Tag Archives: Pacific wild salmon

Where the Salmon Led Me

Art by Danny Cheng. Used with permission.

“Returning Home” by Danny Cheng. Used with permission of the artist.

For a decade or so, I have been a homebody. A body who wishes to stay at home.

My wandering has been limited to annual visits from my chosen home, in Saskatchewan, to my birth home in the Ottawa Valley, and back again. (Not unlike the salmon, except they don’t  get  repeat visits.)

As our grown daughters leave and explore the world, we want to see them in the places that have called to them. And so it was that Shane and I found ourselves traveling to Prince Rupert in Northern B.C., the place that has called our daughter Laurel’s name. For both of us, this was new territory.  Strange.  Unknown.  Unfamiliar.

As we travelled, I wondered ….

How do we come to a new place? How do we begin to take in, to apprehend that which is strange to us? What opens us up to a new place?  Why do we feel at home in some places and never at home in other places? 

When I arrived in Saskatchewan 35 years ago, it was certainly strange to me.  I could not immediately see its beauty. I saw its bleakness, and how utilitarian many of the buildings were. I missed the familiar aesthetic  of rural Ontario’s cozy patchwork quilt. One late spring day,  I was driving in the Assiniboia area. It was one of those fickle prairie days, sun out full, then purple storm clouds moving like a ship across the land casting light and shadow on fresh green growth. At that moment, I fell in love with the prairies. I remember how that beauty moved right into me, stirred me up inside, and changed my way of seeing.

I revisit this early sense of strangeness when coming to a new place. I admire the mountains, for example, but feel as though I am living in a beautiful calendar, as if they are not quite real. They feel remote, even after I have spent days hiking here. As we move towards to Northwest Coast, I feel more of a kinship with the land and sky, as well as a strangeness. I am drawn by the fluidity of the sky and low hanging mists, so different from what I know in my prairie home. It stirs something in me.

low lying clouds, shifting on the Skeena River

low lying clouds on the move on the Skeena River

shifting sky at Prince Rupert

shifting sky at Prince Rupert

In the coastal rainforest, I am silenced. The stillness, the gloom, the green, the impossible hugeness of the trees. These giant trees seem barely related to the trees I know at home. I have a sense of ancient spirits.  These forests are as strange and unknowable to me as the Tsimshian art found throughout Prince Rupert.

Image 27How do I come to a new place? How do I begin to take in, to apprehend that which is strange to me? What opens us up to a new place? Why do we feel at home in some places and never at home in other places?

It was a stroke of luck that our daughter invited us on an adventure up a salmon stream. Reflecting afterwards, it seemed as if this salmon immersion day was the best possible way to get to know this new place. We travelled to a remote salmon stream, hiked up it, and across its waters. We worked with the salmon who were on their way home. Soaked to the bone. Rainforest. Moss dripping off trees. Slick logs. Low lying mist. The amazing feel of a fish against your calf as you struggle across a stream. The strength and sheen of this powerful fish. The beauty. The brilliant shining salmon red of the eggs. The salmon who leave their birth home for the ocean, only to return to the exact river or stream where they were born – spawning grounds for the next generation.

For millennia, salmon have been both sacred and central to the peoples who call this area home. Anything I knew about salmon was secondhand – from a can or a plastic bag, from a documentary, from a government report or newspaper headline, from Shane’s uncle bringing fresh and precious salmon to a family reunion. Our salmon immersion day  was like a portal providing the opening I needed to this new place, whetting my curiosity in the most wonderful way. I wanted to learn more about salmon.

Judith Roche - First Fish First People I found a marvelous second hand source, a book entitled First Fish, First People : Tales of Salmon from the Pacific Rim  (edited by Judith Roche  and Meg McHutchison)  which brings together writers and storytellers  whose traditional cultures are based on Pacific wild salmon: Ainu from Japan; Ulchi and Nyvkh from Siberia; Okanagan and Coast Salish from Canada; and Makah, Warm Springs, and Spokane from the United States. The stories are both sad and hopeful – the same story, repeated with local variations, a story we know in too many versions. The story is this: the salmon were central to the indigenous people, who honoured the sacred fish with ceremonies and whose lives depended largely on the salmon runs. When the various invading peoples came, canneries were opened, forests were logged, the land was mined, and hydro-electric damning and diversions combined to  decimate fish populations. When dams were built, governments  considered only fisheries of “commercial value” (not indigenous fisheries) and these dams ended the flow of many salmon rivers which whole cultures had depended upon for millennia.

In one of my favourite pieces in First Fish, First People, Lee Maracle, the well known author, critic, weaver and member of the Stó:lō Nation writes from the point of view of a salmon as it begins its journey as a tiny minnow. While environmentalists lament the diminishing salmon populations, Maracle (as a salmon) writes,  “It is not death that is the problem here. It is the absence of permission to engage us which continues to threaten you. Without our permission, you will sicken. Without our permission, you are violating the spirit of another being (my italics).” She asks how we can secure Salmon’s agreement to engage with them, and how we can express our gratitude for Salmon’s gifts if such permission is granted.


First Fish Ceremony, Puyallup Tribe, 2012. The first fish caught in the season is displayed, cleaned in full view, cooked and shared. The skeleton is returned to the water to show respect to the salmon family; so that the salmon can return  to his family to say how well respected he has been.

