The Salt Water People

Originally published in the Island Tides on August 24, 2016

In my last article (August 11, 2016) I introduced the SX̱OLE (reef net) fishing technology used by the W̱SÁNEĆ (Saanich) people in the Salish Sea. The brilliance and beauty of the SX̱OLE was an integral part of the relationship the W̱SÁNEĆ had with rhythms of the land, the sea and flora and fauna of their territory.

My Great-Uncle David Elliott Sr. describes the relationship in The Salt Water People, “We (the Saanich People) were salt water people. We lived on islands and water and so that made us fishermen, sailors, navigators, boat builders, travellers and workers of the sea. Our people had a wonderful, beautiful way of life.”

“Towards mid-summer,” Dave Elliott writes, “was the time of year called ĆENHENEN. The humpback arrived. They were the most plentiful of the all salmon, they came by the thousands… you’d look across the bay or across the straits and there were so many jumping at the same time it looked like they were suspended in mid-air… You wouldn’t believe it today. Today there are no salmon compared to the way it used to be. I saw that as a boy.”

In a paper titled To Fish as Formerly: The Douglas Treaties and the Saanich Reef Net Fisheries, Dr. Nick Claxton from SŦÁUTW̱ (Tsawout) wrote further about the relationship between the W̱SÁNEĆ and the salmon.

“It was believed that the runs of salmon were lineages, and if some were allowed to return to their home rivers, then those lineages would always continue. The Saanich peoples believed that all living things were once people, and they were respected as such. The salmon were their relatives. All things on earth were to be respected since it is the earth that we all share. This was a teaching of the Saanich.”

This belief was put into practice generation after generation. Each new reef net captain followed the teaching in order to ensure that their children’s children would benefit from the riches of the W̱SÁNEĆ territory.

For more than a century these laws of nature that guided the Saanich salmon harvest have been trivialized by western thinking. As if indigenous people were anthropomorphizing the fish, “modern” people have seen these ideas as quaint and backward. But we are now experiencing the loss of the salmon to such a degree that we can no longer dismiss the W̱SÁNEĆ approach. In just two generations the sustainable harvest of Pacific salmon is gone and they are no longer filling the rivers, lakes, streams and seas of British Columbia.

“Respect for the salmon,” Claxton explains, “was integral to the Saanich worldview, and it ensured that the salmon return to the rivers in perpetuity. There was also a completely different way of thinking about fish and fishing, which included a profound respect. At the end of the net, a ring of willow was woven into the net, which allowed some salmon to escape. This is more than just a simple act of conservation, but it represents a profound respect for salmon.”

It sounds too simple—a net designed to catch the salmon at the same time as it ensures that enough get away to guarantee a healthy harvest for another year. But it worked and if we embrace its basic principle it can work again.

The loss of the wild Pacific salmon does not have to be the end of the story. We are the authors of the next chapter. It’s time to embrace a new relationship with the ecosystems that sustain us. It’s time to demand that all levels of government make protecting and enriching the environment and biodiversity a top priority in their decision-making process.

Adam Olsen

Stellys Cross Road, Brentwood Bay, BC, V8M 1J7