the freedom and independence of the fisherman. This myth is so pervasive that many bought fishermen believe it themselves, for people who are attracted to fishing are freedom loving people. But unless a person has accumulated enough money to own his own boat and gear, he has little to say about how he fishes, where he fishes, what he fishes for or to whom he sells it. Nor are his first-hand observations of the health of fish populations heeded. The canneries call the shots.


The reliance of a fishery on hatcheries is noisy evidence that natural provision is breaking or has broken down. Every national fishery on the North Pacific Rim is now heavily reliant on hatcheries with the exception of Alaska, where the myth of “inexhaustible natural resources” was dominant up until five or ten years ago. Now Alaska is busily building hatcheries against the time when forty years of creek robbing will catch up with them.

Almost a century ago the Japanese state seems to have decided that nature had provided rivers for industrial sewers. Since 60% of Japanese protein comes from fish products, some provision had to be made for the salmon. In 1889 the first Japanese hatchery was built at the headwaters of the Ishikari River on the island of Hokkaido. Today the Japanese fishery relies entirely on artificial propagation with 50 hatcheries on Hokkaido and 82 on Honshu. Over half the escapement is caught, killed and stripped of their eggs for the hatcheries. Little or no provision is made for the rest of the spawning population: the condition of the spawning grounds is generally ignored. Some few streams are maintained as “salmon culture rivers,” i.e. the pollution is kept to a reasonable level, but the people are denied access to them. (There is no sportfishing for salmon in all of Japan, but some subsistence fishermen thrive as poachers on these few streams.)

In the United States, hatchery culture was moribund until the late 1950s due to misunderstanding of the salmon’s diet. At that time, the “Oregon moist pellet” was developed as hatchery food and the potential of the hatcheries to deliver a large and healthy artificially propagated salmon population was greatly enhanced. Since that time, the King salmon run on the Sacramento River, once dead, has been revived. Fish and Game Departments in Washington and Oregon report that up to half the salmon catch is of hatchery origin.

Hatcheries put food on our tables at the expense of dependence on a self-perpetuating technology requiring ever more capital investment. Curious cultural attitudes grow out of dependence on artificially spawned salmon. One is led to believe that the hatchery fish are the property of the state, private herds with national identities. States act as if the spectacle of wildlife must be maintained at any cost, providing tax supported hatchery fish for sporters who drag their big boats behind big trucks for hundreds and thousands of miles, take a few salmon, leave many beer cans, and drag the boats back again. Meanwhile the miracle of self-regulating natural provision which the salmon have provided for many thousands of years is ignored.

Who Are The Salmon People?

It must be remembered that the Pacific salmon is not a particularly important source of world protein. The 1970 salmon catch for the entire North Pacific was 385,000 tons. Compare that figure with the top five fish protein catches for the same year:

Peruvian anchoveta -10 million tons

Atlantic herring – 3.8 million tons

Atlantic cod – 3.1 million tons

Alaska walleye pollock – 1.7 million tons

South African pilchard – 1.1 million tons.

But locally, on the North Pacific Rim, the salmon has always been an extremely important source of protein as well as a monitor of the health of the region. The health of the wild species is infinitely more important than its appearance in the showcases of New York delicatessens, on the tables of posh restaurants in London and Moscow, and on the shelves of endless suburban supermarkets in North America and Europe.

Some of the greatest of the commercial fisheries have failed. Kodiak and Bristol Bay are closed this year. Southeastern Alaska and the Columbia River wobble on the lip of failure. Only the Fraser River keeps Puget Sound alive. Japanese and Russian fleets fish the mid-Pacific taking young fish. The role of industry as provisioners of luxury food at the expense of the wild salmon and human populations is no longer tolerable.

The care of and access to wild populations of salmon needs to be undertaken by associations of people who live and subsist on or near the spawning grounds. Such associations would replace Fish and Game Departments, not as law enforcement agencies, but as educational units, self-regulating and decentralized fishing fleets, and providers of ritual and ceremony which would celebrate the interdependence of species.

…Collectively operated canneries, smokehouses and freezer units assure the preservation of the fish for inexpensive local consumption. Trade councils decide on the value of the fish for trade with inland regions…

…People of the maritime regions, realizing salmon as creature and food move to protect the spawning grounds against dam builders, lumber interests, chemical plants. Slowly, slowly, the salmon population increases…

…Fisher-biologists alternatively work fishboats or traps and tend to the excellence of the spawning grounds…

…Fishboat embassies to keep Rim-wide communications open. Fish crews on the Skagit from Sapporo, from the Yukon. Fish crews on the Amur from the Fraser. Men, women, children…

It will be a great day each year when the fish return. Nothing else will be important on that day.

— La Conner, Washington. 1974.

(First published in North Pacific Rim Alive, Bundle No.3. San Francisco: Planet Drum Founda­tion, 1974.)

Freeman House (1938-2018) lead watershed restoration efforts in northern California as a co-founder of the Mattole Watershed Salmon Support Group and the Mattole Restoration Council. After spending time in San Francisco, including as a member of the anarchist theater group The Diggers, he moved to the Mattole Valley in 1980. The Mattole Restoration Council brought together disparate groups working throughout the watershed and facilitated projects like a first-of-its-kind 1981 survey of salmon performed exclusively by watershed residents themselves. House’s book Totem Salmon: Life Lessons from Another Species was published in 1999.

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