Tsilhqot’in traditional community life is a highly prised value. It embraces a sense of belonging, acceptance, sharing and respect for its individuals and families because it nurtures trust and interdependence and foster strong communities, families necessary to survive in this beautiful but rugged countryside. The salmon fishery is an integral part of the traditional Tsilhqot’in community. Fishing season here typically occurs between mid- August and early-September.
This productive salmon fishery once made this area a trade hub between coastal and inland First Nations; trade goods were reportedly shared with coastal grease trails to the west and come from as far east as the Cree Nation (James Bay). The traditional technology of wind drying salmon was the preferred way to preserve salmon until the next season, and it was so easy to pack it became a preferred trade currency throughout the Tsilhqot’in trade routes. Early explorers and settlers depended upon trade in this dried salmon to survive harsh winters.
Although a variety of alternative selective fishing tools may be used in modern Tsilhqot’in fisheries, most still prefer traditional dip-nets. Many of the same dip-netting spots date back thousands of years, and modern commercial fisheries are required to defer traditional fishing sites to those fishing for food, social and societal purposes, separating themselves in time and location to minimize any disruption to traditional activities.
Dip netters typically enjoy safety in numbers, and the labour-intensive fishery demands labor sharing in operating the dip-net as well as packing fish up-hill from deep in the river canyons. Usually the fishery operates at night when cool evening waters and darkness draw migrating salmon against the canyon walls and to the top of the water column. It also makes the dip-netters less visible to their prey. Tsilhqot’in songs provide cadence to the regular rhythm of dip-netters, and it is easy to imagine how little this technology has changed for thousands of years. Traditional dry racks that are used to wind dry the salmon still occupy Farwell Canyon each August, and an abundance of community wind-drying racks back home are both a sign of prosperity and cultural survival.
Traditional dip-net construction has been passed down through the centuries and is still preferred to store-bought nets for their superior performance in the Tsilhqot’in river fisheries. Just the right size of sapling juniper or pine are shaped into the characteristic tear-drop shape of the hoop while still green, then dried and fastened with chord onto long smooth pine poles capable of reaching from the canyon walls well into the swift currents that carry the migrating salmon. Traditional nets are fastened to the hoop using bone rings that allow the net to collapse on the trapped fish when the operator releases a guide-string that spans the length of the pole. Undulating currents and powerful salmon are capable of escaping the dip-net without this feature. Often fishers are held by safety ropes to the canyon walls in case they lose their footing, although history is marked with too many drowned fishers who have succumbed to such accidents. In contemporary commercial fisheries, the dip-net fishers follow strict safety protocols, drawing from the same safety systems as professional climbers.