As I Remember It: Teachings (Ɂəms tɑɁɑw) from the Life of a Sliammon Elder


There’s a big river in Theodosia, which is toqʷɑnən, and so we went up there around early September and stay up there and wait for the fish to come in. The big dog salmon went up there that time of the year. So you had to be there, because that’s the time to be there. And these dog salmon were huge. Otherwise known as chums. So that particular kind of salmon was used for just barbecuing pretty much, because they’re really heavy, and if you hang them to dry, they come off, and they’re too heavy. So that was its main use, was to barbecue it around the fire, and dry it. We used to dry them after they’re barbecued, and you dry it right up. You put it in your smokehouse once it’s barbecued, and you let the fire go on for, I don’t know, a week to ten days you’re smoking it, till it’s dry. It’s just as hard as a board. And then you store it like that, very dry. So when you went to eat it, you soak it. If you want to soften it, you soak it for a couple of days. And then you can warm it up, you know, over the fire, or cook it a bit. And you just had that with potatoes. It’s entirely different flavour from just smoked salmon too. And most times they were just eaten fresh or made into soup or just barbecued and that’s how we ate it. ’Cause they were huge! Were really double the size of the fish that went up to Okeover Arm.

And then moved to Okeover, where there’s a smaller river. So the fish that went up there was dog salmon again, but they were smaller. But richer. And we had a house there, cabin. And my grandparents and other people, other relatives, lived there, right by the river, and would smoke those fish. And that was a different brand of fish, if you may, although it’s still chum salmon. They would smoke it dry, real, real dry for toasting – that was used for toasting over the open fire. It was so good. Really rich and oily. The oils come right up the surface when you toast it. Whereas the ones that you get in Theo doesn’t do that. So you prepare that differently than how you would prepare the fish from the other river. So people recognized that, the differences.

They Would Welcome the Salmon

And then after that was done, we would move back to Sliammon. Probably in early November. The winters were mainly spent in Sliammon, because the snow and ice would be too much to handle up in Theodosia. And then we’d come over here, and this is a different texture of fish again. Although it’s still the dog salmon! I know my grandmother – as well as all the other people of her generation – when the fish came here, they would honour the salmon. They would welcome the salmon. It was, like, a very exciting time: “The salmon have come in!” You know, they see the fish jumping. There’s different signs they watch for when the fish come in. So everybody’s in a buzz about “The salmon’s come in.” And they welcomed the salmon. The old-timers would go down the beach and welcome, raise their hands to the sea: “Come,” you know, “You’ve come back!” So they welcomed the salmon in a good way. They just didn’t go out in the water and scoop up the salmon. And none of it was ever wasted. None of this food was ever wasted. And it just really blows my mind when I see all the fish sometimes get wasted or people don’t know how to do it anymore, how to prepare it the way we used to. And course we have the freezer now, when people utilize that or your canning jars, you will prepare your fish that way. Whereas people had totally different ways of preparing the salmon for preserving. They used it mostly for hanging and smoking in the smokehouse. It’s just a different quality of fish. It’s not as heavy. So they won’t come off the racks and drop. So we’d be here in the winter months, around November.

My Grandmother Would Dry a Lot of Fish

“The women would prepare the fish with the help of the men. It was a joint effort. And it was fun doing and it was, I guess, social. And I don't remember it as being work.”

And my grandmother used to smoke a lot of fish from this river. My grandmother would dry a lot of fish. By the hundred and – course, we were there helping and other family members would help. And the men would go out and get the fish. The women would prepare the fish with the help of the men. It was a joint effort. And it was fun doing it and it was, I guess, social. And I don’t remember it as being work. But it was necessary at the same time to do all those things.

