Excerpt from Au Pays de L’Ours Noir
Dispatches of a Missionary, 1897 by Father
Adrien Gabriel Morice
Translated by Neil Wylie and Garry Girvan
The industry which it (salmon) supplies and its economic importance west of the Rocky Mountains demand that I give some details before I continue the account of my work with the Chilcotins.
This fish, providential indeed for the Child of the Woods, is for him what wheat is for the Europeans, rice for the Chinese and sea calf (seal) for the Eskimo. If the salmon comes in ample numbers it brings abundance to the camp and joy to the family hearth; if it fails one summer, it brings famine and desolation: silence reigns in the village, melancholy grips the heart.
Five species of salmon go up the Fraser or up the drainage from Lake Babine, to the north of the Chilcotin territory; but we have only to concern ourselves here with the Red Salmon (Salmo Quinnat), the one which serves as daily bread to the Native. To catch it the Dene, riparians (river dwellers) of the great lakes of the Interior imitate the Kamtchadles (Aborigenes of north east Siberia). They plant from one bank of the river to the other, usually at a short distance from its outflow from a lake, some stakes supporting a barrier which stops the fish. Screens are attached to these stakes in form of an enclosure giving access to a collection of nets, long cylindrical baskets shaped as funnels. The salmon finding its way closed by the barrier, throws itself into these enclosures; then seeing the long duct of the tunnel, it rushes in thinking to escape from the trap into which it has been bamboozled. Once there, no possibility of going back. The fish often follow each other in such quantity that it is not rare to find them packed almost like herrings in a barrel.
Each morning without difficulty the Native comes to pick up the food which Providence has sent him the previous night, just as the Israelites once gathered the manna which fell to them from heaven.
Several other methods, each one more ingenious than the one before, are in use among the Dene of the Interior, the race of which our Chilcotin are a part. Let it be sufficient to mention two, the least rewarding and the most disagreeable, because they are more especially adopted by the great majority of the Chilcotins
The first is to spear the fish using a double harpoon with points of ram’s horn and a very long shaft.
The exercise, to be successful, requires the practiced eye of the Indian and uncommon agility.
The second method is to ladle the fish out using big nets with pointed ends in the shape of a poke attached to the forked end of a long handle. Thus prepared, the ladle is held in to water until the moment the fish is caught. This method does not require the skill of the first, but to adopt it voluntarily you really need all the patience you can summon up by the contemplation of hunger, especially as it it only practicable long after sunset.
I still remember the time we went up the wild Fraser swollen by the high water of July a dozen years ago. Able to advance only by polling, but only with great difficulty because of the speed of the current against us, we decided to take advantage of the wonderful moonlit night to make up for the slowness of navigation that day by adding a night shift. As we approached the village, we saw human forms, silent and unmoving, planted at intervals along the bank on some rocky point, seemingly absorbed in contemplation of the water which flowed at their feet. As we approached I asked them, and the reply was always the same:
To preserve the salmon our Dene, Chilcotin and Carriers, still follow the method of the Kamtchadales. Having opened the fish, they take out the backbone and other bones with the flesh adhering and exposing it to the heat on long spits under the bark roof of a hangar open to the winds. Under the actions of air and sun, helped by constant smoking they obtain the desired result. The fish is thus dried so that it keeps for years. The heads which are the favourite part of the salmon, are treated separately. They may be opened up and smoked, or the oil which they contain may be extracted in the following manner: they are threaded on long spits of willow and laid down in the water on a sandy beach of a lake or river until they reach a state of almost complete putrefaction. The nauseous exhalations which they give off would be enough to make a white man choke, but it is not so with the Natives who do not recoil before the task of gathering them up with care.
After leaving them to drain for a while, they boil them in big cauldrons made of bark, using heated stones which they throw into it. The oil is then drawn off and preserved in bottles made of salmon skin. This oil, which they find delicious, they use to season their wild fruit, especially the Saskatoon Berry, which they collect and store each year. To a civilized palate this oil has a detestable taste.