Thursday, June 11, 2009


Seaweed drying where many generations have spread out this important harvest.

The boat thrashed through the turbulent waters caused by gusts of wind combined with the rushing of the tides through a narrow channel between rocky islands. The tide reached a low of zero at 7am exposing a rocky coastline covered in a wide variety of seaweed well below the tide line that cuts a straight line along the overhanging forest.

The boat is filled to the brim with academics eager to learn about the past from two of the only people with living memory of how their people harvested seaweed and clams along this coast. The passengers included an Archeologist, an Ethno-Botanist, and a Marine Biologist specializing in seaweed as well as graduate students pursuing degrees in Entho-Botany, Environmental studies, and Linguistics who are documenting the journey for their research.

Known traditionally as Qwaxsistalla, the Clan Chief of Kawadillikala (wolf) Clan of Kingcome Inlet, Adam Dick leads us on a tour of his traditional Lok'key'wey. This Clam Garden was built thousands of years ago by his ancestors and was maintained through the centuries by his people. They constructed dikes made of stone to bridge the openings between large rock outcroppings between islands. Over many years these structures expanded the beaches, which supported clams and other marine life. The development of these fertile gardens, which were tended every spring and winter during the seaweed and clam harvest season, increased the numbers of clams many times over.

I try to imagine what it would have been like for a small child to be piled into a dug out canoe with his grandparents, paddling through the maze of islands with most of their belongings. Heading to a winter camp, where they could gather clams and hide from the authorities, in order to escape the torments of the residential schools. As a result of their efforts the knowledge passed down through countless generations, by a people who understood how to survive and flourish on this unforgiving coast, exists today.

With first contact between Europeans and First Nations peoples came diseases such as Small Pocks, Measles, and Tuberculosis, which wiped out the majority of people living on the coast of what is now British Columbia. Those who survived were forced to live on government controlled reserves and they were no longer allowed to move freely to harvest their traditional foods which were located in different places depending upon the season. Their children where forcibly taken to residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their languages. Cultural traditions such as the Potlatch, where knowledge was passed between the generations, were outlawed and punishable with extreme hardships.

On the return trip we stop at a tiny island to pick-up a team of graduate students, who have been harvesting seaweed according to traditional methods. One of them spread out squares of the thin green stands on a smooth rock face and comments that this is the perfect place for drying the seaweed with its southern exposure. I wonder how many people have used this same spot for the same purpose over the past millennia. When we return to the boat Qwaxsistalla tells us that he was reminded of his grandmother who spread seaweed in the exact same spot and remembers that the large tree towering over the rock was just a sapling when he last gathered seaweed with his grandparents.

Once the seaweed is dried and stored in a bent cedar box, layered between cedar boughs and pressed under a stone, dense bricks of rich black are ready to store or eat. It has a smell akin to caramel and the texture is similar to popcorn, except it melts in your mouth as it returns to its original state of thin smooth seaweed with a salty spice that is very unique. It’s delicious.

It turns out that the skipper of the boat is doing her postgraduate studies by researching SPLICE, a chemical used in fish farms to kill sea lice, which kill small salmon fry. Premier Gordon Campbell recently increased the number of fish farms and their capacity in the Broughton Archipelago although the effects upon wild salmon stocks have been shown to be devastating. Currently the BC government allows the use of this chemical agent, despite the fact that it has been banned by several countries including the USA because of its ill effects on the marine environment surrounding Salmon Farms.

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