Herring roe harvest returns to Howe Sound!

April 15, 2019
Tracey Saxby

Charlene Joseph shows students a hemlock bough covered in herring roe
Charlene Joseph shows students a hemlock bough covered in herring roe.

For the first time in about a century the Squamish Nation have harvested Herring Roe, Ch’em’esh, from Howe Sound.

Why has it been so long?
The Howe sound has been decimated by the cumulative effects of industrialization over the past hundred years, some of the worst culprits being debris and runoff from the Britannia Mine, the Woodfibre Pulp Mill, the Nexen Chlor-Alkali Plant and impacts from logging. For approximately three generations the Herring have come only in small numbers, if they came to our waters at all. This industrial pollution made it unsafe for our people to harvest the seafood that once sustained our ancestors. We were thus unable to harvest from our own waters, and prohibited from accessing the ancient trade economy we had with our neighbors. Canadian law forbid us to freely leave reserves and forced children into residential schools, and prohibited many fishing, harvesting and other cultural practices. The combination of these factors led to a loss of knowledge in our community. But thanks to the rehabilitation efforts of amazing groups such as the Squamish River Watershed Society, Alt’kitsem - Howe Sound - is in a period of rejuvenation and with it so is our Culture.

Herring roe
Herring roe on hemlock boughs.

Getting Ready
This initiative began with an invite from the Squamish Nation elders to our new Program of Choice school in district #48, Cultural Journeys, to work together to harvest Herring Roe. As the Culture and Language Worker for the school, I extended the invite to our staff and one of our teachers, Matthew Voost, eagerly jumped at the opportunity. The two of us knew very little about what this project would require. So it was time to do some research. Elders were consulted, and fortunately one of our elders had experience harvesting in northern waters and was able to share some knowledge. Books that detailed the history of herring fishing by the Squamish Nation were consulted and other First Nations Groups generously shared their expertise. Armed with this new knowledge, we set about teaching our students. They learned about the Life Cycle of the herring, their importance in the ecosystem, and the Skwxwu7mesh Traditional Ecological Knowledge that was used to harvest the Herring Roe. Our students then set out to collect the hemlock boughs that were used in the harvest.

Reviving cultural practices with help from the elders.
Reviving cultural practices with help from the elders.

Sinking the Boughs
A week before the harvest we gathered at the ocean front. We began by singing a song of gratitude to start our work in a good way. The students and elders worked together tying the hemlock boughs to large maple poles and to rocks to anchor them. Once completed, the mechanism was carried by elders, students and community members to the dock while traditional songs were sung to honor the occasion. The hemlock boughs were sunk into the ocean with cheers from the students and we set off to wait out the week, hoping our hard work would pay off.

Hemlock boughs were sunk to collect herring roe
Hemlock boughs were sunk in the ocean to collect herring roe.

Harvest Day
The following week, we gathered for the pulling up of the hemlock boughs. We began in circle where again we shared a song of gratitude, and elders and respected community members shared words about the importance of the day and the great privilege that we were about to experience. The boughs were pulled closer to shore where eager students waited to carry them up on shore and hang from nearby trees. All the while, songs of celebration were being sung in honor of the occasion. The harvest had been successful and the excitement was palpable. We feasted on the Roe straight away, and everyone wanted pictures with the fruits of their labor. The Ch’em’esh - Herring Roe - was brought to the school, where the Cultural Journeys students washed and prepared them for future use, and fresh Roe was brought to the homes of the elders to enjoy. This was truly a momentous occasion.

Students look at herring roe under a microscope
Students look at herring roe under a microscope.

Why is this so important to our Community?
In order to understand the importance of Herring to our Nation you need only know the Skwxwu7mesh word for March: Temlhawt, which translates as Herring Time. The Herring and their eggs were an integral part of our traditional diet. The return of the Herring brings the strengthening of our connection to Alt’kitsem, now known as Howe Sound. With the return of the Herring brings the return of our relatives the Porpoises, the Orcas and Whales. The rejuvenation and rehabilitation of the Sound brings with it a rejuvenation of our Culture and Ancient Teachings. When our youth get to experience connecting with the herring in this way it gives them an understanding and appreciation not only for the herring but for the waters and ecosystems from which they come. They, like our ancestors, now have a deep connection to this place. This is an appreciation that far outweighs any that they would get from simply reading about Herring. These youth and community members are a part of history in the making. As our Skwxwu7mesh language teacher said, “Chen kwen mantumiyap, an ha7lh ten skwalwen. Na m’i kanatsut ta slhawt ey ta ch’em’esh. I am thankful and it is very good in my heart that the Herring have returned with the Herring Eggs.”

Students prepare herring roe to gift to Squamish Nation elders.
Students prepare herring roe to gift to Squamish Nation elders.

Where to from here?
This experience highlights the importance of rehabilitating our lands and waters, and shows how resilient our Mother Earth is. We have made strides forward toward a healthier environment and in doing so enhanced our culture and community connections. In a time when there are so many instances of detriment to our sacred Mother, this rejuvenation can give us hope. It’s so important to recognize and support those that are working so hard to protect and restore ecosystems, such as organizations like the Squamish River Watershed Society. I am so thankful to have met some of these heroes on my learning journey. In the words of Margret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”


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