Saltwater grasses shushed in a slough deep enough at high tide that a VW Bug–sized baby humpback swam up, chasing a silver school of tiny herring. The baby bubbled the water, reminding me of a toddler in a bathtub. His bumpy, dark skin glistened like the wetsuit of a scuba diver. His mother called a long, mournful sound in the deeper waters of the Douglas Channel. The baby spouted, the mist shot through with a rainbow and a slightly rotten fish smell. He zipped back to her as I stood in my parents’ backyard by their smokehouse. The lowering sun shone molten gold on the calm water, so I saw the whales as dark shadows as they swam away, flukes and fins with the occasional geyser of breath.
I walked down to the soccer field located a few minutes away. The Douglas Channel is rimmed with mountains. A dark green velvet blanket of evergreens cloaked their side, seamed with brown logging roads and the new industrial road that leads to Bish Creek. The humpbacks steamed south along the shoreline. Seagulls complained as they hovered over the beach. A bald eagle landed on a giant stump that had washed ashore. He flapped at an entourage of crows that circled him like dark thoughts.
We haven’t seen whales like this since the whalers killed off our resident pod back when whale oil was a big thing. The Douglas Channel is ninety kilometres long from the head to the mouth, where the Inside Passage begins. I live near the head, on a reserve that faces the ocean, a small plot of alluvial flatness in a landscape dominated by granite mountains and surging tides. Nearby, eleven kilometres away by a twisting, steeply graded road, is the town of Kitimat, built by Alcan Aluminum Limited in the sixties to house their workers. Our population on the rez is about six hundred to eight hundred people. Town has about eight thousand, which fluctuates according the rise and fall of commodity prices.
Down the channel, near Coste Island, is a whale rock. Close to shore, yet deep enough for whales, the rock towers up through the water like a spike. Whales scratch themselves against it to scrape off their barnacles and assorted hitchhiking oceanic crud. When they’re in a group, they take turns according to their hierarchy. They have clans like us. They fight and make alliances, snub and favour. Some of them are gentle giants and some of them are snarky asshats.
What I love most about humpbacks is how steadfastly they hold a grudge. This is a lost art. In an era of saccharine Hallmark forgiveness, people have forgotten what a real grudge looks like. When you see YouTube videos of humpbacks charging in to save seals or other species of whales from orca attacks, you know that rivalry runs generations upon generations deep. As a coastal potlatcher, I’m holding grudges as old as Turtle Island. I didn’t start them; I won’t end them. I stick to my pod. If they fall, I fall. I rise with them or not at all.
Early missionaries tried to turn the Haisla into civilized farmers. Given that the soil is poor, the growing season is short, and the sun is a sporadic visitor in our rainforest, our farming efforts were doomed and we were deemed lazy. We farmed the ocean. We had clam gardens and fishing beds. Our canoes were our horses. We lived and died by the salmon runs, like the bears and the seals and the eagles and the wolves. We revered nature, and we ate nature because we were a part of the living landscape, not apart from it, not above it, not dominating it. We ate and were eaten.
We did like potatoes though. Spuds aren’t high-maintenance plants, which was great because we travelled over our territory all summer for our salmon catches. We had potato plots by our fishing camps, rows of potatoes that we fed fish blood. Carbs are not a big part of traditional coastal diets. Our version of rice is the Chocolate Lily root, which we only ate if we were starving. It’s icky. It looks like white rice, but it tastes like dead dreams, bitter and cloying. Glik’sam, on the other hand, was soft and yellow. These buttercup roots had the texture and flavour of sweet potatoes. Glik’sam loved the mud and we dug for it with the bears, who were our guides. What they ate, we tried. We have similar tastes.
I live in an apartment two blocks from my parents’ house. My father is an elder, and when the salmon are running he’s gripped by a chronic and incurable condition my sister calls “Haisla Fish Fever.” My father has fished all his life and is frustrated by his lack of energy and strength, which prevent him from keeping a boat and a fishing net. We always relied on salmon. We couldn’t afford meat, so I grew up eating salmon for breakfast, lunch, and supper. We eat everything right down to the heads and tails—fish-head soup is a delicacy, and I remember my mother and my great-aunt fighting over the eyeballs.
