The Okanagan Sockeye Salmon (Onchorhynchus nerka) has been a primary food mainstay of the Syilx peoples and central to cultural and trading traditions between Indigenous Peoples in the Southern Interior of British Columbia, Canada, and the State of Washington in the United States. These salmon annually migrate up the mighty Columbia River to spawn in the Okanagan watershed, where they are a cornerstone species, feeding humans, bears, birds, among others. After spawning, they turn brick red, decompose and further fertilize the river and lands, contributing to the terroir of the region. The fish are harvested as they enter the river, in reduced quantities as set by the governments of the United States and Canada. During the fish harvest certain parts of the salmon are returned to the river of origin, with the backbones/fish heads distributed to the community for fish soup.
Salmon meat has a similar color to peach skin, and becomes lighter as they approach egg-laying (unlike the skin, which becomes red). It is firm, buttery but light (less fatty than ocean salmon), with strong but sweet flavor. Traditionally the salmon was eaten fresh during only the fishing season, while the majority of the catch was preserved, either dried in the sun or smoked, to be eaten in thin slices or used to prepare soups. Today, it is almost always eaten fresh, from June to September, though it is also frozen and used in the preparation of innovative recipes, like candied salmon with maple syrup or pickled in oil.
Portions of fish are given as also offered to eagles and owls, again reinforcing strong reciprocal bonds within the broader ecosystem. As such, these salmon are central to a wide range of connections between generations, communities, humans & non-humans, terrestrial and aquatic species and transboundary watersheds within Canada and the United States including Indigenous Tribes along the Columbia River systems. Kt cp’elk’ stim’ is an nsyilxcen term that roughly translates to "to cause to come back". In the early thirties, International Water Agreements launched the building and expansion of hydro-electric developments along the Columbia River, making it impossible for fish to pass, devastating the annual sockeye salmon runs to near extinction. With the support of their elders and sacred teachings, all seven Okanagan Nations’ member communities and the Colville Confederated Tribes were committed to getting the salmon back. In 1996-1997 the ONA, under the long-standing leadership of the Chiefs and Councils of member communities and the Colville Confederated Tribe Business Council (CCTBC), formally undertook their responsibilities and obligations to their lands, waters and peoples to restore the Okanagan Sockeye Salmon to the Columbia River. In 2014, more than 600,000 sockeye Salmon returned, of which a fraction is carefully harvested to feed the people.
Indigenous lands of Syilx people, in the territories of the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia
Slow Food Presidium Coordinator
tel. +01 250 8643793