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Every day is a prayer: Tsilhqot’in community prays for return of salmon

Situated along both sides of the Fraser River, ?Esdilagh has been impacted by low salmon numbers
With salmon returns at an all time low, ?Esdilagh First Nation Chief Roy Stump said more members are resorting to fishing on nearby lakes. In the winter some are even taking up ice fishing—something Stump said he has not seen before. (Rebecca Dyok photo)

?Esdilagh First Nation Chief Roy Stump remembers the last time he caught and harvested a salmon.

It was before the wildfires that devastated the Cariboo-Chilcotin region in 2017.

“We need to help them back from the ocean all the way to the spawning grounds,” he said at his community located along the Fraser River at Alexandria following their first water ceremony for the salmon on Sept. 2.

“This year there’s nothing, it’s the worst I’ve seen it.”

Before lining up one by one by the water, the Tsilhqot’in Nation members watched Cecil Grinder of Tl’etinqox (Anaham) demonstrate the ceremony at their traditional fishing grounds with twins Justin and Winston Bambrick through a jar of water collected from the Taseko River.

“This water here I pray to it, just like I’m going to get you here to do,” Grinder said.

“We need all your help, your prayers. The more people that pray and do all these ceremonies get stronger and stronger.”

Revered by Tsilhqot’in elders and ancestors, the twins are believed to be powerful for not just spiritual ceremonies but animals and anything that affects their way of life.

Read More: Tsilhqot’in Nation demands meeting with feds on declining Fraser River chinook stocks

“Everyday I’ve been doing a little prayer hoping that in future years the numbers come back higher,” Winston said of the salmon.

“I think the next two, three years are going to be very crucial and if nothing is done right away then I think it could be pretty detrimental, but we’ll wait and see.”

“We’ll hope for the best,” Justin added.

After dipping their hands in the Fraser River, members put it to their foreheads.

“It goes right through my body, and that’s what’s healing,” Grinder said, recalling how he mistakenly believed as a child it was swimming his grandparents and mother took him down to the river for.

He said he had not realized until he was older it was to purify their bodies through the water.

“Like smudging and praying and doing this water ceremony there’s no wrong way to do it,” he added.

Also helping to pray for the salmon were Tl’esqox (Toosey) Chief Francis Laceese and his son Peyal, who noted there are many Tsilhqot’in legends and songs specifically dedicated to salmon that are a vital source of food, culture and tradition.

“This is a big hardship for not only the food source but to practise that culture and lifestyle is missing in order to teach the young ones,” Laceese said of their salmon fisheries that have been now closed for a second year by the Tsilhqot’in National Government.

Read More: Northern Secwepemc te Qelmucw chiefs purchase salmon from Skeena River

Once the water ceremony ended, members made the short drive back to the Ts’utanchuy Hummingbird Centre (youth/elder centre) for an outdoor barbecue of not salmon but steaks and beef burgers.

“I pray even more since 2017,” Stump said, adding he also prays for the land and other animals including moose. “Since then all my people are doing that more.”

A full closure of the sockeye and chinook fisheries in Tsilhqot’in territory was declared by the Tsilhqot’in Council of Chiefs in mid-August. This year’s Fraser River salmon sockeye run is expected to be the worst ever recorded.

Stump said they hope to hold such a water ceremony for the salmon each year now in late August.

“We have to help the salmon somehow by ceremonies, and it’s a powerful way,” he said, noting members are taking up lake fishing and even ice-fishing as they are left to rely on other First Nations — namely on B.C’s Coast and along the Skeena River to share their harvest of salmon with them.

“Our ancestors used to do that so we’re just keeping the tradition going and that’s a way we’re trying to get the fish back.”

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Twins Justin and Winston Bambrick, 32, of Tl’etinqox (Anaham) participate in a salmon ceremony at ?Esdilagh (Alexandria) earlier this month. Tsilhqot’in elders believe twins hold power and strength. (Rebecca Dyok photo)
Members of the Tsilhqot’in Nation gathered at the Fraser River near ?Esdilagh to honour their ancestors and pray for the salmon during a traditional water ceremony held Sept. 2. (Rebecca Dyok photo)