Rhonda McIsaac —
The slick brown face of a Sdllguu river otter hlgiits’idýaaga bobbing out of the water eats the discarded remains of a salmon head at the Yaagun Gandlaay Yakoun River boat launch area. I sit waiting on the riverbank for Xuhlyaang Reverend Lily Bell as she travels from Gaaw to Gamadiis Port Clements on a warm Sunday afternoon to officiate the Return of the Salmon ceremony.
The Yaagun Gandlaay is switching out as the tide ebbs ever lower along the dark chaan brown muddy banks of the healthy carbon-rich river. Yaagun Gandlaay winds and twists for approximately 60 kilometres from its source, Yakoun Lake, located in the south central area of Graham Island, to the large and wide Masset Inlet. Yakoun Lake is approximately 30 kilometers from Dajing giids Queen Charlotte and is part of the river systems used by citizens to food fish during the taaxid season.
“Let’s go check things out,” says Haida Fisheries Guardian Iihlangaa K’adangaa Ed Davis as he sees that I am alone at the landing. Fellow Haida Fisheries Guardian Robert Brown gets in the back seat.
We head upstream towards the Six Mile Bridge along a tire cruncher gravel road and pull over at Joseph Drager’s site. We walk through the rainforest thick with hemlock and spruce. The lower canopy is cedar and alder saplings and the thick tree roots wind along the forest floor with a cover of moss on top. Sunlight is filtered through the thick green canopy casting a mustard colour light all around. The view opens up at the river where a net is strung across the amber coloured Yaagun Gandlaay.
“Most other nets have been pulled because there is no taaxid and their nets were getting so dirty,” Iihlangaa K’adangaa explains, as we stand by the slow flowing river.
Masset community members can set their nets within the first nine kilometres of Yaagun Gandlaay; up to the boundary at the Six Mile Bridge. There are cabins and fishing camps set up all along the tea stained river. Here, the river is still affected by the tide coming up from the mouth at Masset Inlet.
As of June 16, only 586 taaxid were caught in the Old Massett sockeye season openings. The Awun River is now closed for the season, and the Ian River has been closed all season as a conservation measure. The low numbers of salmon is concerning to Iihlangaa K’adangaa who says that at this time of the year they should be looking at close to 700 taaxid having been caught. As Iihlangaa K’adangaa looks along Yaagun Gandlaay, he remarks, “This is the lowest I’ve ever seen the water. It’s not good. Not good at all.” Low water means that the salmon will limit their movement and hide in the deep pools along the river.
Back at the Yaagun Gandlaay landing Xuhlyaang pulls up in a small cherry red hatchback. She immediately pulls a complete picnic from her vehicle and takes it over to a small dinghy aptly named Flowerpot. “There’s more coming in Jaada’s vehicle,” Xuhlyaang says smiling as she seats herself in her lime green lawn chair. Alone with the 67-year-old Reverend we are saa.na k‘aawuu sitting under the sun and engage in easy conversation.
“I used to come here when I was a child with my parents and I used to like it so much because so many of our people used to be here,” she says, sweeping her hand across the horizon as if seeing her family and friends. “Here is my family,” Xuhlyaang says as Myrna Bell-Wilson, Emily Bell and her daughters Trinity and Dorothy Watts clamour out of a vehicle. Soon after Margaret Edgars arrives and pulls out more food for the feast. Margaret introduces Minnie Thomas, a visitor from Sai-kuz First Nation, to the group. Minnie has never participated in this ceremony and is eager to watch and learn.
The blue sky overhead is dotted with white fluffy clouds and rain showers water the earth. Just as quick as the rains come they end and the sun beats down again. Gaaxagaay the children play in the green pasture around the watchful adults.
A small motorboat comes up the river carrying Tyler Bellis, his daughter Rosalie, and friend Shawn “Bonehead” Peacock. Like a chattering kingfisher Bonehead fires questions at us. “So, where are you from? How old are you? Who’s own are you?” Myrna and Emily who know him well try to quell his exuberance by suggesting he “go for a walk”. It does not work. Bonehead continues to entertain the group as he chops alder with one hand and helps Bellis make the fire for the ceremony.
Rosalie, Trinity and Dorothy examine the taaxid, Bellis has offered for the ceremony. Dorothy without hesitation examines the taaxid by running her tiny index finger along the slick shiny scales to the dorsal fin and then the stubby adipose fin before ending at the tail. The streamline head, with no noticeable hook on the open mouth, indicates it is a female. Dorothy touches the tiny teeth of the salmon.
“See!” she says, as she shows us her unscathed finger after Margaret Edgars had warned her of the sharp teeth.
Yaagun Gandlaay taaxid return in the spring, summer and fall. Females lay thousands of eggs in indents called redds which are fertilized by waiting males. The females can lay eggs in many sites all along river during spawning season and once they have, they die and decompose within three weeks. The eggs hatch by mid-winter and the alevin will begin feeding once they become fry. They then migrate to the ocean before returning to the river to spawn and die. It’s an endless cycle of life which has been going on for thousands of years.
In the ocean the Pacific taaxid have a large migratory span and can be found anywhere in the North Pacific Ocean, along the Alaskan border to the Bering Sea through the Bering Strait, and even the southern Arctic Ocean.
With a good set of coals in the fire, Bellis fillets the taaxid and places the salmon bones on a piece of chopped k‘aahl’a sitka alder which he sets before Xuhlyaang to pray over. The group stands as Xuhlyaang begins her prayer. A ts’uu k‘al daajing cedar hat covers Lily’s eyes as she reads from her Bible.
“We’re here today to pray for all the rivers,” Xuhlyaang stretches her hand out toward the land, water and sky. “We’re here to remember those who once fished here and those who continue today.” As Xuhlyaang reads Psalm 8, Dorothy, Rosalie and Trinity sound a hand drum and rattle. “The return of taaxid and the return of fishers,” ensures the returning of salmon to Yaagun Gandlaay and all the rivers for generations to come says Xuhlyaang.
Rosalie, Trinity and Dorothy walk barefoot down to the river’s edge under the protective watch of Bellis. The girls line up and hand the taaxid bones to each other. In that moment, the sun shines through as Dorothy takes the taaxid tail and slides the salmon carcass into the water and Xuhlyaang instructs them to say, “Haw’aa Sah’laana. Haw’aa tsiin” in unison.
Following the ceremony and an hour and a half of mutual storytelling later, the high hum of a motorboat is again heard. Bellis and Bonehead are back from downstream checking their net and say that with the low water they had some trouble pulling it. Bonehead manhandles the heavy outboard motor from the boat and up the muddy riverbank exclaiming, “That was hard and heavy! So, how was the rest of the feast? Good?”
“Yes … it was nice and quiet,” said Xuhlyaang with a bright smile.