Tsqwlentém t̓e Ck̓uĺtens: Calling the salmon home

On Sept. 30, participants gathered at the Salute to the Sockeye ceremony. The Wren spoke to attendees about what the run means to them.
A group of attendees walks through a forested path, many wearing orange shirts to mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
At Tsútswecw Provincial Park, people of all ages and backgrounds walk the forested paths together during the Salute to the Sockeye. Photo by Lyssa Martin/The Wren

The gathered crowd of hundreds thins into a line as we flow into the forest, drawn forward by the echoes of drumming and singing ahead. Quiet conversations are drowned out by the accompanying chorus of birds. The purifying scent of pine cleanses us as we pass from a space dominated by humans to one dominated by nature. 

It is a clear day at Tsútswecw (pronounced like chew-chweck) Provincial Park. This Secwepemctsín name roughly means “many rivers,” referring to the many braided channels that compose the Lower Adams River. 

The day, Sept. 30, 2022, is auspicious. Not only is it the second-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, but it’s also the first day of Salute to the Sockeye, a modern evolution of a tradition stretching back since time immemorial. Both observances were born here in Secwepemcul’ecw

As we pass from the trails to the bright pebble beach, we’re asked to turn our cameras and phones off for the ceremony. 

More gatherers can be seen on the river's pebble beach, most wearing orange. At the front of the crowd, different flags are held up.
As the ceremony concludes, visitors begin to disperse. Photo by Sean Hoas

Despite optimistic early estimates, the 2022 Fraser River sockeye return — of which the Adams river sockeye are a part — has been disappointing. In a move lauded by conservationists, Canada has kept the commercial fisheries that target these fish closed, instead offering a buyback program for licenses and equipment. 

After the Salute to the Sockeye ceremony, I approached some of the gathered community members to learn why they chose to attend.

Individuals and families walk between streams on the Lower Adams River pebble beach.
Young and old alike search for spawners who have arrived early at the Lower Adams River. Photo by Lyssa Martin/The Wren
Christy Wright, wearing orange, stands in front of the river. Next to her is a sign with information about sockeye salmon, their contribution to the river and their cycle of life.
Biologist Christine Wright explains how nitrogen and phosphorus released from the decaying spawners fertilize the forests around salmon streams. Photo by Sean Hoas.

Christine Wright

Christine Wright, who joined the Adams River Salmon Society in 2018, is the organization’s education coordinator and a salmon interpretive guide. She says being able to watch the salmon fight their way upstream is invigorating. 

“Every year in the fall you can come and see salmon here — [2022] just happens to be a dominant year for the Sockeye,” she explains, adding runs in dominant years can have a thousand times as many fish as non-dominant years. 

“It is not only Sockeye, but Chinook and Coho that return annually,” she says, explaining Pink salmon only “run” in odd years.

“I hope today’s visitors come away with appreciation of the natural world, and how sensitive it is,” she says. “These significant events happen in the natural world all the time, every day.” 

Wright adds Tsútswecw is a great park to come for a walk at any time, especially with kids. “Just stop and look at the ground and you never know what you might see,” she says. 

A small grey mouse sits amidst the twigs and leaves on the ground.
Adams River Salmon Society guide Christy Wright says salmon aren’t the only animals worth seeing in the area. As we spoke, a mouse popped out of the underbrush and ran alongside us on the trail. Photo by Sean Hoas.

One of the focuses of the Adams River Salmon Society is its conservation education programs. The society hosts field trips for school groups, and thanks to generous donations it’s able to provide those field trips for free. 

“During the Salute to the Sockeye, things get busy,” Wright says, adding classes that miss it should still come in the spring and next fall. “We can do aquatic invertebrates, we can do salmon life cycles, we can explore the riparian forests… Oh, yeah, there’s lots of cool stuff.”

Secwépemc Elder and Knowledge Keeper Gerry Thomas stands under a tent next to a table with woven baskets on it.
Secwépemc Elder and Knowledge Keeper Gerry Thomas stands under the Secwépemc cultural tent on Sept. 30. Photo by Sean Hoas.

Gerry Thomas

At the Secwépemc cultural tent, I meet Neskonlith Elder and Knowledge Keeper Gerry Thomas to chat about salmon and the underappreciated art of basketry.

“I learned a lot of stuff through my mom, Dr. Mary Thomas, and my grandmother, Christina,” he says. “So I’ve taken on a lot of the leadership role of talking about and doing the basket and medicine making with my mom.”

“To make baskets you have to know the time of the year to get the birch,” he says. There’s only a short window between the end of June to the middle of July when the bark can be harvested. 

Because taking care of the tree is vital, “you only cut down to about three feet,” he says. That way “you give the tree some medicine for the bottom, to keep it warm and growing.” 

Storage for the bark is key to quality baskets: it must be stored standing up in a cool place, since leaving the bark laying down causes it to crack. Smaller baskets can be made of many other materials too, including Ponderosa Pine needles, Cedar roots and Cherry bark, or by mixing these to create eye-catching designs.

