Indigenous Arts & Stories - Hell's Gate

Hell's Gate

2015 - Writing Winner

My dad died last year, dip netting in the biggest river during the salmon run. He slipped when handing a friend a fish and the river dragged him away.

Read Sunshine O'Donovan's Hell's Gate

Sunshine O'Donovan

Merritt, BC
Zoht Reserve, Lower Nicola Indian Band, Nlaka'pamux Nation
Age 14

Author's Statement

I am a member of the Nlaka'pamux, a nation of people whose lives depend on creeks, rivers and salmon. I worry about the future of the salmon, who need clean, cold water to survive and spawn. I wondered what would happen if there were no more salmon because humans had ruined the rivers and ocean. Then I learned there had been a time when the salmon could not come upstream to spawn.

Just before World War I began, a second railway was being built through the Fraser River canyon. During construction of a Canadian National rail tunnel near Hell's Gate, the railway men blasted huge chunks of cliff face, which fell and blocked the mighty Fraser River. This was disaster for the fish and the people who consider them vital.

Maybe my story will remind people of how fragile our environment is. We should not take risks with our precious land and water. We need to take care of them for future generations. My story also shows how fragile families are, and how challenging it was for families to survive when their subsistence lives were disrupted and the children were taken away from their land and rivers.

When I wrote this story, I included the cradleboard event which I heard from my mom who heard it from her stepfather, the late Francis Joe of the Shackan Band, Nlaka'pamux Nation. The migration-to-the-lake event was told to me by my father who heard it from his uncle, the late Herbie Manuel of the Upper Nicola Band, Syilx Nation. The National Film Board documentary film, Red Run, was also inspiring.

I am grateful to all the elders who remember stories and share them with their younger relations. I am also grateful for those who work hard to keep our land and water healthy and unpolluted. I dedicate this story to my ancestors, the salmon people.


Hell's Gate

My dad died last year, dip netting in the biggest river during the salmon run. He slipped when handing  a friend a fish and the river dragged him away. I remember watching him fish. Swing, up, down, and with the current, he'd say. Let the current help you, so the work isn't so heavy. Don't let the handle's end hit the rock behind you or you'll lose your balance. When the current boils in the river, the fish go to the sides to rest. Follow through with the swing or you never catch fish. Be ready and willing to take what the river gives you. Show it love and respect, and in turn it will do you good. The first fish you catch you return to the river because it is one of your relations. Always say a prayer when you clean and cut the fish, and then return a piece of the salmon to the river.  When fishing was done, carrying the heavy load of  fish with a tumpline around his head, he'd smile and say, "The walk home is harder than the fishing."

My name is Shpetzen, named after the plant we twist into string for making nets and rope. I'm the oldest daughter, but not yet old enough to have gone to the hut made of fir branches. My grannie, my mother, my younger sister, and I cook and eat together at the fire. My baby brother is in the cradleboard, and gets his food from my mother. Salmon is the first solid food he'll eat, same as it was for me. It makes us strong.  The salmon run will be starting soon. I'm not sure how we will get our salmon and I'm scared.

My grannie takes me and our baskets to pick berries a little way out of our camp. The soopolallie's soft berry orbs are so different from the branches of the same bush that scratch my legs. As we pick, I eat some berries. My grannie scolds me with fire in her eyes,"Girl! We need those berries for winter!" I love her, so I stop. We hear crunching on the rocks and brush, then a shape rides up on a tall animal with ears pricked like a coyote, but much bigger and with hair like mine on its neck and tail. At first he is so high up I can't see him and the sun gets in my eyes. When he drops to the ground, we see he is an alien... a white man. This is the first shemma I've ever seen, and he is really strange.  It's a hot afternoon but he is all covered, even his head. His skin is pale like the underbelly of a fish, eyes like a summer sky, and hair the colour of dead grass. There is a shining moon in his earlobe. I gaze at it. He sees me staring and makes sounds like he's swallowing hot soup. He chuckles, and then rides off on the tamed, sleek creature.

Back at camp Grannie tells my mother everything of this encounter. After dinner we sit together around the fire. On her thigh Grannie is rolling the dried shpetzen into strong cord. My sister is playing with our baby brother, and my mother is hauling water. I look into the fire, which stings my eyes but I don't care, for the smoke leaves its wonderful scent on my buckskin dress.

A woman we know half walks, half worries her way to us. My mother makes her some tea  from ka-che leaves. The woman drinks and tells us that down the steep river canyon where it is narrow, white men were cutting and hitting the rock and the earth. They set off a big echo sound that made huge rocks fall and block the river. Now the water escapes through a tiny channel. So much water in such a tight place makes the river rush like never before. The salmon can't fight their way up to spawn.  Elders saw the danger right away and organized our people to pack the salmon along the canyon walls and release the fish upstream. The Nlaka'pamux people are working day and night, with the river raging beside them, trying to save as many salmon as they can. We all know that without salmon, we can not live. I start to braid my hair, which I do when I'm nervous. My mother watches me, and with weariness agrees that we will travel down to help the spawning salmon come home to lay their eggs. I am still scared about the salmon run, but in a different way than before.

Early the next day we leave Grannie to mind our camp. When we arrive at the rockslide, all we see is black water. As far down as we can see, the river is thick with leaping salmon. Their courage and strength can't get them over the huge rock dam. We pack the heavy fish all day and night and day again. Millions of salmon downstream still outnumber our people, so before sunset we return to camp. We don't go the next day because Grannie is very sick. We give her plant medicine and  tea from the leaves we picked and dried, but that does not stop her from coughing up blood.

We remain with Grannie, because she is weak and her light is fading. Our food dwindles and we miss meals. Mother goes to the rocks where we used to clean the fish to look for dried blood that she can scrape up for soup. Winter is coming and we have no dried salmon. Other people are travelling towards the rising sun to look for lake fish. We need to find a place to winter before the ice freezes. But Grannie can't walk far.

My mother plans silently and then states with a clear voice and trembling body that we will pack and leave when we awaken. As soon as the daylight touches the earth, I am dressed.  My mother packs the baby in his cradleboard. As we leave, I  run to Grannie and ask if she's coming with us. She replies calmly, "No, girl, I am too old and sick." I stare at her and my eyes fill with tears.  When my cheek brushes hers, I inhale her scent of smoke and memories. My mother calls and I leave.

Walking without end, I swallow, hoping to find some last remains of the good days, but I can only taste my dry mouth. I used to run for the thrill of it, loving the smell of the wind on my skin. I wish I could run now so I could find a home and food faster, but I can barely walk. As we get closer to the lakes in the Okanagan territory, my mother hangs the cradleboard, with my brother in it, on a high tree branch. It is the first time she has ever done this.  My mother leaves my sleeping brother in the tree. She keeps walking, farther and farther away. I catch up to her and she stares into my eyes. She answers aloud my silent question, "I can't feed him. Someone will pick him up."

Angry, I walk. We climb into the bunchgrass, open hills and plateau country. Groups of people ahead move in the same direction, so we follow. People fall along the trail, too weak to walk. Finally, we see a lake and a crowd. Cooked fish is being passed hand to hand and we are fed. Days later a shemma rides up on the tall creature. One of our people,in shemma clothing, brown dressed as white, translates: "The white men are willing to help our children. They will be cared for and will never be in want of food. The children will go away, but they may come back to visit you. Children who can walk and work will learn to survive in the shemma world." My mother thinks on this and finally agrees.  As I walk away in the group of children bound for school, I look back at my mother for the last time. A tear runs down her cheek, and then she turns away.