She smoked fish until she died, and she died in – oh, she was in her eighties when she died. She died in her smokehouse. I was helping her hang her fish, and she was just doing a few that day. I think she was doing about six, maybe eight. But she had some already hanging in the smokehouse. So she was moving those around. You know, you have to always be moving, shuffling your fish around, just so that it’s evenly smoked. So that’s what she was doing. She was inside the smokehouse and moving her fish around. And I guess holding her arms up, working on her fish, hanging there and there. Racks. I thought I heard some thud or a noise, and I went to look and she was – she was gone. She had a heart attack. Massive heart attack. Yeah.

“She smoked fish until she died, and she died in – oh, she was in her eighties when she died.”

So she died doing what she enjoyed doing. She enjoyed. And she was sooo tidy. Sooo clean with how she did her smoked fish. She used to get after us and she’d get after the guys if they went out to get the fish: “Make sure the boat is washed out! There’s no sand in the boat!” And she looked after the salmon, that it didn’t come in contact with sand. And pack it up, and she’d have a nice clean place to put it out by the smokehouse, and all lined with fern and all cordoned off. It looked like it’s fenced in. And covered nice and clean. And they all had to be facing the same way. The fish had to be all facing the same way. You just didn’t throw them any which way there. Had to be lined up just nicely. Just so that it’s easy when she went to cut it, clean it. That she could just reach over and grab under the gill and pull it towards her. And the other reason was that when it’s fresh and it’s put into a container, if it’s not sitting properly, then kind of rigor mortis sets in the fish. So they could be twisted or warped the next day when you wanted to clean them. So she wanted them to be laying flat. Just even. Evenly stacked. Yeah, and so she was really fussy about those things. And really took a lot of pains and how to do it properly, and get your fern ready, ’cause that’s what you use for wiping the fish down is the ferns. So we’d go and gather all bundles of fern. And so the table’s lined with fern. And so it’s not slipping and – you know, the dog salmon’s pretty slippery. It gets pretty slimy. So she would be working on her work table. It had to be covered with fresh fern. And she would be changing that all the time. And there’s just a way that she did her fish that – it always turned out so nice!

“And they all had to be facing the same way. The fish had to be all facing the same way. You just didn’t throw them any which way there. Had to be lined up just nicely.”

Well, I try to follow as much as possible all the things that – now we have other things, like burlap, we use, instead of the fern. But she used to say that the fern was the best, because before you hang it, you washed it, and you wipe it down with a fern. You take handfuls of fern. You’ve gotta crumple it together. And you wipe it down. You wash the face of it, like, the inside. You wipe it down. It has to go one way. And she used to say that it helped the texture of the flesh, ’cause it kind of scrapes it with a fern. So that’s almost like there was a method to her madness! And then you flip it around and you gotta hold it now on this side, and you wipe it this way now. So lot of people nowadays don’t use that. They just use the burlap, ’cause burlap is smoother. You don’t get that nice shiny finish to it. So she was so particular about stuff like that.

And then you just go and put your sticks on and then hang it up, in the smokehouse. Usually it’s three sticks. One at the upper end and you put it right into the flesh of the fish – flesh side – and onto the other. If you’re not experienced in doing that, it’ll always collapse. Your stick will go right through. So you have to kind of know just how to do it. And that’s the part that I always say, “I will do that part! [laughs] Let me do that part. You can go and hang.” Yeah. After all that – and if you’re not careful – ’cause you’ve got one stick that’s bigger, that’s going to sit on the rafters like that – if you put that too close to the edge of the butterflied fish, it’ll rip, and there goes your fish. It’s landed on the ground.

When I Do My Fish Now

And always looking after the smoke, how big the smoke is, and they were constantly always looking after the fire. And moving all the fish around, reshuffling it every day. When I’m smoking salmon, I have to be up all hours of the night to keep that smoke going. So you have to be very diligent and you have to be there all the time. It’s like looking after a new baby. It’s a lot of work. People used to dry it totally dry, as hard as board, in order to store it in boxes and store it away. And then you toast it over the open fire. Or you could take it and put it in a tub of water, take it to the creek and let it sit there for a day or two. And it swells up again. Then you can boil it and cook it that way. You don’t really have to boil it. It’s already cooked, pretty much. But if you want – for easier eating, as part of your meal. But the jerky, you could sit by open campfire and toast it over the fire and that’s so good! Same as that idea of toasting the herring. It becomes softer. Once it’s heated and toasted a bit. As long as it was in a cool, dry place, it would last you all winter, you know – come springtime and it’s pretty much used up by then. But the fish must be really dry, and then kept in a dry place. Otherwise, if it’s not really dry then the mould will appear. Yeah.

