by Peggy Olive
Mahan Hall on Salt Spring Island was standing room only for the Coast Salish Culture Day this past Sunday, February 21st. The large turnout, including dozens of captivated children, was a welcome surprise for organizer, Joe Akerman, and the local First Nations band members who attended and performed for each other and island residents. We were warmed by horsetail, nettle, and mint tea and by the energetic dancing and drumming of the Cowichan Tzinquaw dancers. Hul’qumi’num and Sencoten elders recounted stories and told of the changes that had occurred in their traditional territories and in their lifestyles in less than one generation. “We used to harvest clams and oysters, put up our tents on this island, and make clam patties. The land looked after us. We were a wealthy people.”
This memory of digging for clams in the 1940s brought forth an elder story about five clams sitting in the forest on a log. When a blue jay flew over, the clams told him that the other jays were saying that his feathers were dull. The blue jay went back to the other jays and complained to them. A bear came by the log, and the clams told him the other bears did not think much of him. That bear went back to the other bears and began to argue with them. Soon all the animals were arguing until they noticed that the clams were laughing and not fighting with each other. When they realized what had happened, the animals took all the clams to the beach and buried them in a deep hole in the sand so that when they spoke, their mouths would become filled with sand. When you hear clams bubble under the sand, they are talking about you.
We heard about reef net fishing, or sxwalu, a sustainable way of harvesting salmon that was once common practice among the Coastal Salish bands and which distinguished them as a people. In 1915, reef net fishing was outlawed in Canada. Now, for the first time in 100 years and with support of the Lummi nation in the San Juan Islands, reef nets were constructed and used at a traditional fishing site near Pender Island. Unfortunately, thanks to our warmer weather, the fish took a different route in 2015, away from the stationary reef nets. Nick Claxton who leads this effort, provided a model and description of the practice along with a full-scale reef net spread over the adjacent school playing field. An important distinction was made about this practice: “This is not about who we were but who we are.”
The day was rounded out with a salmon and bannock traditional lunch, a cedar weaving workshop, a talk on aboriginal resurgence, and music by Wesley Hardisty. We were promised a larger venue next year.