‘That river is full of life’: Wet’suwet’en celebrate return of salmon amidst threats to keystone species

·9 min read

UPDATED to include photos.

David de Wit asks everyone to introduce themselves to the river and the ancestors in a gesture of gratitude and respect. It’s a hot summer day but a breeze over the fast-flowing waters of the Wedzin Kwa (Bulkley River) in the village of Witset, on Wet’suwet’en territory, offers respite from the sun. The river funnels into a tight canyon here, making it prime fishing grounds. Local fishers perch on the rocks and scoop out salmon — which have swam 300 kilometers against the current to get here — as they leap up the cascading waters.

The return of the salmon is a joyful event. For the Wet’suwet’en, it’s also a signal to pause and reflect on the abundance of the natural world and the role humans play in protecting that abundance.

“Traditionally, the first salmon that was caught … in this canyon, was cooked into a stew along the side of the river here,” de Wit, who is a member of the Laksilyu Clan, belonging to the House on Top of Flat Rock (Tsekalbaiyex), says. Dinï ze’ and Tsakë ze’ — male and female Hereditary Chiefs — would eat the salmon stew and then return the bones to the river, he explains, crediting his late uncle Henry Alfred who held the chief name Wah Tah K’eght, for sharing this story with him.

On this day, he’s honouring the tradition and the ancestors. In the early afternoon, hundreds of people gather to share a meal and celebrate the return of the salmon to Wet’suwet’en territory. Drummers and dancers perform on a bluff high above the river as community members and guests seek shade from the midday sun. After everyone eats their fill, de Wit and a small group go down to the canyon. Holding a take-out container full of the bones of salmon just eaten by community members and guests, he talks about the importance of ceremony.

“I’ve been blessed to spend a lot of time with our Elders and Hereditary Chiefs,” he says. “I’m just a messenger. I just like to give honour to our ancestors. I don’t own the story, I don’t own the knowledge, but we’re here to share it, not just amongst ourselves as clan members or house members, but [with] all living beings on the territory and our guests.”

“Returning the bones is almost like a contract,” he continues. “There’s a reciprocal relationship: they’re bringing a life sustaining source to us and we’re a part of recycling of nutrients and recycling of knowledge. When we return the bones, we say we’re going to take care of the waters where you travel, where you raise your young ones, where you spawn. It’s our responsibility to take care of these waters. And we ask the Salmon People, please continue to come and feed us — our lives, our culture, our language, our wellness comes from water and the salmon.”

The responsibility to care for the water is part of ‘anuc niwh’it’ën, Wet’suwet’en laws. Those laws go back thousands of years, long before colonizers arrived, and are a foundation for how to live sustainably and maintain respect — for the river, the animals and future generations.

Salmon are a keystone species. They play a vital role in ecosystem health, feeding the likes of bears and wolves and even the forest as scraps left by predators at the base of trees decompose and enrich the soil. The Wedzin Kwa (the Wet’suwet’en name for both the Bulkley and Morice Rivers) is part of the Skeena River watershed in northwest B.C., a vast network of rivers and tributaries bounded by mountains and forests.

The number of fish returning to Wedzin Kwa has been in decline for decades, leading to fishing restrictions both regulated and voluntary. Climate change isn’t the only culprit — overfishing at the mouth of the Skeena and habitat degradation from the likes of forestry practices have also contributed to the decline.

The 2022 sockeye runs are shaping up to be the healthiest in decades, with an estimated four million fish returning to the Skeena system, but whether or not the Wedzin Kwa will see a corresponding increase in numbers is yet to be seen. And sockeye — talok in Wet’suwet’en — is just one of four salmon species that return to the river.

Brian Huntington, a co-founder of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition and settler who was adopted into the neighbouring Gitxsan Nation in 2007, says the upper river and Wedzin Bin (Morice Lake) is “the largest spawning complex in the whole Skeena system” for chinook salmon, or ggïs. But the numbers aren’t there.

“I think of it, the way it looks now, like bunches of condominiums with lots of empty rooms,” he says, explaining how the fish create depressions called redds in which they lay eggs. “The redds have been carved — the riverbed is carved and shaped by thousands and thousands of years. The channels are there, the habitat is there but to a large degree the fish are not. Of course, all of us are working to ensure that those rooms can get booked in the future.”

