Saturday, October 13, 2018

What did North Coast American Indians Eat?

Salmon and fry bread -- two Native American foods served after a dance performance we watched last week in Alert Bay, B.C.
Accompanying them, our hosts from the community offered us jam made from several different fruits, as well as maple syrup.
After we attended a dance performance with refreshments at the "Big House," or Indian meeting place in Alert Bay, I thought about the foods of the British Columbia First Peoples would have eaten before European contact. Salmon, which is widely available in the seas, streams, and rivers of the area, was the most important source of nutrition for the area in the past, and was eaten fresh or was dried and traded with people who lived further from water.

In contrast to salmon, fry bread -- popular with Indian tribes throughout the US as well as here -- is made entirely from introduced European foods: wheat flour, baking powder, and fat, usually lard. The jams, which were very delicious, could be made from local native berries, but the sugar in the jam is not native. Northwest coast maple trees do produce sweet sap, which I believe the Indians used traditionally -- though I don't know whether their product was boiled down as much as modern Canadian maple syrup.

Museum reconstruction of early First Nations kitchen.
The fascinating First Nations galleries in the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria also left me curious about the hunting and gathering activities of the peoples in the area we visited. Clearly, the riches of the region were bountiful, and the people made good use of them. Though they lived in villages, they were able to live by fishing, hunting, and gathering forest products, not needing agriculture. The only domestic animals that I know of were dogs -- very interesting dogs with wooly hair useful for weaving; now extinct. Their houses, wood-carvings, totem poles, fishing gear, woven blankets, and other material goods were extremely effectively designed and manufactured. They traded with other local tribes as well as engaging in very long-distance trade with native people elsewhere in North America.

Map of our route on the Sea Bird from Seattle to Alert Bay.
The Kwakwaka'wakw, whose village we visited in Alert Bay are one of the tribes of the Salish Sea region, which spans both the US state of Washington and the Canadian province of British Columbia.

Before the Europeans, the Indian inhabitants of the region lived in villages both on the coast and in the interior. They spoke a number of different languages, but were deeply connected by trade and inter-tribal relationships, including a lingua-franca with a few hundred words all could understand. Goods were transported in large canoes made from the very tall cedar trees of the region. I was particularly fascinated to learn of the many ways the First Nations invented for taking fish. For a very complete study of this subject, see "Traditional Animal Foods of Indigenous Peoples of Northern North America," a very complete site with many links from McGill University. 

Fishing and Hunting for Whales

"Little Ike (Yurok) fishes for salmon with a plunge net at pame-kya'-ra-m,
Klamath River, California, before 1898." (source)
"Yelm Jim’s fish weir on the Puyallup River ca. 1885." (source)
Salmon fishing was one of the most important endeavors of the native people, yielding large catches that could be used immediately or preserved and traded. The people fished from shore with nets and spears, they fished from canoes in open water, and they built fish traps the width of entire streams to take the salmon during their late-winter and spring runs upstream to spawn. In the museum in Victoria we saw quite a few examples of the way the traps and nets were constructed from wood and various types of fiber.

A smaller type of fish, the eulachon, also migrates up the streams and rivers to spawn, and was a very valuable source of oil for the Indians, who still enjoy using it. A eulachon fish could be dried so that its oil was preserved, and then used as a candle -- hence its other name, the candlefish. Eulachon oil was a very important trade item. These smaller fish were caught in woven baskets. The Indians also used nets to fish from boats in the open sea, and fished with hooks and with spears. They took halibut, smelt, shell fish, and seaweed.

Cooking the fish might be done over an open fire, but the Indians also made water-proof cooking boxes from cedar and other wood. A rock heated to a high temperature in a fire could be lifted into a box with water, fish, and vegetables to be cooked. Elaborately carved boxes were used for many other purposes as well.

Modern Lummi Indians using traditional reef nets for fishing, 2013. (source)
Indians from northern California through the Canadian Provinces and up to Alaska today all fish for salmon. Some have returned to using traditional nets suspended from two canoes (see image) as well as fish traps.

Unfortunately salmon of all sorts are threatened by a number of different environmental hazards. Over a century of dam-building and other construction in and near the streams where salmon spawn have vastly reduced the number of fish, as has commercial fishing both in the streams and at sea.

Another major source of damage, especially of disease, is the salmon farms that have been built in the last 25 years. The salmon farms and many other dangers to the salmon also severely affect the population of orcas that live permanently in the region, because the local pods of orcas depend on eating salmon almost exclusively, especially chinook salmon. Weighing up to 16,000 pounds, the orcas need to eat a whole lot of salmon! (Transient orcas feed mainly on smaller marine mammals, so they are less dependent on salmon.)

The opinion of the people of Alert Bay of the salmon farms in their waters.
Whales and seals were another source of food and oil to the native people. Remarkably, whale hunters in canoes were able to spear these huge beasts. In the museum in Victoria, we saw some photos of native hunters and learned that the man who speared the whale was rewarded with the most desirable part: the heart. Beached whales were also used for food and as a source of bone for carving and tools, as were bones of other marine mammals.

Onboard the Sea Bird, we enjoyed several lectures by the Cultural Specialist Owen B Walker.
For his lecture on the First Nations and their fishing methods, he wore a traditional hat including ermine fur.


Jackie McGuinness said...

I had salmon yesterday! I am always fascinated by what people ate in the past.

Beth F said...

We eat salmon often. I miss the US Pacific Northwest; when I lived there, I visited British Columbia several times.

judee said...

I can always count on an interesting read on your site. It is sad about the farmed salmon. It is not good for nature and it certainly isn't as healthy to eat as wild salmon.

judee said...

Mae, not sure if my comment went through . If it did , ignore the repeat comment.

I can always count on an interesting read on your site. It is a shame what farmed salmon has done to disrupt nature and it certainly is not as healthy to eat as wild salmon

Deb in Hawaii said...

A very interesting post. When I lived in Seattle years ago, we did the Tillicum Village excursion a few times where you go to the village and eat a salmon dinner and hear Native American stories and see the dancers. I love learning about local foods and customs. ;-)

Claudia said...

Very interesting Mae; it sounds as though we should eat further up the food chain here, doing as the "First Peoples" did and eat orcas. I'd give them a try.

Carole said...

So interesting - thanks!

crackercrumblife said...

Great post! I would love to visit these areas one day. A few years ago I took an Anthropology of Food class, and a Cultures of North America class, which were both fascinating and often crossed over. We learned quite a bit of what you talk about here. :) And thank you for the info on salmon - my friends and I were just talking about it the other day, farm vs. wild.