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

tʼɩšosəm and Herring

Like when the herring came in – it used to be around February and March, people are watching and ready and going down to the beach and really looking for – “Is it out there?” The seagulls are out, so that means they’re here. And the word would get around. People are all hyped up and visiting back and forth and down the beach and it’s almost like you’re welcoming them: “Thank you for coming!” you know, “Come on in!” And everybody just gets really busy and gets to work at going out and getting the herring. One time my uncle and I went out on this big canoe we had. And it was so plentiful! And we’re just scooping it out of the water with a scoop net? And we overfilled the boat – or what should’ve been its capacity, I guess, we exceeded. It was so much fun. But it was dark. It got dark and there were so many boats out there already and some were just getting ready to go out – we were heading back towards the shore. And I could feel the water coming up to my knees in the boat. I said, “We’re sinkin’! We’re going down!” [laughs] And my uncle was sayin’ to me, “Don’t you scream! You’re going to attract attention.” [laughs] He was embarrassed! And we had just gotten close to the beach where there was – probably was about three feet of water, and we’re lucky it didn’t happen way out there where it’s deep. We were just heading in and we didn’t quite make it, but we sunk and all the herring floated out of the boat and they’re pretty much, I guess, dead, or stunned from being, you know, in the boat like this, and people were going by in a canoe and it was very dark. “Look! Look at all the herring!” Like, they started to drift out? “Look at all the herring! They’re dead. They’re floating!” And we’re going, “Oh.” Being real quiet. [laughs hard] We got little too greedy. Oh gosh. That’s what happens when you get greedy and you don’t think about what you’re doing.

“It’s like toasting marshmallows or wieners over an open fire – with a stick. And when it’s toasted, it’s really tasty, and then you rip it open then take out the backbone.”

Well, once you got the herring to shore you would just dry it whole. When you take the guts out of it, the flesh, it’s not as tender once it’s dried. So it seems to help to leave the insides in and then dry it. The process is you thread it through the gill and out the mouth so they’re all hanging on a piece of, um, wood, if you will. And they’re about, maybe, four feet in length. So you maybe have, twenty, thirty herring hangin’. And then you just hang it in the smokehouse and you have a low fire going to smoke it dry. Or you could hang it out, if it’s a sunny day – you take them out and you air-dry them. But that time of the year, usually, it’s not very dry so you pretty much kept it in the smokehouse. And had a little fire going. And it becomes really dry, and then you store it away, in a dry place. So when it’s time to eat it, you toast it over an open fire. It’s like toasting marshmallows or wieners over an open fire – with a stick. And when it’s toasted, it’s really tasty, and then you rip it open then take out the backbone. So, it’s quite tasty – you know, toasted smoke-flavoured. And I haven’t done that in a long time, but we used to do it a lot.

“tʼɩšosəm” is another name of this place. It got called that because out here in the bay in front of the community, all the way to Scuttle Bay, when there used to be a herring spawn, every springtime, maybe ’round ending of February, March, we used to get the herring come in. And that was one of the foods that people used a lot of here, the herring and the herring eggs. The herring spawn. And this whole area would be just white. It’s tʼɩšosəm – the water is “milky.” That’s why people started calling this place “tʼɩšosəm.” Because of that. And we would go out and put cedar boughs in the water, around that time. People would start gathering their stuff and getting everything ready for – “We’re gonna get spawn pretty soon.” And so they knew where to go and grab the cedar right away – cedar branches, boughs. And they would just string out, tie the cedar boughs on it and anchor the top ends – anchored both ends of the string out there so that it’s floating. It would have buoys on there, so it’s kept up, away from the bottom of the ocean. So that it’s not picking up the sand. So it’s dangling in the water. The tip is down – the tip of the tree. Then the trees could be, like, four feet to six feet in height, like little Christmas trees? Then the herring will spawn on those branches. And then by the time they’ve spawned for a couple of days – you’re lucky if you get a couple of days of good spawn – then you’ll have fairly thick eggs on them. Or, might be even three days, maybe two to three days, and it will be quite thick. So then you pull it all in and pack it up and you drape it over your racks and to dry. You would probably have to have a tarp over it to keep it from the rain. And every day you gotta go and turn it and make sure you’re moving it about, otherwise it gets sour. So you have to tend to it and it’s a lot of work. It takes a long time. It takes maybe couple weeks or so if you have good breeze and it’s under shelter – but it takes a lot of work and time for you because you really have to look after it.

“You can put it into your cooking and it takes on the flavours of your other cooking ... although, you know, I’ll eat it on its own.”

Once it’s dried, it’s very, very dry. And you can store it – it’ll keep for a long, long time in the dry form still on the cedar boughs, or spruce boughs. It’s kind of tasteless. When you make soup, you can make fish soup and when your soup is just about ready you can throw in a handful, and it’s crunchy. And so, it’s the flavour of the fish that is going to give that a flavour, right? You can put it into your cooking and it takes on the flavours of your other cooking ... although, you know, I’ll eat it on its own. To remove the fish eggs from the branches, you peel it. Yeah, so the thicker it is, the easier it is to peel. It’s like peeling an orange. There was always more than enough that you could go out and get the whole herring to dry as well.

“I’ve got some herring eggs here! You want some? Come and get it!”

Yeah, so that was food that we dried and used some of it for trade to other communities, like to Cape Mudge people and Campbell River, Comox. They really liked our style of herring and eggs. So we’d go over there and they would trade us for what other foods they had too – barter system. Now we don’t get herring anymore. It’s all cleaned out. Several years ago, they opened seine fishing in this area. This whole area was lit up front of the village from Sliammon to Scuttle Bay and towards Powell River, over to Harwood. There was all kinds of seine boats out there. And they scooped the herring. We never did get herring after that. The fisheries are saying it was not from that. That’s got nothing to do with the herring not coming back to our area. It doesn’t make sense, but … we can’t prove it was for that reason. But it happened from then on. You might see a little bit now and then, just the water starting to get milky, and then it’s gone. It’s nothing like it used to be.

But how some people from the North do it, like from Bella Bella, they use kelp, the wide kelp. And the herring will spawn on the kelp. So they take it kelp and all and they salt it. Then you can pull it out of the salt – the brine – and you wash the salt away, running it through the fresh water. And you can eat it with the kelp. You just cut it in little squares and you can stir-fry it – with garlic it’s great! You can also peel it from the seaweed. If you don’t want to eat the seaweed, you can peel it from the seaweed. Yeah. I got a little bit of it left that was given to me, a friend of Leslie Adams brings him some every year and then he shares it with the Elders: “I’ve got some herring eggs here! You want some? Come and get it!” [laughs] So he’s one of the people that still loves the traditional foods that way and he shares it with us. Yeah, one time he dried herring. And he’s got this, like a big verandah – porch. And that’s where he hung his strings of herring. ’Cause it’s sheltered and there’s nice breeze through there. Well they were pretty much all dry and the neighbour’s little boy seen it. And there’s a tub of water, so the little boy decided to come and play with the herring. Pulled them down and put them in the water. He had a tub full of dried herring! [laughs]

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