Maintaining our rivers
By Celestine Aleck (Sahiltiniye), Snuneymuxw First Nation
Before colonization, we as Coast Salish people always took care of our own territory. We did this to give back to Mother Earth, who has always taken care of us. In our village in Snuneymuxw, the Good, Wesley, White, Johnny and Thomas families traditionally maintained our river, streams and creeks. However those roles our families once had have been lost through generations, and our waters are now dirty and polluted.
In order to save our beautiful rivers, we must take better care of our dear mountains. Traditionally we as Snuneymuxw people had always cared for the river right from the top of the mountain to where the river meets the ocean. We had to ensure the mountain was solid and strong, right down to even the smallest of weeds. We didn’t let debris clog up our creeks and streams—if too many trees come down, it takes a toll on the mountain’s strength, and causes landslides. It could even change the way the river runs, making it go off course. The landslides can fill up the rivers, creeks and streams, leaving them shallow, and this, in turn, allows brown algae to build up and eventually leeches come. The salmon won’t even attempt to go up river when the water is warm and filthy. Algae takes the oxygen out of the water, this is why the fish will not come up river. The salmon’s sense of smell is so strong that we couldn’t let a dead carcass of any type stay in the river for the scent would deter the fish to spawn elsewhere.
In old times, we used Clydesdale horses to help clear out our river using wooden buckets attached behind them, to give our fish a fighting chance to survive and spawn. They already fight so hard to get back to the rivers, think of their journey to even get to the river. They have to worry about predators from nature such as whales, seals, and birds. And one of the worst predators is the farmed fish, they bring nothing but sickness and death to the wild fish. The salmon also have to worry about all types of fisherman. We can’t keep taking from the ocean like man has been doing, we as Coast Salish people have always been taught to take only what we need. With no circle of life taking place, the rivers creeks and oceans are not healthy.
I have been going up the mountains year after year, and to see how clear-cut they are truly breaks my heart. Once, early in the morning, I awoke to a soft voice that told me: “save the trees.” I sat up gasping and it felt so real, I asked myself, “how can just I do something so great as that?” I’m just one person. There needs to be a better system of cutting trees down because the trees retain water and provide shade the rivers, creeks and streams. Now, we no longer have a strong water supply. We once used the hardened snow on top of the mountains. It would last until summer and provide fresh cold running water for the salmon to return.
We used to have controlled fires long ago in order to revitalize the lands and make it ever so rich with nutrients, this was the only way Jack Pine trees would come back after a fire. We never had to worry about the problems we have today with our poor mountains and rivers. It makes it to hard to have a controlled fire on our mountains. I wish that when they planted the new saplings after a clear cut there would be ashes within the dirt, because they help new trees to grow. It would give it a better fighting chance to thrive and survive.
I think that Mother Earth fights so hard to maintain herself, and that’s why we have earthquakes, wild fires or tsunamis. It is us who should be taking such great care of her. We truly need to go back to these old ways of maintaining our rivers, oceans and land.
What would it take for us as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to come together, pull our resources and knowledge together, and go back to the old ways of maintaining our rivers? We truly need to make our mountains strong so that we can have a better fighting chance at helping our beautiful salmon return home. Because it’s not only our salmon we are fighting for but our fresh water supply, and the air we breathe from the gift of the trees.
You can find more information about traditional methods of maintaining rivers, creeks and streams in two of Celestine’s books, Taking Care of Mother Earth and We Are All Connected.