Slow Fish in Action
A Nation, a Fish, a Common Destiny
Ingrid Jarrett, Slow Food Thompson Okanagan convivium leader and life-long advocate for our food culture diversity, couldn't believe it when she first heard the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA) story. The story of a salmon and the story of a people. The story of hope, and of an intertwined destiny. She began inviting journalists and sending them to the ONA headquarters, until Pauline Terbasket, executive director of the ONA summoned her to ask what she thought she was doing. It was the start of a beautiful relationship, between two strong women and between the Okanagan Nation and Slow Food, from the mouth of the Columbia River in Portland, USA, through the cascades and all the way to the Okanagan desert in British Columbia, Canada.
The Okanagan are Syilx People. The word carries a command, for every single person, to bind and become one with other people and with all strands of life that make up their land and waterways (Yil, to roll or unify many fibers into one, and X, a command directed to individuals). For thousands of years, the Syilx people's connection to the land made them self-reliant and well provided for. They lived united as a nation, on both sides of what is now the US-Canada border, knowing their land and it's multiple other inhabitants intimately, fishing and hunting, growing and harvesting, crafting and trading to meet their needs. They respected their food gods, the bear, the salmon, the bitterroot and the Saskatoon berry, their relatives, their ancestors, who once created people and took upon themselves the responsibility to feed them.
Colonization, a familiar history for most Canadian indigenous communities, divided people from one another and from their way of life, from the resources they relied upon, until their self-sufficient economy collapsed. Settlers initially brought trade and wealth, but also weapons, alcohol and small pox epidemics, which decimated the Nation's population. Later, as settlement of the Okanagan increased, Indian Reserves were established in the early 1900′s and Okanagan children were removed from their homes and forced into residential schools far away from their homeland and families. Today, in spite of this history, and as no treaty was ever negotiated, the Okanagan people still affirm that the land is theirs.
Sockeye salmon was always a primary food source for the Syilx people. The fish come upstream from Okanagan River to Snake River, going all the way down to Columbia River, where they join with families from different streams and rivers, enter the Pacific and go up north to catch the California Gyre. Hawaii, California, round and round, several times before heading back up the Columbia, by family groups, all together, millions of fish in the arc of a few weeks, shiny blue grey in color, to spawn within less than a hundred meters of where they were born. They feed men, bears, birds, among others, and after spawning, the fish, turned brick red by then, decomposes and further fertilizes the river. Sockeye salmon have been caught by the Syilx at the historical fishing camps of McIntyre Bluff and Okanagan Falls for thousands of years...
Yet, in the 1930's, impassable dams started to be erected. Streams were channeled, real estate developed along the water, destroying salmon habitat. Climate changed. Over-harvesting became rampant. The salmon, a fish that has come back every year since time immemorial, a food god, almost disappeared. In the mid-nineties, less than 5,000 adult spawners were returning. Still a miracle, all things considered. But it was time for Kt cp'elk' stim'.
The return of the red salmon
Kt cp'elk' stim' means "cause to come back." It started in 1997: under the direction of elders, all 8 Nation's bands from both sides of the Canada-US border, which constitute the ONA, decided they were going to get the salmon back. And so they did. Since 2003 the ONA has maintained a dedicated initiative to re-establish the sockeye salmon population in Osoyoos, Skaha and Okanagan Lake, integrating modern science with traditional practices: re-engineering adult fish passage at McIntyre Dam, restoring river and creek habitat, spawning side channel construction, hatchery out plants into Skaha Lake and real time fish-water management decision tools, assisting water managers with scheduled flow releases, all have gone hand to hand with the revitalization of Okanagan culture and ceremonies. During these ceremonies, people come together, share food, share experiences, and assess the fruit of their collective efforts. And they pray, to give cause to the salmon to come back, as the salmon gives cause to their culture to come back.
Okanagan sockeye salmon has responded to the prayers. In 2014, more than 600,000 sockeye Salmon returned, of which a fraction is carefully harvested to feed the people. Meanwhile, children with shiny eyes learn their language in Syilx schools; knowledge keepers keep Chaptikwl (oral history), the stories and the memory of their people, alive; artists are flourishing; young people, proud again to be Okanagan, work on re-gathering and reviving their knowledge, at times crossing it with scientific knowledge to help them, once again, become the true guardians of their land.
Author: Michèle Mesmain