Monthly Archives: November 2013

Sitting on Water

Earlier this year, I blogged about the new Salmon Stewardship Program at the non-profit organization where I work as communications director. This fall, we wrapped up an exciting pilot year for the program, which included the construction and operation of a traditional-style fish weir that we used for sockeye enumeration.

This project has the potential to enable powerful, local stewardship of an important resource to the Heiltsuk Nation, and the data generated by our fieldwork will support resource management and decision-making for our Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department. It is also an inspiring example of scientific research and monitoring that is guided by cultural values and indigenous knowledge, developed by Heiltsuk managers and carried out by Heiltsuk field technicians.


Since we’re so excited by the story of this project, we wanted to find a way to share it with you! So we partnered with filmmaker Ilja Herb to develop a short film called Sitting on Water: A Season on the Koeye River. The film is close to being completed, and we’re looking for your help to generate interest and the last bit of funding we need to finish the editing. We’re offering some neat incentives for donors, and you can find out more by visiting our crowdfunding page on IndieGoGo.

I’d like to thank Ilja Herb, our filmmaker, and Andrew Naysmith, our editor; Will Atlas, our Salmon Program Coordinator, and all our colleagues at Qqs (Eyes) Projects Society; Grant Callegari for his invaluable work in designing and building the weir, and for helping with donor incentives; Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department; Hakai Beach Institute; and all of our philanthropic partners who support the operation of the Salmon Stewardship Program.


One of my slow goals in life is to make myself a new set of regalia. This is an exercise in new self-sufficiency, since I’ve never learned to sew. But for something that is so central to my identity – ceremony, and potlatching – it makes sense to find power in new capability.

A couple of weeks ago, when a friend returned from a successful deer hunt, he offered me the hooves as a gift. I’d told him months before that I wanted to make noisemakers for a new apron, and this was the first hunt to happen in the periphery of my life since setting that goal. I traveled home with thawing hooves in my purse, and yesterday, I took initial steps to process them.

To offer a disclaimer, I’ve never done this before. I proceeded with advice from my father and grandfather, learned by feel, and will probably do successively better jobs as I get more practice!

1. I partially thawed and separated the hooves, which my friend had cut just above the dewclaw.


2. I simmered the hooves in clean water for three and a half hours, changing the water completely every hour or so.


3. Once they softened, I gently prised the hoof from the bone, flesh and connective tissue inside. The first hoof I tested (at three hours of simmering) was still hard to work with, but after an extra half hour in the water they popped out easily.


4. Once all the hooves were loose, I set to the initial finishing work. I kept the hooves in fresh, hot water until I was ready to work with each one, then set to trimming and scraping.


5. I trimmed the edges of the hooves to be flat and even, and scraped the soft, inner surface of the hoof clean. I mostly used a small knife with a thin, sharp blade, but I’d like to experiment with better tools.


There are still some rough edges I’d like to smooth, and I need to drill holes so I can fasten the noisemakers to my apron someday. I suspect this is easier to do while the hoof is still pliable, but I lacked the tools at the time so I’ll struggle through it later!

This process was a lesson in patience, and I still have plenty of work to do to refine my technique! If you have any feedback or ideas, please feel free to share them. I’d be really happy to learn from you, or learn together. Someday when I finally hear my apron rattling, I know I’ll be proud of all the hard work and grateful for the nimble deer that lend me their grace during ceremony!


Goose Island Music

I think this is what love sounds like:

One of the prettiest nights of my life. North Beach, Goose Island, Heiltsuk Territory. Fire crackling in the background. Waves.

Enjoy your retirement, Phil. You’ll always have friends here on the coast.

Untitled (poem)

Your words are fleet and bright
and light, my heart,

but you look like a wolf
when you smile.

With your lower lip between my teeth
I taste meadowgrass, the fog.

With my lower lip between your wolf’s teeth, love,
all I can taste is your bright, bitter longing.


In the last few weeks, not for the first time, my much-adored grandfather has taken ill. I’ve heard a lot of people comment recently that the hardest thing about watching loved ones slide into old age is observing the loss of dignity. With a huge amount of love, I feel the urge to disagree.


My Grandpa George

On Sunday night, it was my turn in the family rotation to sit at my grandfather’s bedside on a hospital night shift. He’s a seasoned old fisherman, and I’m certain he hasn’t slept a full night since he was a swaddled infant, but lately it’s not unusual for him to wake up a dozen times and more during the night. Sometimes he goes right back to sleep. Sometimes he wants to talk. Sometimes he wants to shuffle slowly around his hospital room. In the mornings, he’s exhausted.

