For over nine thousand years, the Native Americans of the Pacific North West gathered at various points along the mighty Colombia River to harvest salmon during the late summer months. As with other such gatherings, those eight hundred miles upstream at Kettle Falls (later part of Stevens County, Washington state) were also a chance for tribes to exchange news and to trade, to perform rituals and ceremonies, but all this took second place to the harvesting of fish.

Among the fury of noise and tumult of foaming water, the fish swam so thick and constant, as they flung themselves up and across the Falls to reach their spawning grounds, an inexperienced spearsman could rack up two hundred fish in a day; a more practiced hunter, four hundred. So great came the numbers of salmon, each weighing twenty to thirty pounds, that just eight weeks of hunting provided the various tribes with enough food, once dried and smoked in the traditional way, to last them for the year ahead.

The first Westerners to settle in the area did so during the 1820s, naming Kettle Falls for the spherical holes gored into the stone river bed under the falls by rocks trapped by torrents of water from above, smoothing parts of the bed in a way that reminded the settlers of their cast-iron cauldrons, or kettles. By the time the Canadian artist Paul Kane arrived at Kettle Falls in August 1847, the way of life known to the Native Americans had begun to end; Kane knew this and wanted to capture that life before it vanished altogether.

Paul KaneCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Public DomainKane felt an affinity with the Native Americans, even though his itinerant life appears the opposite to their circular, unchanging pattern of existence. Born in Ireland in 1810, Kane’s family migrated to Canada during Paul’s infancy, settling in the town of York, now known as Toronto. Little is known of Kane’s youth, but we do know that as a young man he earned a living through portraiture, still the dominant form of commercial artistry then, passing through Detroit, New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, earning the money for a ticket to Europe. Setting sail in 1841, Kane arrived in Marseille, hiking to Rome via Genoa, to copy the Old Masters, the classics by da Vinci and Donatello, Caravaggio and Coreggio, the required rite of passage for every professional painter of the time.

With this training under his belt, Kane turned homewards, taking in London where in 1843, Kane viewed an exhibition by American painter George Catlin, who had traveled around the North Dakota – Manitoba border area in the 1830s, living for spells with the native peoples of the region. Seeing both the success of Catlin’s travelling exhibition, and the work's importance given the inevitable Western expansion in his homeland, Kane resolved to undertake his own personal tour of the American north-west, once he completed his Grand Tour of Europe.

Kane set off from Toronto in early 1845, making it as far as Lake Winnipeg, before heeding Mount St HelensCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domainthe advice to winter at home, setting off again in the spring of 1846, to continue what effectively became a three-year field trip, capturing what he saw in sketches, watercolors and portraits, of the Native American way of life, the tools they used, their dwellings and hunts, their masks and dances. In doing so, Kane traveled through territory rarely seen before by Western eyes, and suffered great hardships during the bitter north-west winters. Kane even managed to become the first person to record images of Mount St Helens erupting, in 1847.

Once installed at Fort Colville, the nearest white settlement to Kettle Falls, Kane spent six weeks sketching and painting the tribe at work on the salmon harvest. These Native Americans fished using basket traps set along the shore and by constructing wooden platforms above the river, organizing with the utmost care to catch the right amount of salmon, both to protect next year’s harvest and to allow tribes further upstream their own fair share. The tribe most associated with the Kettle Falls harvest were the Chualpays (sometimes Westernized as ‘Colville’) and a few of their five hundred or so number are seen in what became Hunting Salmon at Kettle Falls on Colombia River (1848).    

The result is an interesting mix of Kane’s learned European classicism, an ethnographic representation of Native American and life, and the romanticism often striking unaccustomed Western painters when presented with a new scene of natural majesty deep within American wilderness, a kind of ‘polishing’, or fictionalized enhancement of facts. The painting has the straight, rational diagonals one might expect of classicism, here heading from left to right, first along the clouds seen in the top left quarter of the painting, and through the area roughly signified by the naked tribesman hauling in a silver salmon, to the family on a promontory and unto the uppermost crag in the right hand corner. A smaller diagonal in the far bottom right-hand corner takes in a natural step formation and part of the tribe’s fishing implements. For a Western man, the journey of life is a straight line, driving, parallel, from earth to sky; from man to family; step-by-step, through work and accomplishments.

Yet the picture also moves in a circular direction, coming into the picture around the middle left hand side, where the falls break out over a ridge closest to the trees, coming around along the white spray, past the naked tribesman and his fellows, back up the falls on the right-hand side, into the distance and around the back of the falls again. Life in this way is circular, continual, with everything in nature, man included, part of the same ongoing system. The darker clouds streaming across the left hand corner do not bode well for this pattern of Salmon Fishing at Kettle Falls on Columbia RiverCredit: Getty Imagesexistence.

A critic might point to the marginalized tribespeople, lined along the right hand quadrant of the piece, but it is nature who takes center stage and the Native Americans knew their place in the greater scheme of things, as benefiting from nature and not stamping themselves upon it. A viewer could also point out that a human, unclothed and powerfully posed, stands at the center of the base of the painting, the pivot along which the rest of the painting, and the life of those depicted, depends.

Kane returned to his studio in Toronto in October 1848, armed with countless drawings and preliminary works which he turned into over a hundred oil paintings, the first eight of which went on exhibition in Toronto in 1852. This won him the patronage of a local politician, enabling Kane to live as a professional painter until bad eyesight forced him to gradually give up painting during the 1860s, by which time he had built his own home, married and raised four children. Kane’s account of his travels through the ‘Great Nor’ West’, entitled The Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America from Canada to Vancouver's Island and Oregon through the Hudson's Bay Company's Territory and Back Again, was published in London in 1859, followed by equally successful editions in continental Europe.

The Grand Coulee DamCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Fouwestern/Gregg M EricksonAs for the Chualpays and Kettle Falls, time had started to run out. The first salmon cannery along the Columbia commenced its mechanized salmon harvest in 1866; within twenty years, fifty-five such canneries were in business, leaving little for the tribes further upstream. The canneries caught more salmon than they knew what to do with, with hundreds of pounds of excess salmon thrown away to waste. The next stage of decline came in 1932 with the opening of the Rock Island dam, and the number of salmon reaching the Native Americans dwindled to the hundreds. Even the Kettle Falls themselves did not survive progress' advance. The Grand Coulee dam, built in 1941 and eight times larger than the dam at Rock Island, needed a huge reservoir to form behind the dam, a body of water which became Franklin D Roosevelt lake, at 125 square miles the largest in the state of Washington. This lake inundated the lands of the Chualpays, and Kettle Falls, formed by prehistoric floods, is now lost forever, ninety feet under the waters of the artificial lake.

Today, one can visit the area and learn more on the history of Kettle Falls at the People of the Falls Interpretative Center, 1188 Portage Road, Kettle Falls, WA 99141, and walk along a nature trail close to where Paul Kane painted.

Hunting Salmon at Kettle Falls on Colombia River (1848) can be viewed at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.