Spring Salmon

by Skip Saunders

Red Cedar, paint, bark, abalone shell (28”Lx14”Hx9”W)


Spring Salmon - The basis of any culture is food. Food is life. In Bella Coola the basis of the food supply was fish. The river teemed with salmon, which enabled the country to support its relatively large population. Spring, sockeyes, hump-back, dog and cohoe salmon all entered the river in thousands during the spring and summer. They were taken in weirs and their flesh smoked for winter use. Throughout the year, salmon was the principle article of diet. Because of its importance, salmon pervades all aspects of Nuxalk life and culture. Like many animals in Nuxalk mythology, Salmon are immortal. In autumn the streams are choked with dead and dying salmon, but the Bella Coola know that they are not really dead, they have merely shed their worthless blankets in accordance with the Creator’s wishes. At that season of the year Atquntam causes the rivers to rise so that they will sweep away these useless and outworn cloaks.

Although the salmon, from the kindness of their hearts, allow human beings to feast on their blankets, yet they have certain likes and dislikes which are carefully observed. From the time the first salmon appear until the rising of the July moon, women are not allowed to eat them or to go near the river. Men may eat the flesh, but they carefully return the bones to the river saying: “Please come back tomorrow.”

There are other prohibitions during the salmon run. No freshly hewn planks can be set afloat. No one whose husband or wife has died within the last year can embark at the village. Most important of all, refuse of salmon must be deposited in the woods; if thrown into the river, the fish would smell it and avoid the stream.

Disregard of any of these injunctions is displeasing to the salmon and it is the duty of the River Guardian to punish the offender, irrespective of his rank. In case of slight infringements, he beats the guilty person or throws him into the river. This penalty is customary in cases of upsetting a canoe. Death is the penalty for throwing refuse into the river, particularly during the summer, and until the coming of the white man the River Guardian exacted it without hesitation. (McIlwraith)