Throughout my childhood, my grandfather was a figure who loomed lovingly over my little reality. He was my hero. He could do anything. When I was too little to reach the ripe salmonberries, he’d fashion a hook on the end of a long stick so I could snag the branches and pull them down. When our family was processing salmon at our backyard cannery, I loved to stumble behind him down to the beach as he gave the fins and bones back to the ocean. As children, we were anxious about his sternness not because we were afraid of him, but because we hated to disappoint him. We loved to sneak into his shed to run our fingers over his tools. We learned love from the tenderness with which he cared for our grandmother, from her steady hand when she sent us out to his workshop with tea and cookies for him.

When I was away at university, my grandparents would call every few days. Every conversation ended the same way: “Keep your pencil sharp”, he’d admonish me. Every time I left Bella Bella for another semester, I’d have pocket money for more books. “No funny business”, he’d say. “You’re there to learn.” Behind the gruff tone, I knew the pride was there. Behind his quiet tone now, I know it still is. Beside my desk, I kept a photo of him in his dress shirt and sweatervest, his slacks and his pocketwatch. It was a constant reminder of what I was striving for.


Second-hand love: Grandpa’s cap and sweater

One of the greatest blessings for me about moving home is being near to my grandparents again. They raised me as much as my parents did, and their love will always be the standard I use to measure myself. When my community work led to me being nominated in the tribal council election, I remember standing in the back room of my office on the phone with both of my grandparents, listening to their advice. He told me he’d always be beside me. He told me to always speak with truth and integrity. The eagle feather that’s now tattooed on my arm is, in part, a homage to him and to those words. It’s a promise to speak as though I’m holding a real eagle feather in my hand.

I’m sorry if I offend you when I talk about the intimacy of old age. It’s not an easy thing to talk about, but I think we shouldn’t be afraid of that vulnerability. It’s an incredibly difficult moment when you’re sitting at the edge of a hospital bed, rubbing your grandfather’s back, and you realize that one of the giants of your childhood seems so suddenly to be so small and fragile. When his vision gets clouded, I feel like the anchor line of my heart has broken loose. But on Sunday night, in the frightening clarity that sleeplessness sometimes brings, I realized people were mistaken when they said that old age is undignified.

It was the fourth or fifth time he’d woken up and needed an arm to shuffle around the room and stretch his restless legs. He seemed so small in his hospital gown, but his grip was still strong. As we turned slow arcs in the low light coming in from the hallway, I realized he hadn’t traded his independence for indignity. He’d assumed a new grace and a new way to give gifts and wisdom to three, almost four generations of descendants in his life. As a child relating to my adored grandparent, could I ever have imagined him leaning hard on my arm? Kissing him on the top of the head and telling him I loved him? Feeling the bumps of his spine like a chain of islands under his thin hospital gown when I rubbed his hunched back?


At 91, watching his grandson get married

Of course not. But there is a strength in learning to be unapologetic about needing the care your loved ones are giving you. There is a strength in allowing yourself to be loved. There is a dignity that can never be sacrified because it has nothing to do with bodily infirmity, and everything to do with the integrity of your love and your sense of family. One thing about my relationship to my grandfather didn’t change with my adulthood, and will never change: the ferocity of my respect and affection. And the humble dignity he’s grown into as he’s accepted the care he needs from us is proof enough for me that he’s sacrified nothing of his character at 91.

When he laid back down to sleep, I curled up in the chair beside his bed. Both of us were wrapped up in identical blue hospital blankets. Even with the white noise of his oxygen and the indefinite buzz of a television in some room down the hall, I couldn’t imagine sleeping. Every time he woke, even while my heart was aching with the wish for a restful sleep for him, it still felt like a gift to hear his voice calling for me. To know that one of my cousins, my brother, my mother or her siblings will always be sitting tireless beside him – that’s a blessing he’s still giving us every day. He’s inspired us to an even deeper love. His old age is a lesson in tenderness, in trust, and in the generosity of letting us reciprocate the strength he taught us from the time we could toddle along behind him.

The little girl in me still feverishly believes my grandfather is invincible and immortal. The grown woman he helped to raise knows I need to be grateful for every smile and slight, tired nod I get when I walk into his hospital room. I learned patience from watching him mend fishing nets. I learned independence from watching him ride his bike well into his 70s. I learned strength from watching him hoist totes full of salmon for granny to clean in the back yard. And say what you will about the infirmity of old age, I will argue to my last breath that I learned dignity from the weight of him leaning on my arm while his slippers shuffled across the hospital halls.


At 90, out working in his yard

I know this is true, and I know who taught me truth.

With fierce love –
A beautiful old man’s granddaughter