“The best time to make baskets is in winter when you have downtime,” Thomas says. “But there’s the odd time you’re making an urn or a gift at other times in the year.” 

The baskets themselves are very durable, as is the tradition of making them. He says not too long ago, 32 birch baskets with ashes in them were found near Pritchard and they turned out to be over 8,000 years old.

A selection of traditional Secwépemc baskets in different shapes and colours sits on a striped blanket.
A selection of traditional Secwépemc baskets. Photo by Lyssa Martin/The Wren

“The salmon are always good to eat,” Thomas says, as the discussion inevitably moves to the fish we’re all here to celebrate. He spells out the salmon letter-by-letter to me with a teaching.

“The letter S is for ‘saving the people,’ the A is ‘always work together,’ then the L is ‘live together with each other,” he says. “The M is always the ‘mother’ who was the one that provided us with the salmon, and the O is always the ‘ocean’ where they grow themselves [before they] come back home and the N is always for mother ‘nature.’” 

“And that’s the way we see it.”

Lyssa Martin and Gerry Thomas stand together. Lyssa Martin poses with a bear pelt on. The bear's head rests on top of her head, and the fur of its arms wraps around her arms, like she's wearing it.
Elder Gerry Thomas helps visitors — including reporter Lyssa Martin — don pelts to experience the world from the perspective of our animal cousins. Photo by Sean Hoas

When the salmon nurture the landscape, they don’t do it alone. Other animals help distribute the nutrients into the ecosystem. 

For example, Thomas says “bear will take the salmon out of the water and bring it to shore. Whatever [creatures] are so small that they can’t get in that fast water — like ants, snakes or mice — bear will take it out and give them some pieces. Then that salve that comes off the Salmon, he’s rubbing it on Mother Earth and nurturing the ground.” That’s how the tiny animals and the microorganisms get fed too. 

Chef Steven Teed stands in front of the Kamloops Food Policy Council food truck, where guests are ordering something to eat.
Chef Steven Teed takes a break from cooking for a quick chat. Photo by Sean Hoas

Steven Teed

Following some delicious smells to the food stalls, I find Steven Teed, a chef, former band councillor, father and Adams Lake Indian Band community member. 

“The Adams River salmon run is special to me because I grew up here,” he says. “Every four years it was a big event to look forward to.” There is so much to celebrate in everything that comes with the Salute to the Sockeye, he says, including “the celebration of work, the fishing, the excitement.”

“It’s unique; we’re at the end of the spawning grounds. It has always been an important run and still is, even with the collapse to what it is now.”

“This historically great run is now depleted to numbers that are just a percent of what it used to be,” Teed continues, referencing the mill and log flume that was built across the river in the early part of the 19th century.

The community hasn’t given up, though — the Adams Lake Indian Band is currently completing a habitat restoration project on the upper Adams River.

Those who’d like to help the salmon population should listen to their local Indigenous communities, Teed says. “Make sure you’re supporting people that respect the salmon and actually care about the longevity of the run, opposed to the financial aspect of bringing more salmon back.”

A team of volunteers work together to prepare the feast. One prepares corn, while another works at the grill.
A team of volunteers works together to prepare the feast. Photo by Sean Hoas

Today Teed and other volunteers are preparing a feast for all in attendance, with extra or early portions by donation. The dish is traditionally inspired, with wild salmon caught by local Indigenous fishermen last week and fresh vegetables and potatoes sourced from the interior, plus a simple salad of mixed greens, onions and plum glaze. 

“[We’re] keeping processed [foods], dairy and gluten out of everything, keeping it really healthy,” he says. Teed is an advocate for decolonizing our tastebuds. He wants everyone to realize “how delicious these plates can be when the love is put into it.”

Fawn Rothlander and Tatiana Sarka stand next to each other, smiling.
Fawn Rothlander and Tatiana Sarka say they’re excited to celebrate the salmon. Photo by Sean Hoas

Fawn Rothlander and Tatiana Sarka

“I’m super excited to be here,” Tatiana Sarka says, “I work for Tk’emlups te Secwépemc as a Family Support Team Lead and I have been hearing everyone at work talk about the salmon run lately. I just wanted to come visit another Secwépemc community and see what they’ve got going on.”

“I haven’t been at the salmon run in years.” she adds, “but I used to come all the time when I was a kid in school. So I thought I’d return, see some salmon and take in the culture.”

“I’ve actually never been before today,” says Fawn Rothlander. “I’m new to B.C. — like in the last three years — so I just wanted to experience it.”

“I love nature, wildlife and Indigenous culture as well,” she says. 

Crocheted sockeye salmon dolls made with red and green yarn are on display in a wooden bowl.
A wide variety of souvenirs are available. Photo by Lyssa Martin/The Wren

“For me, I would say that the salmon run is like a homecoming, right?” says Sarka. “It’s connecting back to nature and the land, as well as connecting with what we eat and where our food comes from. Without salmon [in B.C.] we don’t have nature. We need salmon.”

Salute to the Sockeye continues until Oct. 23, offering spectacular views of nature, cultural exhibitions, entertainment, food and souvenirs.

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