“When I’m smoking salmon, I have to be up all hours of the night to keep that smoke going.”

So it’s a lot of work that goes into it. And you have to know what you’re doing, right from when you get it from the water. There’s always meat left on the bone, so I fillet that, both sides. ’Cause you don’t want to cut your fish right down to the bone. You have to leave some of the meat on the bone itself. Then you cut away that. And my grandmother would get about two fillets before you get to the bone. That’s how sharp her knife is. And she’d have these – the kids call them neckties, but they’re fillets. And I will put it in brine for a little while, and then I’ll drape it over a rack. And then you gotta keep turning it otherwise it’s gonna dry stiff with its own shape. So you gotta keep turning it – that’s to keep it from getting sour, too. So after a couple of days you can take it and you can hang it. You can put it through sticks and hang it up. But you can pull the bones out of those fillets. The old people use their teeth. You just kind of bend it and the bones really show – they’re sticking out. And it’s hard to pick it because the flesh might come too. And I used to do that a lot. I think that’s why my teeth are going on me. I used to just kind of hold on to it and bite on the bone that’s sticking out, and it’s just a whole row down the whole fillet. And you’d get a very sore lip just from touching against the little bones that are sticking out. But I used to see the old people. They would take it down and they’d have, like, a nice block of wood, and, like, a wooden hammer, and they’d pound it. People that are really working hard at it and want the real good quality. It’s so soft. It’s really soft. And my grandmother would soften it, and pound it, and roll it. And it was sooo good. It’s dried – it’s like jerky – but it’s soft. It’s almost like – it becomes like cloth because she really gave it a lot of her time. She’d be there every morning and working on it, and then she’d put it on a block of wood and pound it gently, soften it. And then she would hang it up with small sticks, and she’d make holes on the top ends of them. Then she’d hang it up. That was the best. I do that. Yeah. It’s so good like that. You could take it and chomp away at it! [laughs]

When I do my fish now I will – after my fish is dry or semidry – I will cut it up and put it in jars, and use a pressure cooker to finish the process. And it just lasts forever. It’s really quite tasty. You will have already put brine before you hung it. And you just use any – whatever brine. Could be just, your coarse salt or pickling salts. And brown sugar, if you like that. I never seen people using brown sugar, you know, they just did theirs plain. But through time that’s changing. People using more brine.

You Don’t Throw It Out

The roe of the salmon was even used to dry. Yeah. We used to dry that. My grandparents dried that. You would take it out – they’re still in the sac when you’re cleaning your salmon and you get that. And then you dry it. You put it up on racks when you’re drying your salmon. Once it firms up, then you can tie them up and hang them to dry. So they almost looked like the corn that’s dried. You must have seen that corn that’s still in the husk and peeled back and dried? They became really dry. They’re hard. They looked like a – like a Oh Henry! bar! [chuckles] And they were crunchy. So in the springtime, when the new shoots would come out, like the wild salmonberry shoots, or the red cap berries – they have these nice shoots. They’re really tender when they first come out. So we as kids used to go and gather those shoots. And then we would eat those. Peel them back and eat them and have a bite of the dried roe with it. It was quite a combination. So that, again, was a treat. It was a real treat. So that was specifically stored away just for that time of the year, in the springtime when you can have it with the shoots. Yeah. It’s “pɑʔɑǰɛ” in our language. pɑʔɑǰɛ. “qeyχ” is the salmon roe. “šɑʔmɛt” is dried. šɑʔmɛt qeyχ. And it’s smoked also. Yeah. And they had other uses for the salmon roe too, where it was put away in containers and it kind of fermented. Although I never really tried that myself. But there were some of the old, old people that used that, like, as a spread, on other foods. And they did that also with wild cranberries. Where they gathered cranberries in the swamps or wherever they were growing, and they would put it in containers and let it sit and kind of ferment. And that was used too. It’s like all these different kinds of foods – combining it with other foods to enhance the flavour of other foods.