Image 9Reading about the salmon provided a way in, a foothold, a possible lens. I was amazed at the many dimensions and layers in these stories and ceremonies for and about the salmon. The salmon’s life story is remarkable in itself, but the richness of the salmon’s homes, the creatures they depend on and those who depend on them, the stories, legends and ceremonies they inspire are legion. From this initial reading, it became clear that learning about salmon could take a lifetime, maybe several lifetimes. Learning about the salmon certainly changed my experience of the Pacific Northwest.  I began to notice salmon everywhere – on murals, on cans in stores, in museums, in menus, in public art, on anti-Enbridge signs I had noticed from Terrace to Haida Gwaii.


A school and community art project in Prince Rupert

A school and community art project in Prince Rupert

Image 11 Image 8

Then I happened upon Robert Bringhurst’s three volume Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers. Bringhurst believes these Haida stories and poems to be outstanding literature which should be read alongside Shakespeare. In an interview with Bringhurst tucked in the end papers of one of the volumes, he says that these stories are like the “old growth forest” of our cultural history. In order to really “know” this place, it is important to know its oldest stories.  I have not yet read these tales,  and I hope to some day.

How do I come to a new place? How do I begin to take in, to apprehend that which is strange to me? What opens us up to a new place? Why do we feel at home in some places and never at home in other places?

In Saskatchewan, it was a particular day, a cast of light and shadow, that opened my heart. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the salmon and their stories provide a place to begin.

"transformation" by Joe Becker (Musqueam) at the entry of the BC's Museum of Anthropology at UBC

“Transformation” by Joe Becker (Musqueam) at the entry of the BC’s Museum of Anthropology at UBC

Not surprisingly, the salmon led me home, both to my birth home and my chosen home. Some say we travel to see home more clearly.  I thought in a fresh way about my home in Saskatchewan and my home in the Ottawa Valley. How much have I explored the creatures or plants and rocks that were once central to the people who live there? Are they still central? If not, what happened to them? Who were the first people who lived here?  What are their stories? What were their ceremonies or agreements with the land, the fish, plants, rocks, trees and other creatures they depended on for life?

In both my homes, I have been exploring some of these questions, almost by accident.

IMG_0886Take my birth home in Eastern Ontario, for example. Sometimes, in those places most familiar to us, we cease seeing things. Really seeing things.  One fall morning a few years back, I went and sat amidst the cedars, resting on the spongey earth, my back supported by the straight trunk of an old tree. I stayed for the entire morning, held by the healing power of these trees which I had walked by without really seeing hundreds of times.

I have a long history with cedars, but I had forgotten. My morning in the grove of cedars took me back to childhood when I played with its bark, stripping bits off, feeling its roughness. Removing one green scale at a time from the cedar branches.  I was reminded that cedar was one of the four sacred medicines used by my Cree and Saulteaux neighbours in Treaty Four territory but also much further afield. In the same way that the salmon immersion day made me notice how salmon were woven into daily life, my morning with the cedars made me notice cedars everywhere I went.  Cedar was in use all around me; in cedar strip canoes, in homes and cottages, rail fences, shingles, furnitures, baskets. My time with the cedars  tickled my curiousity and made me want to learn about their use over time, about the ceremonies and stories the people who depended on cedar told.

IMG_2209Here in Saskatchewan, I have been drawn for many years  to the plants that grow on the coulee hills among big and little bluestem and other prairie grasses. Spending time with them fills me with pleasure and provides a way for me to come to know my chosen home more deeply. Painting them gives me a way to be with them, to befriend them, to see them more deeply. I am interested in all their stages of life: emerging, before blossom, flowering, creating seed, dying. I like their attitudes, their stances, the way they hold themselves under this vast sky.  I am curious about their medicinal, food and sacred uses. Visiting the same places season after season matters. Not far from where I paint, my daughter  found a large buffalo skull in an eroded creek bank. I had always imagined buffalo in the long reaches of the Qu’Appelle Valley but not so much in this more intimate coulee. Knowing that the buffalo were once here, too, amidst the plants and grasses I am coming to know, shifted my understanding of my home place.

Like the salmon and the cedar, the prairie plants and the buffalo have much to teach me. Especially if I approach them with reverence; if I take time to simply be with them, if I express  my gratitude for their presence and their gifts in some way, if I remember that relationships are always reciprocal.

When I first came to the prairies, I learned many stories. I studied Plains history.  Many of these stories, though, left out the beginning because they were so focussed on a Eurocentric version of history.  The stories I learned are important, but they are only a part of the picture. These stories often have their roots in another place, a very different place across the ocean. But the stories and practices of the people who who were here long before spring forth from this particular place and are vital to my understanding of here. The stories of the first people who lived in these territories open up realms I may never have considered. 

How do I come to a new place? How do I begin to take in, to apprehend that which is strange to me? What opens us up to a new place? Why do we feel at home in some places and never at home in other places?

Where did the salmon lead me? They led me home. They took the scales off my eyes, they opened my eyes and my heart. They reminded me that coming to know a place always begins in  being there, whether it is feeling the salmon against my legs as I cross a stream, or taking in the pungent scent of sage on a coulee hillside. The salmon directed me back in time, to listen and learn from the first people whose stories and ceremonies were born in this very place. The salmon opened up rich possibilities for a deeper way of coming to know those places that I call “home”.


This is the third of a series of 3 blog posts about our recent travels to Northern B.C. and the Coast. All Aboard! describes our train trip and Salmon is about our “salmon immersion day.”