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Indigenous Terra Madre: Sockeye Salmon of the Okanagan Nation

A nation, a fish and a common destiny…

Cause to Come Back

The story of the Okanagan Nation Alliance is a story of salmon and a story of hope, a story of a people and of an intertwined destiny. The Okanagan people are First Nations living on either side of what is now the US-Canada border. They call themselves the Syilx People: The word carries a command for each and every person to become one with other people and with all the strands of life that make up their land and waters.

For thousands of years, the Okanagan people’s connection to the land made them self-sufficient and well provided for. They lived united as a nation and knew their land and its multiple co-inhabitants intimately, fishing and hunting, growing and harvesting, crafting and trading to meet their needs. They respected their relatives, their ancestors and their food gods: the bear, the salmon, the bitter-root and the Saskatoon berry.

European colonization—a familiar history for most Canadian Indigenous communities —separated people from one another and from their way of life and the resources they relied on, until their self-sufficient economy collapsed. Settlers initially brought trade and wealth, but also weapons, alcohol and small-pox epidemics, which decimated the Nation’s population. In the early 1900s, as settlement in the Okanagan Valley increased, Indian reserves were established. Okanagan children were removed from their homes and forced into boarding schools far away from their homeland and families. Today, in spite of this history, and as no treaty was ever negotiated, the Okanagan people still affirm that the land is theirs. salmon was always a primary food source for the Okanagan people and have been caught by the Okanagan in historical fishing camps for thousands of years. A migratory fish, from where they are born in the Okanagan river, the salmon head south, where the Okanagan becomes the Columbia River, until making it to Portland and entering the Pacific Ocean. Here, they catch the North Pacific Gyre, the rotating ocean current that takes them round and round, to Hawaii and California (we call it the tourist fish!) before heading back up the Columbia River along with millions of other fish in the space of a few weeks, to spawn within less than a hundred meters from where they were born. Along the way, they feed humans, bears, birds, among others, and after spawning, they turn brick red and decompose, which further contributes to fertilizing the river.

In the 1930s, dams started to be erected, obstructing the salmon’s path. Streams were channeled and housing was developed along the water, destroying the salmon’s habitat. Climate changed and over-fishing became rampant. The salmon, a fish that had come back to the Okanagan every year since time immemorial—a food god—was close to disappearing. In the mid-1990s, less than 5,000 adult spawners—a minute number—were returning. Still a miracle, all things considered, but it was time for Kt cp’elk’ stim’.


Return of the Sockeye Salmon

Okanagan Nation Alliance Salmon Feast 2015Kt cp’elk’ stim’ means “cause to come back.” In 1997, under the direction of elders, the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), a First Nations government in Canada, decided it was going to get the salmon back.
Since 2003 the ONA has carried out a dedicated activity to replenish the sockeye salmon population in Osoy-oos, Skaha and Okanagan Lake. It integrates modern science with traditional practices: re-engineering dams to allow the passage of fish, restoring river and creek habitats so the fish can spawn, and constant monitoring and information to help real time decision-making in management, particularly where water flows are concerned. These initiatives have gone hand in hand with the revitalization of Okanagan culture, such as traditional ceremonies where people come together, share food and experiences, and assess the fruit of their collective efforts. And they pray to give a cause for the salmon to come back, just as the salmon gives reason for their culture to return. Okanagan sockeye salmon has responded to their prayers. In 2014, more than 600,000 returned, of which a fraction are carefully harvested to feed the people. Meanwhile, children learn their language in Syilx schools and knowledge keep- ers preserve Chaptikwl (oral history), the stories and the memory of their people. Artists are flourishing. And young people, proud again to be Okanagan, work on recovering traditional knowledge—at times crossing it with scientific knowledge–-and are once again becoming the true guardians of their land. Slow Food and the Okanagan Nation Al- liance have been collaborating for several years thanks to the initiative of two women, Ingrid Jarrett, Slow Food Thompson Okanagan Convivium leader and Pauline Terbasket, executive director of the ONA. Through this collaboration, Okanagan Sockeye Salmon has been added to Slow Food’s Ark of Taste.

By Michéle Mesmain


An Event by
 Città di Torino
 Slow Food
 Regione Piemonte
In collaboration with
With the contribution of
Official Partners
Supporters of the Terra Madre Foundation and Slow Food
With the support of

Terra Madre Salone del Gusto
Slow Food Promozione P.Iva 02220020040
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