Adding to the concern, is the multibillion dollar Coastal Gaslink pipeline project, which is being built to connect fracked gas fields in B.C.’s northeast with a liquefaction and export facility currently under construction on the Pacific coast. Spanning some 670 kilometres, the route traverses mountain passes, crosses salmon rivers (and a bevy of tributaries) and transects numerous First Nations territories. Coastal Gaslink has a large worksite in the heart of Wet’suwet’en territory, south of the town of Houston, B.C., and is currently preparing to drill under the Wedzin Kwa.

The pipeline’s parent company, TC Energy, regularly notes it has agreements with 20 First Nations along the route, but Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs have opposed the project since it was first proposed in 2012. A decade later, the government continues to deploy police forces to arrest and remove Indigenous land defenders and their allies from the territory.

Salmon are not only an important source of food and an integral part of Indigenous cultures — they also repair habitat. As Haíɫzaqv land-based educator and writer Jess H̓áust̓i writes, “salmon are healers, restoring the balance in the face of downstream nutrient flux from the rivers and streams as they come home to spawn and enrich the places that first nurtured them.”

That connection between fish and forests is part of why salmon are so celebrated when they return.

Conversely, the connection between a species integral to the lives of Indigenous Peoples and an industry fuelling the climate crisis that is devastating fish populations and posing a threat to human existence, disproportionately impacting Indigenous communities, is jarring.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued numerous warnings that without immediate action to curb emissions, the intensity and frequency of extreme climate events and loss of biodiversity will increase exponentially. Without dramatic change, the panel warned, we will “miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”

That necessary change includes a rapid reduction of methane emissions.

If completed, the Coastal GasLink pipeline would transport 2.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas (which is mostly composed of methane) daily, with the ability to increase to 5 billion cubic feet per day. Once liquefied at the LNG Canada facility currently under construction in Kitimat, the fossil fuel would be shipped overseas and burned to produce energy.

It’s not only the emissions connected with the project that imperil fish populations. Coastal GasLink has repeatedly breached the terms of its environmental assessment certificate, including numerous counts of failing to prevent sediment-laden water from entering creeks and rivers, including the Clore River, a tributary of the Skeena and important habitat for salmon and steelhead. Too much sediment means fish can’t breathe.

Salmon are resilient, not invincible.

Amalaxa Louisa Smith, a Xenaksiala Elder and matriarch, says the way to protect the fish, animals, water and land is to respect Indigenous Knowledge. Frail in body but strong in spirit, she speaks with gentle conviction. Her brother, the late Wa’xaid Cecil Paul, was a prominent leader and Xenaksiala chief who played an instrumental role in the protection of the Kitlope valley near Kitimat.

“With your regalia and your attitude, you’re going to teach these big industries what the earth means to us, what the land means to us,” she says. “We follow the law of the land, not the law of government.”

She says seeing a vast sea of green pipeline segments sitting in a staging area just outside the town of Houston is distressing.

“My heart sank when I’ve seen all those things, and yet, it was lifted up to watch the Wet’suwet’ens, the big chiefs, in doing that thing that was instructed by my brother: put your best foot forward, walk softly, wear your regalia and make a statement.”

For one of those big chiefs, Dinï ze Na’Moks, the statement is simple.

“The land that we stand on is who we are as Wet’suwet’en,” he says. “That river right now is full of life. That life that you live will only continue if you look after this planet. That very life that you have you must give to your children and your grandchildren.”

Placing the container of salmon bones on the riverbank, de Wit takes off his hat.

“I’m going to hold up the salmon and I’m going to thank the Creator, I’m going to thank our ancestors, I’m going to thank the salmon,” he says. He explains he’ll start facing east and speak gratitude in each direction.

“In ourselves, there’s four elements that we need to keep in balance: our hearts, our minds, our spirit and our body,” he says. “There’s a natural system where balance and sustainable energy, communities, culture is grounded. A lot of people need to hear this — there’s a lot of static that comes from the modern day of living and life and distractions.”

He picks up the container and speaks reverently, the sound of the river carrying his words away. He gives gratitude first to Udiggï, the Wet’suwet’en Creator, and Niwhts’ide’nï, the ancestors.

“And I thank the Salmon People and the salmon for coming again this year, to bring us together, to feed us, to heal us, to bring energy, to feed love and laughter and knowledge.”

“We’re going to return the salmon back to Wedzin Kwa,” he says, finishing the ceremony. “Please tell your people and your relations that we are taking care of our waters and our lands for you to return. Please continue to come to bring health and life to our lands and our people.”

He crouches at the water’s edge, the river lapping at his feet. The bones are carried away in the current.

Matt Simmons, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Narwhal