Oolicans

Image of fish by Bill Helin

MOST IMPORTANT LITTLE FISH

There are many foods that my Tsimshian ancestors and family members gathered through out every year, never thought I’d live to see the day that we weren’t fishing in our family, which is the same with most of my family and tribal people.

I wasn’t exposed to full time practices of the hunting and gathering as a child because my Tsimshian Father married my Norweigan Mother and settled in the town of Prince Rupert, We lived a few hours by boat away from where Dad was born, which was the village of Port Simpson, now Lax Kw’alaams.

Port Simpson was once called Fort Simpson back in the early 1800s when the first trading post was established on the northern coast.
It is now called Lax Kwalaams, place of wild roses.

I remember spending every summer and every weekend working on our commercial fish boats, preparing for all the different fishing seasons, like salmon, halibut and the herring.

I learned a lot about travelling the coastal waters of BC and we had wonderful times exploring and gathering foods for the winter and just feasting on the abundance of everything fresh from pristine coastal waters. We never thought of a shortage of anything but we knew about preservation and stocking up for the winter, mainly by freezing and jarring salmon, halibut and clams. A couple relatives smoked and dried just about everything, some of it I didn’t like, especially smoked black cod, herring and oolican.

I never paid much attention to what was left of the culture, there wasn’t much of it to be seen then except for a goat horn spoon and a long beak ashtray which both were very rustic and non traditional to our Tsimshian roots.

Frog canoe by Bill Helin

I remember salmon fishing while other kids had summer holidays. Sometimes I made really good money but that never really mattered to me, I would rather have been back home with my friends or drawing pictures.

In 1972 we moved south leaving the last of our native lifestyle behind, most of it anyways. It was a non impressionable lifestyle that was almost faded completely from our tribe.

Most of the northern family still fish and gather seaweed and shellfish. Since my Father died my older brother quit fishing too. I quit in 1979, by accident, and through my recovery time I was invited to attend a native art school in Hazelton, a small River side community 3 hours east of Prnce Rupert.

I remember salmon fishing in the summer and then herring fishing in February and long lining halibut in the month of May. Ive never been involved in any oolican harvesting or drying and smoking. It took me many years to acquire a taste for the grease, and was never a big fan of eating the little oily nutritious fish. Good way to be left alone after eating it.

The eulachon Thaleichthys pacificus is a small fish of the smelt family (Osmeridae). Eulachon
are found only in the Pacific Northwest, from California to the Pribiloff Islands.
Granny said-There were some years, they were so plentiful that you could just go down and hand-fish them off the side of the river bank. Just walk down and grab them and put them in your bucket…there’d be a four foot black streak going up the side of the bank
(Anfinn Siwallace, Nuxalk Nation cited in Moody 2008).

I never did the EULACHON runs, I don’t even remember my dad doing it. Our family usually bought or traded it with the Nass River fisherman of the Nisga Nation.
It was pretty strong compared to the grease we get from the Knight Inlet area. Sometimes it was blended with seal oil, which made it smell stronger and it didn’t last as long unless you froze it.

There used to be big eulachon runs up the Skeena River, but not for quite a number of years. For over 3 generations my Tsimshian ancestors built and lived in cedar longhouses for their summer fishing life. Moving back out to the coast again after the salmon and eulachon (oolican) run was finished.

In the month of February (Hobiyee), the people worked together for the ooilcan harvest and sea-lion hunts. In the oolican season there is the first catch and the second catch. The first catch is usually to test and determine if the oolicans are ready for harvest. If they are too small in size, the people wait for the second run, leaving the first run to spawn and thrive.

The village smoke-houses have to be prepared also. The rafters and the oolican sticks have to be washed and cleaned, which they always were after each smoking session. Then, wood for smoking or curing is collected for the smoke-houses. Usually the preference for smoke-house wood is birch wood or cottonwood. While the people in the villages are doing their work of smoking oolicans and sea-lion meat, there are people at Grease camps located at Fishery Bay. It is here that they prepare the Oolican grease.
The preparation of oolican grease is a very strenuous and industrious job that can take up to six weeks to be prepared right.
Very few oolican are harvested traditionally anymore, mainly Knight inlet and up the Nass River are the last located in BC.

THIS EXERPT IS FROM A BC UNIVERSITY STUDY
1996), or a single species whose loss would impact
many others (Mills and Doak 1993). Examples incl
ude coral polyps that create an entire reef environment and sea otters (Enhydra lutris) that structure kelp forest communities (Estes
et al.1989). Eulachon are ecologically-important in th
at they deliver a large pulse of food and
nutrients in early spring when other food sources
are scarce or lacking, and may be critical to the
energetics of Steller’s sea lion
Eumetopias jubatus, (Sigler et al.2004). Willson and Halupka
(1995) consider anadromous smelts as a keystone species based on over forty predators that depend on them.
The arrival of eulachon in early spring when dried salmon and other food sources were low or exhausted made them critically important prior to European contact. Eulachon were called ‘starvation fish’ in Tsimshian, ‘salvation fish’ in Nisga’a and ‘Preservation’ fish in Nuxalk
Grease.
I remember that we ate lots of dried, frozen and smoked fish and seaweed, cockles, clams, scallops and of course Dads favourite delicacy, the abalone, almost extinct in our northern waters because of piracy and disrespect to the future reproduction of the species.
An ecological keystone species is what really stands out as the most important staple of not only the northern West Coast Indians, but also every other living creature of the same territory.
Not much hope for the future of all our species in this threatened world, sadly. The controllers have no intention of wanting a certain amount of us to survive. The secret society of my Tsimshian ancestry has taught me a lot about what the controllers are doing and why they do it. Many will perish and get consumed by their worldly addictions and sensationalism of news, music and entertainment, while the most important things are vibrations that are non existent to them, the sheep and the goats.
Pray for unity and think for yourself, then your eyes will open.

Note:I wrote this a number of years ago, and have since seen the oolican fishery still declining, and continued recklessness by the government in the way it mishandles the fisheries, and everything else.

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