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Nuxalk celebrate long-awaited return of eulachon in Bella Coola

There hasn’t been this big of a run in the last 10 years
Wilfred Tallio stirs a heavy wooden box of cooking oolachans, at Bella Coola, part of the process to remove the oil from the pungent little candlefish. Once a staple food of coastal tribes, the grease rendered from the billons of little fish which spawn this time of year was traded with Interior tribes, and transported along ‘grease trails.” (Barb Pedersen photo, Williams Lake Tribune, May 1, 1975)

With excitement in her voice, Iris Siwallace said it was great to see Sputc (eulachon) in the Bella Coola River this year.

Siwallace works with Nuxalk ancestral governance for the nation’s stewardship office and said since the mid-1990s the run has dwindled severely.

So when she and 100s of other people gathered for the 10th annual Sputc ceremony on Tuesday, April 9 at the mouth of the Bella Coola River in an area called Q’umk’uts, which is a hereditary village site, it was very celebratory.

“It was good to see the Sputc coming back in quantities,” she told Coast Mountain News. “There were not enough to harvest, but we have not seen this big of a run in the last 10 years.”

Her grandmother, the late Nunanta (Amanda) Siwallace, had said in four years, if the community did the ceremonies, they would reawaken the spirit of the ceremony for the Sputc.

“We’ve never had them run much when we started in 2018, but after four years there was a run, although it was not as big as 2024,” she said. “We feel by doing this work it is a reminder to our community, youth and our children about the importance of ceremony and the eulachon.”

As Nuxalk they believe from birth they are connected to the water and the land.

Ceremonies are held from birth to adulthood and into leaderships roles.

“We are only caretakers, we don’t own any land or water,” she said. “We are reminded as people, as Nuxalkmc, our duty is to protect our land and waters for those who are not even born. This Sputc ceremony is also helping us bring back what we once lost.”

She blamed the legalization of shrimp trawling as a contributor to the eulachon decline.

When she and other leaders started working on revitalizing the Sputc, their research revealed the importance of ceremonies.

“It would be like a new year celebration,” Siwallace explained of the Sputc ceremony. “If you have ever heard of Hobiyee the Nisga’a have for their new year it’s similar, but ours is focused on the Sputc. It is the start of the new year to us in a sense, it’s about bringing us wealth and a year of good harvesting.”

Holding ceremonies is a reminder of the importance of eulachon because when they lost them in the 1990s, they also lost a lot of elders and people who relied on the fish for their health.

Many used it as medicine for diabetes.

Students from the area’s four schools and Nuxalk College, as well as community members on and off-reserve attended the ceremony.

“It was opened up to the whole community and when word got around that the river was full of eulachon the Ulkatcho First Nation wanted to celebrate with us. We had guests from Ulkatcho here so it was really amazing and a great celebration.”

Next year the ceremony will be held the week of March 15 and forever more, Siwallace noted, adding it will be fitting because in the Nuxalk calendar that is the time to celebrate a new harvesting year.

This year it was delayed because it took some time for the cedar weavers to create a new cape and apron for the totem pole at the site and because of influenza and COVID hitting the community so badly in February and March.

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Oolachans dry on a rack on the back of Percy Mack’s pickup. (Barb Petersen photo Williams Lake Tribune, May 1, 1975)
Barb Schooner and Melanie Schooner weave a cedar robe for the Sputc ceremony in 2024. (Photo submitted)
Margaret Siwallace and Lydia Schooner standing on the banks of the Bella Coola River, say the annual oolichan run should begin soon. “The oolichans will come with high tide.. this week.” (Barb Pedersen photo, Williams Lake Tribune, May 1, 1975)

Monica Lamb-Yorski

About the Author: Monica Lamb-Yorski

A B.C. gal, I was born in Alert Bay, raised in Nelson, graduated from the University of Winnipeg, and wrote my first-ever article for the Prince Rupert Daily News.
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