by Chelsea Harlan
Simon Sampson comes from a long line of fishermen; his father and grandfather before him fished, and most likely his great-grandfather and his great-great grandfather before him. He is of the Yakama, a Native American tribe known as “the people of the narrow river.” For thousands of years they hunted, gathered and fished all along the Columbia and Yakima rivers, and were best-known for trading one commodity in particular: salmon. Simon continues this tradition with his fish business, the Columbia River Fish Company, Treaty of 1855 (or CRFC), whose home base is on the Yakima Indian Reservation, in Toppenish, WA.
The Treaty of 1855 identified the fourteen confederated tribes and bands of the Yakama and condensed them into one nation. It was the treaty wherein the Yakama relinquished their land-1.5 million acres- to the United States government, the treaty that created the Yakima Indian Reservation. (“Yakima” was officially changed to “Yakama” in 1994 to reflect the native pronunciation, although the spelling of the county and reservation hasn’t changed). Celilo Falls, on the border between Oregon and Washington, was the oldest continuously-inhabited community on the North American continent until 1957, when the falls and the nearby settlements were submerged by the construction of the Dalles Dam. It was the fishing capital of Native American territory for 15,000 years until it was dammed – the Wall Street of the West, according to historians. Despite such setbacks the Yakama adapted to these boundaries and continued to fish, creating fishermen like Simon whose veins run with river water.
Simon established the CRCF in 1998, attending his first farmers market in Vancouver, WA. For the next decade, he sold his fish to a restaurant owner in Seattle who ordered 1,900 pounds every week, and to a couple of wholesale food companies also in Seattle, at 500 to 600 pounds per week. Two years ago, he started taking his fish to local markets in Oregon. According to Simon, the best fishing spots along the Columbia River can now be found around The Dalles, Bonneville, and John Day. The fish are caught daily, at night when salmon are most active, using traditional Yakama practices that involve a wooden platform out on the water and a net that is forty feet in diameter. On an average night, he’ll bring in about fifteen or twenty fish, weighing in at two hundred or three hundred pounds. He is known, fittingly, as “the Salmon Man.” His voicemail message even says that he’s unavailable because he’s most likely out on the river.
CRFC’s set-up at Hollywood Farmers Market is direct, no-fuss, and savvy (much like the man himself): a folding table sits dead-center of the market’s west entrance, with only a checked plastic tablecloth, a hand-lettered sign proclaiming the wares, and of course, large filets of bright juicy salmon bobbing in ice-water-filled trays. Naturally, salmon is the lifeblood of CRFC: Chinook, Coho, Steelhead, Wall-Eyed. It accounts for the majority of what Simon catches and sells, although occasionally catfish or sturgeon will find their way to the table. When I asked Simon what made his fish stand out above other such vendors, his reply was quick and sincere: “Because it’s the freshest fish in town. The best-tasting, at the best price.” At five or six dollars a pound, caught only hours earlier, he may very well be right.
CRFC also has contracts with several restaurants around town, including Bread and Ink, Tabla, and Nostrana. It seems that you’ll be able to find Simon’s fish in more Portland restaurants in the coming months. In addition to Hollywood, you can also find Simon’s salmon at the PSU, Milwaukie and Gresham markets.
Also on Simon’s plate is community involvement. He’s the founder and chairperson of the Toppenish Community Safety Network, whose members include his wife Diane. The network’s objective is to make the town cleaner and safer for the community. The CSN collaborates with other local organizations to create better crime-free rental housing, combat underage drinking, limit graffiti, and to fight gang violence. “I think what a lot of this boils down to is if we can unite as a community-police, city officials, school officials,” Simon has said (Yakima Herald, July 2009).
Besides meeting new people, Simon’s favorite part of the fish biz is getting to include the entire family. He and his son and nephew fish from around eight in the evening until midnight the night before a market, and his children and grandchildren help him prepare the fish. This means they head, gut, and “chunk them out” (meaning to fillet the fish in pieces instead of halves). In this way the Yakama fishing tradition is perpetuated in what is more than a passion for the Salmon Man: it’s a way of life, with roots sunk deep in the past and unfurling into the future.