Expired · 13th May 2012
The directive given to the invited guests who came from outside communities was to bear witness.
“Go back to your communities and share what you experienced and learned here at the feast today. Tell them,” said the voice at the microphone.
It was the voice of a midnight breeze running through the musical chimes on the porch of home. It was the voice of silver fins talking to the sea, the voice of the silent wolf at the perimeter of the forest. The voice of the One at the microphone was the voice of a whole Nation.
I was one of those very fortunate guests from an outside community to have received an invitation to feast, and I have never been given so forthright a directive to bear witness. To speak is easy, open one’s mouth and have words fall out. However, to do the word justice is like swimming fiercely upstream against the mighty current to spawn, then quietly die.
I requested permission.
“Would it be alright,” I asked the elder storyteller, “if I write of my experience at this feast in my food column,” for I have no more desirable a means of bearing witness than this.
As part of the ceremonies, she had so beautifully told the story of how one fine day, very much like the one we were enjoying today, the Salmon People returned to bless the rivers of the Kwantlen Nation with abundance after they’d endured years of biting hunger.
“As long as you are speaking from the heart,” she cautioned, with an eye to gauging my intent. Her response was precipitated by a pause; a thought fluttering like wings in the air before taking flight.
Even as she gave me permission, her voice waivered with a vulnerable power. This is a People who has had much more than their stories stolen from them; their lands, their children, their food autonomy. Yet not their dignity and their generosity. How could she trust me? Yet trust me she must.
Shall I break that heart open for you, then, dear Storyteller, and lose it in the telling? Shall we walk back to the river together and wait for our ancestors, who surely long to see us? Different ancestors though we may have, alike they hold a mighty respect for hunger.
Once, when I was a girl child walking home from grocery shopping with my mother, we came upon a traumatized, but so quietly dignified looking young man slumped on the edge of the cold sidewalk, trembling with fear and hunger. Alarmed by this stranger’s unsettling fate, my mother rushed to help him. She hailed down a passing police cruiser and fed him from our grocery bags while the cruiser approached. This etched into my heart the imprint that hunger is a crime to be reported. I wonder how she knew who to press charges against, for the real systemic hunger we know today is indeed a man-made crime. Systemic hunger is foreign to Mother Nature, whose cycles of abundance may fail on occasion in a small-scale kind of way, but who can provide for all of us, if Her ways are honored.
So on May 4, 2012 we stood together on the ancient healing grounds of Kwantlen people in Fort Langley, BC, to celebrate Nature’s abundance and the end of the hunger years. The green and gold ribbon that the young woman handed me at the end of the ceremony reads, “Kwantlen First Nation. First Salmon Ceremony. To honor the river, the sacred salmon, our ancestors and their connection to our continued journey.”
Kwantlen means “tireless runner,” which is it desirable to be if you are on a continued journey.
The First Salmon Ceremony is held annually when the salmon begin their return migration, for the price of abundance requested by the Sun in the storyteller’s narrative was to hold an annual feast to honor the sacred Salmon People who populate the waters.
There are four parts to this traditional ceremony. The first part is to feast, so that the elders who are on a regular meal schedule for health reasons do not have to wait. It took many silent, nurturing, thankful, and skillful hands to prepare enough food to feed a nation and their guests. Like our storyteller said, the Creator doesn’t call on just anyone to prepare the feast, for whatever is in your heart goes into the food you touch. The cook’s heart must be happy, wise, pure. There must be no discord in the heart that prepares the food.
On the feasting tables there were graceful rows of smoked oolichans, heaping platters of salmon, fragrant from their journeys, chunks of roast beef, piles of rice and bannock. There were mounds of green salads brought by guests from outside communities and towers of lemon meringue pies stacked twelve high, fanciful cookies to dazzle the eye, fruit salads in bowls the size of shallow pools.
First the Kwantlen youth prepared a plate for the elders. Some prepared a plate for a guest before they serve themselves. While I waited to take my place in line, a man with a kind and sincere voice offered me a generous plate, respectfully filled with comfort food. I have never had oolichan before and it is delicious.
The second part of this traditional ceremony consists of talented members of the Aboriginal community performing the rhythmic hoop dances, the jingly jingle dances, the ancient ritual songs, and the all-important storytelling. All of these rituals are talking story, moving forward, touching back.
When no-one else had a dance or a story to share, everyone prepared for the walk to the river, the third part of the ceremony. First the children swept the path clean so the drummers, wearing their drummers’ blankets, could begin the walk. The elders wearing their elder blankets , the healers, the cooks, the people, some wearing their blankets and regalia, followed in succession, with their gift of salmon bones and cedar boughs for the mouth of the river.
It is the walk forward to give back that which remains of the meal. Terrible things happened in the beautiful story told by our gifted storyteller when some arrogant, lazy eaters didn’t listen, didn’t honor the cycle of life, didn’t give back to river; and it is the innocent who suffer. So all the cooks saved their fish trimmings and their bones, too, to give back to the river. I made sure I threw what bones I had, too, along with my cedar bough.
Lastly, back at the main field, a few chosen witnesses were called by name to speak their truth. Everyone listened. We all joined in a circle dance. As we were preparing to leave, one of the drummers from the procession came to me and handed me the gift of her blanket and her bandana, both of which I wear while writing to you today.
Thank you Kwantlen Nation. Thank you Salmon People. Thank you Jessica for inviting us.
If I have gotten parts of the story wrong, it is only proof that it is not my story, proof that the drummer’s gift of her blanket unraveled my rational precision. I am only grateful to tell what I experienced. I could not name all the names, so I named no-one. You know who you are, all my relations.
Francesca Gesualdi, 2012