Legends of Myself 82

Posted on July 22, 2013

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roe on branches82. Hartley Bay and Laxgal’tsap, 1961:  Cockles and Herring Roe

When uncles came to call at the house where I was staying in Hartley Bay, quarters and dimes often found their way into the palms of the children living there.  They weren’t my uncles, of course, but somehow that is the way I thought of them, and they didn’t distinguish me from the other children when handing out silver.  Dimes or quarters in hand, I would go over to a house perhaps two or three doors away which had converted a little storage room into a store, and there I bought candy.

I have no distinct memory of what candy I bought on one or any of these occasions, but I remember some of my suppertime diet.  In Hartley Bay I tasted fishy ducks and even fishier seal meat, which I didn’t care for.  But I remember also large soup pots of fish soup, and soups of seaweed and salmon eggs, flavoured with ooligan grease, which I liked a great deal.  Seaweed was good by itself, of course, perhaps also dipped in grease.  I was less fond of shellfish, clams, abalone, which I didn’t start to become fond of until much later in life.  Clams in a soup seemed just slimy, and made me want to gag sometimes when I encountered it.  Now a clam chowder makes my mouth water, but I suppose such changes between childhood and maturity are fairly common.  It showed to me that I was only partly acclimated to my Northwest Coast diet, though.

In Hartley Bay, I remember encountering my favourite part of the coastal diet, herring eggs.  One day I even went on an excursion to harvest some.

I had no notion of the significance of the destination at the time, but conversations with my brother convinced me of where we went that day.  It was most likely Laxgal’tsap, Old Town, where the Gitga’ata lived before relocating to Metlakatla and then to Hartley Bay.  Laxgal’tsap was located partway up Kitkiata Inlet, which debouched into Douglas Channel a few miles to the east of Hartley Bay.  It was about a dozen miles by boat from new village to old.

I remember Kitkiata Inlet, comparatively narrow, with a close cover of evergreens growing to the edge of the water.  Old Town, what I saw of it, was little more than an old deserted barnlike building, which I realize at this distance must have been an old longhouse or feasthall, fallen out of general use.

We went to Old Town that day to harvest herring roe, and maybe a few other things.  Perhaps for thousands of years people on the Northwest Coast harvested roe in the same way, by placing cedar boughs in the water in particular shallow places along the shore, providing a place for the spawning herring to lay their eggs (the season runs from February to April), then returning to pull up the boughs and harvest the roe after the schools of herring had come and gone.  (This technique was also done with kelp rather than tree branches, depending, I suppose, on location.)

I knew nothing of any of that in 1961.  I had no idea what those branches were doing in the water.  I suppose I questioned it, but not enough to distract me from reaching down into the water and plucking some of the herring eggs for myself.  The fact that they were raw didn’t deter me (or anyone else) from eating them, just as they were, right out of the water.  And I don’t remember that being any worse than any other way of eating them, although I am not usually a fan of raw seafood.  Herring roe was established then, and still is, my favourite Aboriginal food, all too seldom encountered, alas.  Most times since I have eaten it cooked, often on kelp.

At the end of the day, we retired to the deserted longhouse and somebody put together a big pot of chowder, which I anticipated with some apprehension since I knew there were shellfish in it.  However, I was wrong.  The shellfish they put into it were cockles, which—cooked in soup—are not at all slimy, which the problem I usually had with shellfish in those days.  In fact they were nutty tasting, and when I tried them I became an instant fan.  That was good soup, I thought, and a good memory to take with me, the last that remains distinct to me before I left Hartley Bay, before I departed from deep Tsimshian territory essentially for the last time.

I was going back to my father.

Posted in: autobiography