The following piece was written by Gitxsan artist Shar Wilson, AKA Wiihlbuun, whose daughter Jaren was married to Reid Pirie on Galiano Island on June 10.
Indigenous peoples in B.C. have begun their harvest of salmon and other seafoods. July and August are busy months as we prepare to catch, catch, process, preserve and store our harvest for the coming winter months. While this all sounds like a lot of work it is also how we continue to strengthen our culture and share the teachings of our Ancestors with the next generation. Even though this is becoming less and less true, we fight to keep this practice alive.
As we prepare our gear, we share stories of our recent history with our youth. We tell them how we used to help our parents and grandparents. We tell them how hard it was “when we were young” and how much easier and better the gear has gotten over the years. I can only imagine how early the preparation had to start as our Ancestors started to make cedar ropes for the fishing weirs and dip nets. They had to carve their hooks out of bone and wood and hammer the stones for their anchors. Today, the gear preparation is as easy as going to a store. As young people, Bob and I recall helping my grandfather and our fathers by pulling the nets out of storage and remember their stories of when they were young. We are fortunate that we are able to do this with our two youngest grandsons, Lloyd and Linden.
When and where we fish has been taught to us by our Ancestors. We fish in the same areas they did, and they showed us where, when and why we put our gear in certain waters. All Coastal Indigenous people are “salmon people.” We have relied on salmon for thousands of years; we have the same relationship with cedar.
All factors are related to Mother Nature and Grandmother Moon, our Matriarchs. Tide, wind and the timing of the return of the salmon all play a huge part in our harvest time. This knowledge, once inherent for all Indigenous peoples, is now only known by a few in comparison to a short 50 years ago. With the efforts of our society, we have reinforced the transfer of this knowledge to the next generation by informing the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) of our intention to continue our practice of fishing in our territory. We have agreed to provide our members with a fishing permit issued from our office that is recognized by DFO and this permit allows our members to fish ‘as formerly’ and without hassle from DFO. It is known that Saraughtanaogh was a skilled fisher person and she fished as she was taught – this knowledge was transferred to her children. Today, our members fish in the same areas as their Ancestors. Saraughtanaogh’s descendants are strong, knowledgeable sea masters. Many of our Ancestors were fishermen, pilots and lighthouse keepers. Today, we have many fishermen and one pilot. The lighthouses are automated. We are proud to be harvesting in our territorial waters – we are strengthening our right to claim and revitalizing our culture.
People process their salmon in many ways. This is how we process our salmon. The first way is to smoke our salmon. Many of you have had Larry and Bailey’s smoked salmon and can appreciate this delicacy that we call our food. Smoking salmon is a process that was taught by our grandparents and parents. However, with the attempts to break the link of knowledge (residential schools and 1960s scoop), these lessons were not taught to many of us. Smoked salmon has been in our Indigenous families for thousands of years, so, many of us are teaching ourselves or reaching out to others to teach us how to smoke salmon. In my Gitxsan territory, the smokehouses are abundant. We are fortunate that we have one smokehouse on Galiano and it is our hope that we will have more in the near future. The second way to preserve our harvest is to air dry the thinly cut salmon until it is like a dry jerky. The third way is to soak our salmon in a salty brine. These are the Ancestral ways we preserved our salmon.
More recently (within 100 years), we have taken full advantage of the glass jars, the aluminum cans, the pressure cooker, the vacuum pacs and the freezer. We can now can/bottle and freeze our salmon. The teachings were in the preparation of the salmon, the cutting of the salmon for the various processes, how long to hang the salmon in the smoker and so on. I remember my grandmother running her fingers along the back of the salmon as she cut strips off of the salmon to make fully dried salmon strips that we call “hooxws.”
“This is how my Tsiits showed me,” she’d say. I would help her carry the strips into the smoke house and watch as she skillfully skewered them onto hand-carved skewers. My favourite days were a few days later when we would also play the part of “quality checkers” and taste the freshly smoked hooxws/salmon jerky. Indian Candy is relatively new, I didn’t have Indian Candy until I came to Galiano. I look forward to the time we can build a smokehouse on Galiano that we can use as a community smoke house. We can revitalize the culture and tradition of sharing stories as we process our salmon with the next generation.
While it seems that the storage of the harvest is the final step, it is not. The final step of this cycle is the eating of the salmon in the cold, winter months. It is around the table where more stories are shared with our relations. It is where we give thanks to Creator for the bounty from our Matriarch Mother Earth, for the knowledge of our Ancestors, and for our presence. Summer is a busy time for Indigenous peoples. It is a time for sharing, teaching, laughing and creating relationship within family, land, sea and Universe.
