Photo: Notes from the Edge: Preparing salmon reminds us of our wealth

Preparing salmon in Skidegate on Haida Gwaii. (Credit: Severn Cullis Suzuki)

By Severn Cullis-Suzuki

It is good to feel nothing but privilege after working hard.

Recently, Skidegate village took care of its people and dropped off 15 sockeye salmon per household. I finished my meetings with the Haida Gwaii Higher Education Society, put on some old clothes, got my special fish knife, washed my old jars and headed to my husband's parents' to start working on fish.

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My father-in-law Dullskin had already prepped the fish-cleaning area outside the house, with fish-cleaning tables, a table for jars and a huge umbrella, just in case. I feel so young in this process, even though I've been doing it for years. Everyone knows their jobs. The other women and I got to deal with the fish, under the mentorship of the great fish splitter Diane Brown (my mother-in-law). My sister-in-law was there too, with her man. My mother-in-law's childhood best friend, newly a widow, joined us. We pooled all our fish, and so began to work on 60 gorgeous sockeye for four households. Many hands make the work feasible.

First we fin. We cut a nick on the tail so we can hang onto it, and then, with the head hanging down, quickly slice the fins off. Next we cut off the head. For jarring, we leave the bones in, gutting the fish through the belly. We clean the fish thoroughly, then cut the flesh to size depending on the jar we are filling. My mother-in-law's best friend showed us a new old way of slicing and folding the fish steaks into the jars, the "Hazel Stevens way", named for her own mother-in-law. Diane talks about how her mother-in-law used to do it. It is so amazing how everyone has a different way of cutting and folding the fish into the jars. Methods are passed down through families, and to daughters-in-law.

We are so happy to work on fish. Usually stories come out. The women are focused: we are the ones who slice the fish and fill the jars. The men prepare the area, refill bowls with clean water, sharpen knives, man the pressure cookers, lift coolers and totes full of fish and dump guts on the beach for happy eagles and ravens. The kids dash around the yard, having to fend for themselves while the adults focus on preparing our fish for the year.

The privilege of working on these beautiful silver creatures is tangible, as is being taught these traditional skills.

Our share of the canning extravaganza is four cases of pints, and one case of salt-free half pints for my mum. They are still in the cooker as I write this in the middle of the night, boiling in a huge drum. Tomorrow we will make ts'iljii (dried fish strips), and sGidxyal (smoked fish). For smoking, we back-split, which means taking off the head, slicing down the back of the fish and continuing down toward the belly to remove the rib bones. You do this on either side, and the guts and everything come out. The fillets are joined by the belly. To do this well takes a lot of skill, and even though I have been doing it for the past seven years, I have much to improve upon. Diane does this with a TaaKaada, a knife like an ulu. She says that it took decades for her to graduate to even touching fish. I guess some things take a lifetime to learn. Then we carefully take slices off to make ts'iljii, and smoke the remainder of the fish in the big smokehouse in the back.

I am joyful and full of gratitude for the bounty of the sea, this community and the wisdom and trust of my elders.

Severn Cullis-Suzuki is a David Suzuki Foundation board member who works on issues related to intergenerational justice and reconciling our relationship with Earth. She lives on Haida Gwaii with her husband and two children.

This blog was originally published on

September 30, 2014

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