The salmon season starts here in May. Winter salmon arrive first. Their flesh is pale like halibut flesh and the meat is oily and dense. They barbecue well, dripping hissing fat into the fire. Spring salmon are also oily, but pink, and also perfect for barbecues. They taste more like Atlantic salmon than any of the other B.C. species. They don’t can or smoke well. Sockeye arrive in June and go through July, sometimes into August. They’re smaller fish than spring salmon, easier to lift and tote. When you slice into them, their flesh is ruby red. They fry well. Steamed, baked, barbecued—all good. But they are most perfect as a canning fish. I don’t like working with them in the smokehouse because they turn mushy quickly and you need a large crew to work with them. Once they’re mushy, the only thing to do is half-smoke the skins and freeze or jar them. You can cold-smoke them after a good brining, but you lose the sockeye flavour in the marinades. I prefer coho for a traditional smoke. They arrive in August and are commercially valued less than sockeye and aren’t as ruby red, but they’re easier to slice thin and hold their shape well. We have a word for the virus that forms bubbles on their flesh and liquefies it. It’s harmless to humans, but it makes coho inedible. Two years ago, we had a season where eight out of every ten coho taken from the nets were badly diseased and had to be thrown away. This had never happened before. It hasn’t happened again, but it was worrisome. Those are the top salmon, the ones we prefer, but we also eat chum and pink. Dog salmon is fantastic for smoking, but the pin bones are tough and need to be picked out if you’re going to feed them to children or elders. They can puncture the soft cheek flesh and if they get stuck in your throat, you’ll need surgery.
Sometimes, when a run is bad in your territory, you can buy or trade fish with other First Nations, but salmon from different rivers have slightly different flavours. Some fish swim in rivers with more tannin so they have a bitter kick, especially when canned or frozen. Some fish swim farther upriver to get to their spawning ground, so they’re older, tougher. When I was writer-in-residence in Whitehorse, I ran into people who fed their fish to their sled dogs. By the time the salmon had swum that far, they were falling apart with age and stress. I can’t tell the difference between wines to save my life, but I can tell you which salmon species it is and where they were swimming and how far they had to swim simply by taste.
This is Salmon 101 if you’ve grown up on the coast. When I whine about preparing more than forty salmon, my dad constantly reminds me that my grandmother put away hundreds of salmon by herself in one smokehouse.
“She didn’t have deadlines,” I usually grumble.
The coastal First Nations were like the ants in the children’s story, working all summer so we could eat all winter. When the snow fell, our sacred season began. We held feasts to pass our culture to the younger generation through dance, song, and story. These potlatches went for days and sometimes weeks: a celebration, a reaffirmation of our cultural bonds, a legal case for the chief’s and clan’s rights. We had dedicated writers, musicians, weavers, and carvers who were commissioned to make high-status treasures for the chiefs who hired them. The chiefs gifted their guests with these treasures or threw their treasures in the fire to show their contempt for hoarding wealth. Everyone was fed. If we all worked hard, our life was good.
The First Nations on the coast of British Columbia have built our cultures around salmon. Our ceremonies are only possible with the food wealth that salmon bring us. To say that we like salmon is such an understatement; it would be like saying the Arctic can be chilly or Toronto has traffic. When we’re protesting things like pipelines or fish farms, what we’re protesting is a threat not just to our food security but to our identity. Imagine France without cheese. Greece without olives. Germany without beer.
Dad used to set his net near the point. He had a small boat, a fishing net lined with corks at the top and weights at the bottom, and an anchor. One end of the net was tied to shore and the rest of the net stretched into the ocean, held up by the corks and a large buoy. Each species of salmon requires a different size of netting to catch their gills. Nets can cost up to one thousand dollars. Food fishing means you fish for your family and your extended family. Some families chip in for the fisherman’s gas and boat expenses. Others don’t.
