Just outside of Vancouver, the waters of the Capilano River lap at the shore as the river empties into the sea. A woman has trekked here from the opposite end of the city. She kneels, releasing a handful of salmon bones into the water. A group stares curiously. “What is she doing?” someone asks.
Welcoming the salmon people
That woman is T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss. She is a food security activist and ethnobotanist. Her ancestral roots weave together Skwxwu7mesh (the Squamish First Nation), Sto:lo (a group of First Nations people in BC’s Fraser Valley), Métis (a communal identity evolving from the intermarriage of First Nations people and European settlers), Native Hawaiian, and Swiss.
And it is through this beautiful prism of Indigenous heritage that Wyss views the salmon that she has recently partaken of and whose bones have just been released into the river waters.
The reason she does this all begins with Indigenous stories of the creation of the world, which informs how she—and other Indigenous people—view hunting, fishing, and taking the life of an animal.
The ethics of meat
For many people, animals are beings that exist wholly separate and external to us. Thus, the idea of “ethical meat” boils down to specific factors such as whether an animal is free range, caught sustainably, or slaughtered humanely.
But for the Indigenous people in Canada, animals are an integral part of their identity.
“Indigenous people believe we were born of all these creatures,” explains Wyss. “The rocks are our grandfathers. The plants are our grandmothers. And all the animals are the parents of humanity.”
In many Indigenous creation stories, the first humans transformed from the animal world. Additional stories tell of humans turning into wolves and other animals to assist and guide people. This adds a complex layer to the concept of eating meat.
“We’re connected to our food, so we have to treat all living creatures with respect, even if we’re taking a life,” says Wyss. “We talk to these living beings, whether we’re hunting or fishing. We do ceremonies to acknowledge that we understand that we’re pitiful creatures that require eating of our ‘family,’ our very ancient lineage. We owe everything to the wild creatures of the world who give up their lives to feed us.”
And this is why Wyss visits the banks of the Capilano. “We came from the salmon people, so when we eat salmon, we have to return the bones to the water where we
fished for them,” she explains. “The most disrespectful thing we could do would be to take salmon and throw away their bones.”
Because they hold the animals in such high regard, questions of sustainability seem foreign to many Indigenous hunters and anglers since “sustainability” is an inherent part of their activity.
Take so-called “wildlife management” laws, for example, which seek to control wild game populations in Canada.
“Many Yukon First Nation people find the assumption of control … absurd, perhaps even offensive to the animals,” writes Paul Nadasdy, who studies the Indigenous people of the Yukon, in his book, Hunters and Bureaucrats: Power, Knowledge, and Aboriginal-State Relations in the Southwest Yukon (UBC Press, 2004). “Humans cannot ‘manage’ wildlife populations, [one] said. Animals manage themselves; they make their own decisions about when to reproduce and where to go, decisions that are quite independent of any human desires. Wildlife management, he said, is not about managing animals; it is about managing people.”
Wyss agrees. “Whatever we’re doing, we never take more than what we need,” she says. “You move around, and you don’t overfish or overhunt in the same areas.”
Built-in sustainability is apparent in many forms of traditional fishing. Certain traditional salmon traps purposefully allow some of the salmon to escape to allow the salmon lineage to continue.
When hunting, Indigenous people know that humans thrive only when animals thrive. The Inuit, for example, know which animals to trap at specific times, and how long the animals need to reproduce and mature. In fact, some species they only hunt once every seven years!
“Indigenous peoples are caretakers of Mother Earth and realize and respect her gifts …,” reports the Assembly of First Nations. “Everything is taken and used with the understanding that we take only what we need, and we must use great care and be aware of how we take and how much of it so that future generations will not be put in peril.”
Good for the earth, good for you
Seasonal fruit. Moose and other lean game. Fish rich in healthy fats. The Dietitians of Canada report that these traditional Indigenous foods help boost heart health, maintain healthy blood pressure, and support healthy weight loss.
A way of life under siege
Practised for thousands of years, this reverential, sustainable approach to hunting and fishing has been pushed to the brink of nonexistence in just the past 100 years.
Discriminatory laws; the creation of reserves and the loss of traditional territories; and bans against traditional practices including certain forms of fishing, hunting, trapping, or trading have disrupted or even wiped out the ability of Indigenous people to practise their environmental stewardship and ethical resource gathering.
“The government has put restrictions to the point that we don’t even get to fish for our salmon,” says Wyss.
There’s also the problem of environmental destruction. “We’ve lost hundreds of tributaries to natural and man-made disasters,” says Wyss. She highlights the 2005 Cheakamus River derailment as a famous example where a train accident poured chemicals into the river, killing 500,000 fish, including five species of salmon and numerous generations of steelhead trout. “To this day, my people still can’t fish there,” says Wyss.
“We have lost this complex system where we could travel around and trade with communities and be able to do that in a sustainable way,” says Wyss. “Just in BC alone, we’re dealing with tanker traffic, and the Mount Polley mine disaster, and the Site C dam being built, and all of it is affecting our fishing and hunting.”
“We need to change everything and reset,” says Wyss. Overfishing and hunting have wiped out species after species. We’re seeing the ripple effect up and down the food chain. Wyss points to salmon overfishing and the subsequent endangerment of orcas off BC’s coast that depend on the salmon. “The good news is that humans can live on anything, whereas animals don’t, and we’re killing them off by eating what they need to eat,”
“We may have to all become vegetarians,” she laughs. “I started saying that 20 years ago, and it’s more real than before. We’ll have to become vegetarians if we’re going to put a pause on all this destruction.”
Let’s get ethical
If you want to support ethical, sustainable meat, here’s what to look for in the grocery store.
Organic farming causes less soil damage and water pollution, and harms less wildlife.
Free-range animals get access to more space and fresh air versus the cramped conditions of factory farms.
Small, local farms
Small, local farms use 70 percent less energy than big factory farms. Plus, it means your food travelled less distance to get to you, meaning a smaller carbon footprint.
Government regulations on humane slaughter are weak, and enforcement even weaker. Avoid anything from a factory farm, and look for symbols such as “SPCA Certified” or “Certified Organic.”
Joshua Duvauchelle is a regular alive contributor. joshduv.com