So they’re well taken care of – and a lot of that is the teachin’ to respect that salmon. You don’t throw it about. You handle it with care. You look after it. You keep it clean. ’Cause that’s your winter feed. It’s food for your family. So you look after it – and I know my grandmother did. She – and other people, of her time, her age. When I see sometimes, young people, how they handle fish now, I just cringe! I just cringe. Because it’s not how you handle the fish. Yeah. My grandmother tells a story about a beautiful chum salmon that’s going up the river. You know, you have your female and your male, right? It’s obvious, the male has big kind of a beak and big teeth. And the female has a smaller head, and usually you could tell too because it’s plump and it’s got the sac of eggs in there. And this one young person was just goofing about and bringin’ the fish in and he kind of stepped on it and it made a squirting sound. It’s like a fart sound. And he laughed, and he said, “Oh, the fish is farting!” And someone said to him, “You cannot make fun of fish like that. That’s really disrespectful for you to talk like that.” And that night, this young person had a dream. He woke up and he was in such pain to his side. He was in such pain. And he dreamt this beautiful young woman stabbed him with, like, a pitchfork – something very sharp. So anyway, that was his dream, his nightmare, that he got stabbed by this beautiful woman. And he woke up with severe pain. So his parents told him, “That’s because you were making fun of that female fish. You know, that was once a human being. Or it’s provided to you as a giver of life. It had the salmon eggs in there. And it gave its life for you. And for you to make fun of it and to step on it and you laughed at that sound that fish made. So this is what happens to you.” It’s like payback time, kind of a thing? So that’s why you looked after whatever food was brought to you. You don’t waste – don’t treat it disrespectfully in any way, shape, or form. You protect it. It’s precious stuff. So there’s a lot of those kinds of beliefs and teachin’s around animals and other life. But you don’t make fun of them. That you are respectful.

“And someone said to him, ‘You cannot make fun of fish like that. That’s really disrespectful for you to talk like that.’”

It’s not so much prayers, but it’s how you handle it, how you receive it. A lot of it is by the hands: raised hands, like you would greet people, a visitor. That’s what the old people used to do. You didn’t have to say anything. You walk in the door and they would raise their hands to you. That’s a gesture. That’s a welcome. That’s a show of kindness, you know – you’re welcome to come in. So there’s not an awful lot of words that need to be said. I think some communities, some other First Nations communities, actually do salmon ceremonies and things like that. But I know with us, it was more like how you treated – and the teachin’ that comes with that. You know what you are not to do. You know how you should treat that salmon or that deer or whatever game is brought to you. All these things had a life, and now it’s gonna give you a life. So you need to thank the Creator for that. You need to thank what’s there in front of you. It might be just in your thoughts or your gestures, or how you look at that. How you look at the meal before you. Yeah.

I got a kick out of my grandson Davis. He loves to help me clean fish when I get fish. We got a delivery of sockeye a few years ago and we were all out in the backyard and we got the hose going there, and we’ve got the tarp on the ground. We got all the fish laid out and so I’m cutting their heads, and I’m saving the heads. And I’m busy, whatever I was doing over there, and he’s doing his thing, washing all the stuff. And he says, “Chi-chia, come look at this. Isn’t this neat?” And I go look and he’s got all the heads all lined up. They’re all facing the same way, on this tarp. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I just think it’s so neat. They’re all facing the same way.” I said, “Well you better not be making fun of the salmon heads.” I said, “It’s not right if you doing that.” [laughs] And he’s just, like, “Oh.” [laughs]

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