Children's book highlights cultural importance of Nisga'a's harvest celebrations in Vancouver this weekend

The Nisga'a Nation kicked off 2023 Hoobiyee celebrations with a totem pole raising at the Nisga'a Museum in Laxgalts'ap, B.C on Feb. 24. (Nisga'a Museum/Facebook - image credit)
The Nisga'a Nation kicked off 2023 Hoobiyee celebrations with a totem pole raising at the Nisga'a Museum in Laxgalts'ap, B.C on Feb. 24. (Nisga'a Museum/Facebook - image credit)

The Nisga'a Nation kicked off its Hoobiyee new year festivities on Friday, Feb. 24, and the celebration continues in Vancouver this weekend with two days of free events at the PNE forum.

Hoobiyee marks a new season of harvest, beginning when the oolichan — a staple fish in the traditional Nisga'a diet — arrive in B.C.

Samantha Beynon, who wrote a children's book called Oolichan Moon in 2022, told CBC she was introduced to the fish at an early age and inspired to create a work for kids that helps pass down her family traditions.

"I grew up eating oolichan. It was just crucial food that our family ate," said Beynon, who was born and raised in Prince Rupert and is of Nisga'a, Tsimshian and European descent.

Illustrator Lucy Trimble, who hails from the Gingolx, B.C., in the Nass Valley, and whose traditional Nisga'a name is Hlgu Maksguum Ganaaw, remembers her first encounter with the oolichan — often referred to as a candlefish because of its oily texture.

"Oh, definitely the grease ... one of my earliest memories," she said, adding that oolichan is good for more than just food.

"I used to have chronic earaches. And what my mom would do is pour heated oolichan grease in my ears, and that would stop them instantly," she said.

Josh Grant/CBC
Josh Grant/CBC

'Saviour fish'

The author and illustrator say the book they worked on together was designed to pass down culture and knowledge through generations, and Hoobiyee is the perfect time of year to teach First Nations children about the importance of the oolichan.

Trimble describes oolichan as a small, smelt fish known as the saviour fish among the Nisg'aa. It's the first fish to return to the river after the cold, lean winter months "when everyone is really hungry."

She says she incorporated bright, contemporary colours in her designs, which were painted in watercolour before being digitized, drawing inspiration from Nisga'a style as well as visits to the river in the Nass Valley.

The oolichan start to return in February, and the Nisga'a believe they can tell how plentiful the fish will be each year based on the Hoobiyee moon that comes out in February.

"The best position is when it's like a spoon that's going to catch everything coming into it," said Trimble. "And if it's where it's not going to catch very much, or it's upside down, then you know to really ration what you have."

She adds that as a First Nations wellness worker, she leans on art to help young people and families centre themselves and show how art connects them to their land, culture and identity.

Josh Grant/CBC
Josh Grant/CBC

Beynon says writing the book involved a lot of collaboration with Trimble, family members and elders of the Nisga'a Nation.

"That was something that was really important to me while writing," she said. "I really wanted to respect the knowledge that was passed on to me."

Beynon says, traditionally, the Nisga'a would boil the fish and skim the oil that rose to the top into watertight wooden containers known as bentwood boxes. The practice continues today, but the oil is stored in glass jars instead.

She says she had the chance to visit the grease camps in the Nisga'a Valley and make oolichan grease with one of her mother's friends when she was younger.

The author is especially grateful that Harbour Publishing helped include Nisga'a words and a language guide in the back of her book, another way to help preserve cultural knowledge.

She said, ultimately, she wants Nisga'a children to celebrate their culture.

"To be proud of our traditional food, to bring them to school and share them — that's what I really want."

The Nisga'a Ts'amiks Vancouver Society Hoobiyee events started at 10 a.m. PT on Friday and runs through Saturday at the PNE Forum.

The two-day celebration will feature a cultural feast, performances by First Nations dance groups from across the province, Indigenous artisans and a 50/50 draw.

Melissa Mckay
Melissa Mckay