Traditionally, the chief of a clan would decide when the Haisla could fish. A certain amount of fish had to swim by before he’d allow fishing. We used to set at the mouths of rivers, but a series of laws after Contact meant we had to set in the ocean, which was less effective. Usually, fishermen watch for signs or troll around with fish finders. Once a salmon run starts, people stake out their spots, and a certain amount of clearance is given between nets. This isn’t as much of an issue because food fishing is labour-intensive. You need to check your net every three to five hours. Dad would start checking his net at sunrise and finish at sunset. When the fish were running, sometimes it would be hourly. If you have a regular job, you need to take days off or vacation time. You need a boat and gas money. If you set in the wrong place, you have to re-set, or risk getting skunked. There’s nothing more discouraging than going through all the work to set a net and then pulling up seaweeds and logs.
When I first moved home, I helped Dad check his net in the mornings. As your boat nears the net, you can usually tell if you’ve been skunked if all the corks are floating. If they’re sunk down, you hope it’s not a log, which you have to untangle leaning over the side of the boat. You pull the net up and then pull yourself along the net to the shore. Your arms get very buff. The net is heavy, even without fish. You pick seaweed and jellyfish off as you go. If you have caught fish, you pull them onboard and untangle them. If they’re alive, you club them to death first or fight them as they thrash around your speedboat. Sometimes all that’s left in the net is salmon heads and tails. Harbour seals cruise along the nets and pick the bellies clean. Their dark heads poke above the water, and they watch you with shiny black eyes. You can’t really stop them, even if you wait in your boat with a gun.
Dad’s not a big fan of seals. He mimes shooting them when he sees them sunning themselves on the log booms in Minette Bay. He cheers when he sees them being run down by orcas. The seals would follow the spawning salmon when he used to fish in the Kitlope River. The river is wide and shallow, deeper with the high tide, but clear enough that you could see down to the bottom. Orcas would follow the seals, their dorsal fins cutting the surface as they ripped past Dad’s boat. Killer whales are aggressive hunters, and he watched them twist their bodies up the rock and drag the seals into the ocean.
There are different kinds of killer whales. Some orcas are primarily salmon eaters. They have rounder, gentler features. They live on the northwest coast most of the year. Orcas with pointed fins and more angular features are more likely to swat a seal out of the water with their tails, sending the seal tumbling through the air like a badminton birdie. Orcas that live far out in the ocean tend to be rammers. They gather speed and ram into other species of whales and then rip into them while they’re stunned.
The Haisla had the closest relationship with the salmon eaters. When the world was young and we could change our skins, we intermarried. We still consider each other kin. People from the killer-whale clan call them ancestors. Orcas visit us, and sometimes they warn us of coming storms by acting strangely, by beaching themselves or hauling themselves up on docks. They can hear things we can’t.
When I write, I’m interpreting a Haisla world through English words. Sometimes the fit is awkward and I can’t get the words to match the concepts. Not that my grasp of Xaislakala is phenomenal. But the lens shifts, and the context of culture means that, for instance, when I say family in English, what I mean is usually a nuclear family. When I say it in Haisla, you need a good solid grasp of coastal genealogy to make it through the first cousins and their marriages, much less going back into the generations. The concept of time involves my potential great-grandchildren and all the ancestors, down to when we shared our skins with the animals, the other beings who share our planet.
And then there are moments that defy the human tongue, no matter what language you use. I remember sitting in our speedboat, the outboard motor tipped up so it wouldn’t tangle in the net. We were close to the buoy, just starting to pull the net up. With the slosh of waves against the boat and my concentration on the net, I didn’t notice them until they surfaced around us, bodies longer than the runabout, dorsal fins cutting the surface as they rose, studied us, and then moved on. The terrified wonder of a small mammal alarmed by the presence of a hunter met the absolute and unqualified certainty that they wouldn’t eat us. They had just popped up to say hi. They were still a part of our world, even if we’d forgotten their names as they spoke them.
“The Salmon Eaters” copyright © 2018 Eden Robinson was originally published in Luminous Ink, edited by Tessa McWatt, Rabindranath Maharaj, and Dionne Brand and published in April 2018 by Cormorant Books.
Eden Robinson‘s latest novel is Return of the Trickster.