Photo: Fraser Falls Fish Camp in early 90's, Peter Family
After heavy rainfall in July. This is when they taught us that salmon were on their way.
Fishing nets, food, tents, and tarps were prepared and worked on weeks in advance. Once the boat was loaded, we would jump in with lifejackets and find a comfortable place to sit near ihtsų and ìhtsí (grandmother and grandfather). The moment our uncle turned the boat engine on, we knew it was time to go to that special place. The ride itself took a couple hours. Our uncles navigated the waters with precision. Most of it was spent being covered by blankets ihtsų had placed over us to block the wind, although part of it was also spent stopping to have snacks. We looked forward to these breaks. She packed wagon wheels, cookies, pilot biscuits and dried moose meat. Cans of spam and rye bread were also packed to make sandwiches for our uncles. The small details we remember when recollecting our childhood memories. She would hand out the treats and watch as we skipped rocks and played along the shore. After continuing our journey, she would pull the blanket from over us, letting everyone know that we were close to our destination. We looked in excitement to see our fish camp approaching. We had arrived!
Everyone helped set up camp. Each person had a role, including the children. We helped collect branches to lay on the tent floor and were happy to pick wild onions that grew in abundance. The familiar smells connected to this place put our minds at ease. Our uncles would set the frames for canvas tents, while our aunties and grandmothers helped make them comfortable to sleep in. Cutting and drying racks for the salmon were set up in specific locations. From the moment we arrived at fish camp, traditional teachings and stories were being shared with us.
Photo: Fraser Falls Fish Camp Early 90's
During the day, traditional laws (Doòli) were taught to the children. Respect for the fish and animals, cleanliness, listening skills, and hands on teaching were a part of fish camp. We were taught to always be aware of our surroundings and what to do if bears entered camp. Techniques used when checking the net and cutting fish are skills they taught us. At night, everyone gathered around the campfire to listen to stories told by elders. Knowledge was being handed down to the next generations. These memories with our grandparents are cherished. Visiting fish camp provided much more than a supply of salmon. It served as a place to connect to the land and pass on cultural teachings and stories.
Photo: Today's Youth utilizing fish camps for smaller fish
Today, Yukon First Nations have voluntarily decreased or entirely banned salmon fishing due to the critically low numbers entering our rivers. Yukon River salmon spend time in the Pacific Ocean before returning to the Yukon to spawn. It is our hope that these restrictions allow as many salmon to spawn as possible. Not only are the number of salmon entering the Yukon decreasing, but the size of salmon is decreasing as well. The causes of this decline have been linked to climate change, pollution, commercial overfishing, hydroelectric dams, and more. Families are feeling the effects of this important food source missing from their lives. Freezers that were once filled have gone empty. The inability to pass on skills and knowledge during harvesting time is a sacrifice First Nations have made to help this dire situation.
July is named “Łyok det’aw ze” which translates to King Salmon (Red Fish) Month in Northern Tutchone
The future of fish camps for Indigenous people of the Yukon is now an issue that many people are aware of. Uncertainty on how many years this ban may last, could lead to generations of children missing out on important teachings that are connected to these places. As we adapt to these changes, fish camps and their functions need to be adapted and reimagined as well.
The future of Yukon fish camps may look different, but continued visits help our culture and traditions live on.