Legends of Myself 54

Posted on January 4, 2013

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british museum-sContinued from Legends of Myself 53

54.  Of Oolichan Grease, Culture and Eating Crabs

She really ought not to have made that remark about the Six Nations joining the wrong side by supporting the British in the American Revolutionary War.

In 2001, I added a touch of difficulty to a tour guide’s day at the British Museum by explaining how the Royal Proclamation of 1763, protecting Aboriginal rights, was one of the “infamous Acts” that the colonists were rebelling against.  Part of the reason the Americans were fighting was to protect the “freedom” to overrun Aboriginal territory at will.  The British clearly weren’t very good allies, if you know the whole story, but the Americans were outright enemies, and anyway, it was the Canadians not the British who stole most of the Six Nations’ land accorded them in the Haldimand Grant.

“Wrong side,” indeed!

But that’s not really the reason I brought her into the story.

The tour guide was particularly unwise, you see, to question the food choices of Northwest Coast cultures when she had a Tsimshian listening on the edge of her audience.

Standing in front of a cabinet of Northwest Coast artifacts, she made a face.  She didn’t think she would like oolichan grease, she said to us.  It wasn’t appealing.

Grease was the subject of her conversation because it was an important trade and luxury item on the Northwest Coast, giving rise to trade routes to the interior known as Grease Trails.

greaseI said in answer, “Well, usually you have to have grown up with it to like it.  But if you do grow up with it, you love it.”  I told her—and the tour audience—how smoke-dried salmon dipped into grease was referred to as Indian candy, how I used to eat that Indian candy when I was kid, and how I still relished it if I could get hold of it.

Surely a tour guide in the British Museum would have learned enough history to know that Aboriginal people often died when exposed to European diets?

I didn’t go into it (although I continued to monitor the rest of her tour, oh, she loooooved the history teacher barnacle she had acquired) but I could have shared the almost identical stories told by my Dad and by Pop.

My father tells a story where he is hauling a jug of oolichan grease back home on his fishing boat, a treasure precious for its intrinsic value but also because it wasn’t cheap.  Grease has never lost its character as a luxury item.  At one point, he realizes that his precious oil is missing.  After looking everywhere in the boat, he finally asked his partner (who was not Aboriginal) whether he’d seen it.

“Oh,” said the other.  “It had gone rotten, so I threw it overboard.”

Now my grandfather tells a story that is almost precisely the same.  Of course Old Pop grew up in France, not on the Skeena, and the treasure he was hauling home from Prince Rupert to Port Essington was a package of limburger cheese.  That package went missing too.  The culprit in Old Pop’s case might have used the same words my Dad had heard:

“It had gone rotten, so I threw it overboard.”

One person’s gourmet delight is another person’s, etc., etc.

I can’t speak in regard to the limburger, but as to the oolichan grease, I’ve encountered at least one clue that not only folks from back home might like it.  I had a friend from university who was fussy about food.  I invited him for pasta and found the bits of green pepper in the sauce secreted somewhere after he’d left.  Yet he subsequently went two years to teach in Nigeria, and after he returned, he saw one time that I had a condiment on my table that I wasn’t sharing with him.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Oolichan grease,” I said, and told him what I told the tour guide in the British Museum.

“Well, let me try it.—Now, that’s delicious!”  He tried some more.

I have to assume that two years in Nigeria had West-Africanized my friend’s tastes, from which I deduce that West Africans would probably like oolichan grease too if they had a chance to try it.

But nobody has to like it.  West Africa is just far enough away, thank you.  There’s hardly enough to go around as it is.

My point is that what you grow up with strongly influences what you like and don’t like.

Tangghwan Llaana-s

If you cross Hecate Strait from the Skeena and examine the crest poles of Haida Gwai, you will sometimes find a figure with particularly large eyes, Tangghwan Llaana.  They are either very wide or very long, in the latter case dangling down the pole like the eyes of a Chuck Jones cartoon character, which have popped out then gone slack.  The pupils of the eyes often have their own faces.

The Haida say, “Wealth has big eyes,” referring to how the wealthy are always looking to see whether someone is coming to take their treasure.  And thus, the figure with the big eyes on the crest pole is the Chief Under the Sea, because in the traditional Haida world, the sea is the source of all wealth, so the Chief Under the Sea is the wealthiest of all chiefs.  His eyes are very large indeed.

The Tsimshian had a notion of the wealth of the world which wasn’t much different from the Haida.  My cousins grew up closer to that tradition in Port Essington than I did.

I didn’t only stay with him, his siblings and family in Essington in 1958.  I went to live for a while with my cousin Reynold as an adult, when I went to Kitsumkalum in 1988 to teach.  He took me out one day to his net on the river to check if he had caught any salmon.  He brought me down to his basement another time where he had two full freezers of mostly sea food which he laid out to me as treasure.  I remember him reaching into a freezer and pulling out a jar in which there was a vague green shape.  “A sea cucumber,” he explained with enthusiasm.  To me some of his treasures reminded me of the Asian markets in Vancouver, strange matters beyond my ken, which my neighbours carried home without a second thought.

Already, when I stayed in Port Essington in 1958, after three years away, I was separating off from my cousin’s world.  I remember being at the dinner table where Art and Reynold had a crab apiece sitting on the plates in front of them, the top removed.  I myself only ate crab legs, which was white meat and unchallenging.  The stuff inside the main body of the crab was strange to me, little wiggly organs in different colours, and nobody asked me to eat that part of the crab.  But my cousins didn’t complain at all, and set to eating the wiggly, coloured bits as readily as I ate the crab legs.

In 1988, Reynold stood over me and placed a similarly open crab in front of me.  “Eat that bit.  Eat this.”  I ate, and the bits I ate were not at all obnoxious, but I could never remember enough to know again which, among all those odd little organs, I could eat and which I should miss, so I am still a consumer of crab legs when I eat crab at all.

Port Essington was a place on the remote edge of North American culture, but it was also a place on the near edge of NorthwestCoast culture.  My cousins remained more strongly a part of that culture than I did, but I managed to learn a little bit about it from my return there in 1958.  Despite its status as a dying village, Port Essington was still alive as a place where Aboriginal culture had never really gone away.

It must have been obvious to all the Tsimshian who had grown up there.  Curiously, none of the White mainstream histories appear to have picked up on that part of Port Essington at all.

Continued @ Legends of Myself 55