June 10th Wedding of Jaren and Reid Pirie
I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who helped, participated, attended and made space for our daughter Jaren’s wedding. Her ceremony was beautiful and was the first Coast Salish wedding ceremony to be performed on Galiano since the arrival of the settlers.
I want to take this time to also thank my cultural advisor, my daughter-in-law, Cecilia Wilson. She was married in a similar fashion and helped me with the ceremony. I will explain the ceremony to you.
The wedding arbour was built by the bride’s brother, Rob Wilson. It was set up to face the East to represent the new journey of the couple. The sun rises in the East and since time immemorial we have learned that Grandfather Sun will always rise in the east to give us a new day. We do not expect tomorrow but we live for the present day.
The number four is significant to Indigenous peoples. Four represents the four medicines of Cedar, Sage, Tobacco and Sweetgrass. It also represents the four colours of the human race: Red, Black, Yellow and White. Four represents the four directions of East, South, West and North. We also have four cherished main elements of Water, Fire, Air and Earth. Within us, we have four chambers in our hearts, we have four sections in our brains, and we have four parts in our bodies. You will often see four figures in art created by our Ancestors. This is why four is important to us.
Traditionally, the family Elders and Grandparents led the wedding ceremony. As this was the first time the ceremony was being performed, we chose to use family that knew the significance of the parts of the ceremony. While my father was there, he was torn about the ceremony as God was not present. He went to residential school and he was forced to fear God and the bible. However, he agreed to witness the wedding ceremony with his Ancestral blanket on. I thank him for this as his blanket represents his Ancestors.
We began the ceremony by the laying of four Cedar boughs, each had to be laid in a specific way. Cedar has been a part of Indigenous life and culture for time immemorial and we still work with it today. The next thing was the laying of the four blankets that represent our Ancestors and all the four elements mentioned above. We asked the bride’s Aunty Eva Wilson and Uncle Lindsey Wilson to walk the couple onto the blanket from the East. Once they were on the blanket, a Cedar crown was placed on the groom’s head. One would have been placed on the bride’s head but Jaren chose to have her Cedar crown woven in with her hair. The Cedar crowns represented the union of thoughts for the couple. Each have their own minds but as a couple joined in the eyes of our Ancestors, they must now have joined thoughts that will bring them through their life together in a strengthened and unified way.
Secondly, a cedar rope, woven by me, Mother of the Bride, was placed around the couple. The rope signifies the encircling of the couple by tying the Cedar and making them as one. The joining of the rope was very significant to me as I learned a lot by weaving the rope. The rope and Jaren’s Cedar crown was made with Cedar from our Gitxsan territory. As I was weaving the rope that morning, I marvelled at the beauty and strength of the Cedar. I also thought about our Ancestors and how they used Cedar in every aspect of their lives, including clothing, shelter, harvesting and adorning their lives. I was also able to see weak spots coming up so I weaved in extra Cedar for those times.
“Ooh, I see!” I exclaimed as the lessons came to me from Ancestors. I was able to make the rope as long as I wanted as I had prepared enough Cedar to keep going. “Ooh, I see!” At a few points I lost my focus and the rope began to unravel. I had inadvertently changed the direction of my weaving, having one of the two strands going one way while the other maintained the course. I had to go back to the point where everything was right and begin again. “Ooh, I see!” The final weave was the biggest test of the rope and for me. I had to let it go. I had to see if the rope would stay wound up and it did. “Ooh, I see.” So many lessons from weaving this Cedar rope for my daughter’s wedding.
The next thing that happened was a blanket was placed around my daughter, Jaren, and her new husband, Reid. The blanket represents all her Ancestors and all of those present. As they stood on the four Cedar boughs, the four blankets, I asked them to acknowledge the faces of everyone there and know that everyone had made space for them in that moment. Those beautiful humans who were present are represented by the additional Cedar in the rope that was used to strengthen the weak spots. So, while they are two, they are not alone, they are strengthened by all of those present. Finally, Aunty Eva and Uncle Lindsey were once again asked to take the hands of the couple and walk them off of the Cedar boughs and blankets to their future. They begin their journey as one.
The first part of the ceremony was all related and as noted by one of Reid’s family the second part of the ceremony in comparison to the first part seemed detached. To him, the second part was very rigid in the words – “will you,” “do you,” “I now take you,” “now we must sign the paper.” I agreed with him. There will be another Coast Salish wedding ceremony on Galiano, and when that does happen, maybe we will not need the rigidity of the signing of papers and our ceremony will be enough.
My husband Bob and I want to thank you all again. We also want to acknowledge our Ancestors and all the fours in our lives. We are in our busy time now, so stay safe, be present always. As my grandmother taught me, “Walk softly, be aware, be careful, be mindful.” Hamiyaa! **Hands raised.**