In the Station House’s Upper Gallery from Feb. 7 until March 21 one local Shuswap woman is inviting the community to learn about a disappearing local custom with Documenting A Traditional Shuswap Activity; Smoking Salmon for Winter Food.
One need only spend a few minutes researching the history of the local Shuswap or Secwepemc Nation to realize the great importance the salmon plays in both their culture and way of life. To this day, the salmon run is still celebrated each year in Horsefly and any disruption to the salmon’s life cycle is closely monitored by local leaders. The most recent and dramatic example of this was the Big Bar Slide, which prompted co-operation and responses from local, provincial and federal leaders to minimize the impact of this event.
It was partly the subsequent moratorium on salmon fishing that prompted local elder Helen Sandy to put together a show on a cultural touchstone she’s seen fade away over the last 20 years. A member of the Williams Lake Indian Band, Sandy said the exhibit is a culmination of work she’s been doing with documenting the traditions surrounding the catching, dressing and ultimate smoking of salmon since 1996, almost a quarter of a century ago.
“I grew up helping my mother in the smokehouse and that was keeping the fire going and turning the salmon, so I never really learned how to cut salmon. In 1996 though I was invited out to Farwell Canyon to the fish camp out there and I was taught how to cut fish Lillooet-style,” Sandy said. “That year I got 250 smoked salmon and last year I didn’t get any salmon.”
Sandy feels that this fact especially drives home the reason why she felt the need to produce this exhibit for the Station House. As such, she began looking through the 24 years worth of pictures she’d captured of the smoking process and created a visual story with them.
When she first began cutting fish, back in 1996, Sandy said the work was hard as she’d never learned to cut the fish Lillooet-style but instead had learned newspaper-style from her mother. Newspaper style is a slower technique that involves letting the fish sit for a while by hanging it up by the tails in the smokehouse. Sandy jokes she and her siblings were her mother’s “little slaves” and were constantly turning hundreds of salmon for her.
When asked what the main differences between the two styles are, Sandy enthusiastically showed the Tribune around her exhibit picture by picture. They begin, she said, by catching the fish, gutting and cutting its head off and leaving them in little pools of water created with rings of rocks to clean them out.
With this done, Lillooet-style calls for them to start cutting the fish from the neck down the spine to the tail on both sides before breaking out the spine, which is then given to someone to scrape meat from the bone for salmon patties. Sandy said that when you cut the fish that way it’s quite thick, meaning she has to remove fillets at times leading to an almost jagged pattern. Out of one salmon, Sandy said she’d typically get four fillets or strips.
Newspaper-style, meanwhile, is a different technique that leaves the spine and belly of the fish attached so it hangs open, similar to a paper. Sandy has visual examples of both styles in her show.
That being said, Sandy said that each woman who cuts the fish at the camp has their own style and way of doing things which makes it a unique practice to document.
The first time she was out at Farwell Canyon, Sandy can still remember cutting her first salmon and how big it was. She recalls the other fish cutters watching her as she cleaned off the slime, scraped off the scales and accidentally dropped it into the river “about four times” and then haul it to her smokehouse, which she dropped a few more times along the way.
“It was really difficult to clean. All the fish cutters and fisherman, they brought out their cigarettes, their coffee, their chairs and they just sat there and watched me do this and they just had a hell of a good time with it,” Sandy recalled with a smile. “I took a picture of it after I finished it and I called it ‘Salmon Lillooet Style’.”
That photo went on to get regional and provincial attention as it was entered into the B.C. Festival of Arts in Fort St. John which was “an experience and a half” Sandy said. Some people have even mistaken her photos for paintings in the past which is quite cool to her.
Despite her love for catching and smoking her own salmon, Sandy feels that it is fast becoming a dying tradition locally. When she was growing up, for example, she said on the reserve they had around 30 houses, 20 of which had a smokehouse out back while today they have closer to 300 houses and only five or 10 have smokehouses.
“In other words, I say it’s a dying tradition and I’d like to document it,” Sandy said. “There are not many people who actually do this work anymore. It’s not something that’s being passed down.”
Passing it on is important to her and as she wryly observed she’s not going to live that long so she may as well start passing it on earnestly now. She’s hoping her people will see this exhibit and be inspired to take up the tradition in force once more and put their own smokehouses in their backyards. For non-native members of the community, she hopes this exhibit will show them how much work goes into catching and curing salmon the traditional way and the beauty of the process.