Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Song of the Eulachon

Jun 22, 2016

Should coastal British Columbia ever need an anthem, I'd suggest setting my pal Howard White's marvelous poem "Oolachon Grease" to music. It appears in his 1993 collection Ghost in the Gears.

I found it finally

in Bella Bella price $120/gal.

and it smelled like the cracks

between the deck planks of an old fish barge

if you can imagine spreading that

 on your bread -- quite enough to hurl

the European palate toward the nearest

toilet bowl which is how far

Indian is from White how far

learning is from knowing how

far we are from this ragged place

we've taken from them...

Based on my own encounter with eulachon grease, I am a long way from "knowing." It left me reeling.

We were sailing out of Telegraph Cove one day not so many years ago into the islands that lie between northern Vancouver Island and the mainland and we put in at Village Island to take a look. Village Island is one of those hugely historic spots -- the coast is rife with them -- that has no plaque or monument to mark its importance, just a mass of brambles, a few rotting logs and a beach littered with broken shells. Not permanently occupied since the 1960s, it is the site of the Kwakwaka'wakw village of Mamalilaculla, where in 1921 Chief Dan Cranmer held his famous Christmas potlatch in defiance of the law banning the ceremony. The RCMP raided the festivities, charging 49 people and seizing many masks and other artifacts, all of which ended up in museums in eastern Canada and New York City until they were repatriated back to the coast in 1979.

When we pulled into the dock that day we found that Tom Sewid was on site, willing to share with us his stories about the village's history. At one point as we sat around the table in the kitchen of the small store he extracted from the refrigerator a jar of eulachon grease and offered a taste.

Eulachon are a slim, oily fish that mass in huge numbers at the mouths of a few coastal rivers each spring. The First Nations catch them for food and to produce the oil, or grease, that they used as a condiment, a medicine and a valuable trade item.  A dried eulachon will burn like a candle, which accounts for its nickname, candlefish. Ancient trade routes carried the oil across the coastal mountains to the interior.

Sewid's generosity was too good an opportunity to pass up. I dipped a spoon into the greasy substance, which had the consistency of soft butter. It smelled like a cross between filthy socks and very pungent cheese, enough, as Howard's poem suggests, to induce a violent gastrointestinal reaction. 

I survived, though for days afterward the pungent reminder of it lingered in my beard and on my fingers where I had wiped my mouth. I cannot imagine rubbing it on my skin or in my hair, as the First Nations did. I guess that is how far I am from "the old smell of the coast."

and however far you are from loving that

is how far you are

        from arriving