Analyzed with an eye toward ethnicity, the history of the Columbia River salmon canning industry suggests some of the regional variations on central questions in the field of American history: When were individuals and groups included as part of the “us” of a community, as the citizenry? When did their geographic origins, their culture, or their appearance mark them as different, as foreigners?
Immigrants, Ethnics, and Whiteness in the Northwest:
The history of the Columbia River salmon canning industry helps to illuminate regional patterns of inclusion and exclusion, of whiteness and non-whiteness.
Chinese Workers: Visible Ethnicity:
Until approximately 1920, Chinese immigrants were the most visible non-white group in Oregon.
An Ethnically Divided Labor Force:
Workplace segregation was justified by the belief that biological differences made certain ethnic/racial groups better suited to particular types of work.
European Americans: Invisible Ethnics:
As immigrant and second-generation European Americans arrived in the Pacific Northwest and pioneered in industries like salmon canning, they established themselves as founders, as Northwesterners, and as whites.
Whites Become Ethnics: The Strike:
Ethnicity could be highlighted or dismissed in order to label a group as outsiders, or include them as part of the citizenry.
While ethnic identity was often used by outsiders as a negative label denoting difference, insiders frequently embraced the values, traditions and cultural practices associated with their ethnic groups as part of their personal and community identities.
Conclusions: Seeing Ethnicity in the Columbia River Canneries:
Ethnic labels were consistently attached to Asians and Native Americans, while European ethnicity was often invisible in Columbia River canning towns.