Last Wednesday as I was traveling on the ferry to the island Nation of Penelakut, I noticed a vehicle with which I was sharing the ride. It was a large truck, pulling a flat deck trailer, transporting the big plastic boxes I’ve become familiar with over my time on the west coast: fish totes. It was at that moment that I realized that any plans I had for the day were about to be upended; I simply cannot compete with food fish day!
Access to fish for food, social, and ceremonial purposes (FSC) is a collective right for First Nations Peoples, protected under section 35 of the constitution. The right is a communal one, with Nations designating an Indigenous harvester to catch fish that will be distributed to the entire Nation. However, due to recent low salmon populations and a prioritization placed on sustainability, there hasn’t been a food fish distribution in Penelakut for four years. Thus, the anticipation from the community for this year's bounty was palpable.
As I drove off the ferry, traffic was diverted away from the health center, so I parked my vehicle and started hiking up the road. Vehicles were lined up, snaking around the center parking lot, around and down the hill, awaiting the arrival of the food fish truck that preceded me off the ferry. As I got to the top of the lineup, I spied my dear friend, Carmen George, along with her daughter and granddaughter sitting in her truck at the top of the line. The ladies told me to jump in the back, that we had work to do that day, and that they could use my help. Before I knew it there were dozens of fish loaded in the truck and we were off to Carmen’s dad’s, Richard, to begin the work of processing.
It was apparent as soon as I arrived at Richard’s that this process was one that was familiar to him. He had multiple cleaning stations set up, consisting of sawhorse and plywood tables with hoses hooked on each corner, a central wheelbarrow for collecting the parts of the salmon that would be gifted to the eagles, and a tarp tightly stretched over the processing area to keep the sun off the workers. For the bulk of the day, I worked as Carmen’s assistant: washing gutted fish, keeping our workstation clean, and later scoring the fish for the smokehouse. The energy shared as we worked with Carmen’s dad, brother, and partner was one of contented satisfaction. She and her family are passionate about participating in the important cultural practice of harvesting fish, and always invite community members who are developing their skills to come and practice with them. Just as we were finishing up Carmen’s, her dad’s, and her brother’s fish, her daughters arrived to begin working on their family’s allotments.
Carmen was grateful to be on scheduled holidays last week, which provided her the time to be able to focus on the processing of her salmon distribution, but I know that even if she hadn’t been, she would’ve found a way to be present for the work. She shared:
“Receiving food salmon is a special time for our Nation. When the salmon arrives, everything else in our lives must pause: we have a small window of time to do the work that needs to be done. When the processing is finished, I feel so much happiness and satisfaction at what we’ve accomplished together. It’s a time of abundance, of community, and of culture. I love spending the time with my dad and brother, learning ways to improve my filleting techniques, sharing in the work together, and being rewarded with jars of canned salmon, freezer bags filled with smoked salmon, salmon eggs and salmon heads that will feed us for months to come. I am still passing these teachings onto my children, because it’s important that they learn these skills too; one day they will need to pass the teachings down to my grandchildren.”
I am so grateful for the opportunity to share in this special day, and to be immersed in the good feelings around those processing tables. The gathering also marked as a reminder for me that when there are important cultural activities occurring in community, all other priorities are put on pause. For me as an oral health provider, this meant that almost the entirety of my day was canceled. As a clinician, I’ve come to learn that it is important to be flexible and adaptable when planning my schedule, because oftentimes these cultural activities can not be paused or delayed, and I want my patients to know that it’s okay - there’s always next time.
I want to extend my thanks to Richard, Carmen, Travis, Peco, Tia, and Oceania for including me in your special day. Huy steep q’u. Love you all so much.
Kim at Culturally Committed