Caring for Salmon like Family: Inviting Reciprocal and Respectful Encounters with the Land

July 06, 2023

By Dr. Cher Hill, Assistant Professor, SFU Faculty of Education


We are currently facing an environmental disaster within the Fraser watershed, one of the greatest Salmon rivers in the world. Salmon runs in the Fraser River have reached unprecedented lows, and multiple species are deemed threatened or at risk of extinction.  Despite ongoing efforts, practices that put Salmon at risk, such as development, deforestation, and overfishing, continue. Further, due to global warming, the temperature of the Fraser has been steadily increasing, creating conditions that are progressively lethal for Salmon. Elder Rick Bailey is sounding the alarm. Are we listening?

This drastic decrease in salmon threatens food security, as well as the traditional and spiritual practices of Indigenous communities, and has broad ramifications for us all. The Coast Salish territories where we live would be a different place without salmon. In response to these concerns, our project focuses on how we can educate our community to care for salmon like family and develop reciprocal and respectful relationships with place. Our team includes Rick Bailey, who currently serves as the q̓íc̓əy̓ Councillor of First Nations Title and Rights, Fish and Wildlife, Treaties, and Justice, Neva Whintors, a grade two/three teacher with Scottish and Icelandic ancestry who has over twenty years of experience as a teacher, Kate Aileen, a doctoral student of Scottish ancestry with deep commitments to social justice, and Dr. Cher Hill, an Assistant Professor, teacher-educator, and a white settler scholar. We work in collaboration with many other wonderful teachers, community educators, knowledge keepers, and environmentalists. Our project involves the scholarship of translation (Ream et al., 2015) as we work across Indigenous and Western worldviews. As Elder Rick says, “I tell my stories but sometimes I need to tell them in a different way.” It also involves the scholarship of application (Ream et al., 2015) in which we endeavour to enliven theoretical knowledge within everyday teaching and learning practices.

Elder Rick teaches the children that salmon are family. He shares with them the q̓íc̓əy̓ genesis story in which one of the original q̓íc̓əy̓ ancestors marries a salmon wife. Understanding salmon as family is consistent with the story of evolution - fish are our relatives. Elder Rick asks the children to plant trees along creeks to create more shade and lower water temperatures to make them more habitable for salmon.

Elder Rick Bailey sharing stories and teachings with the children.

One site of our teaching and research project is at Maddaugh elementary school in q̓íc̓əy̓, q̓ʷa:n̓ƛ̓ən̓, and se’mya’me territories. During the school year the children engaged in various participatory learning activities to care for salmon, including planting trees, cleaning up creeks, welcoming home the salmon as they returned to spawn, painting fish on drains to discourage the dumping of toxic substances into fish-bearing streams, testing local water for pollutants, and participating in a fry release. As everything is connected, we also spend time in forests, building relationships with salmon-beings including trees and eagles. Our work is emergent and is guided by the Land and the children and informed by local Elders and environmentalists.

Children planting trees in a riparian area to care for Salmon.

Elder Rick’s teachings that salmon are family are particularly impactful for the children. They often identify as salmon boys or salmon girls, mimic the behaviour of salmon at different stages in the lifecycle, and create salmon dances and salmon games. “The Salmon Family,” as the children called themselves, have become passionate advocates for their kin. Without the involvement of the adults, they organized themselves to regularly monitor storm drains on the school property (which is adjacent to a fish bearing creek) and become extremely distressed when there is garbage in the drain, an abundance of rocks, or a lack of water, which they believed would harm the salmon.

Children removing garbage from a storm drain.

Consistent with local Indigenous practices, salmon have also become teachers to the children. Inspired by a story shared with us by Allison Hotti (2022), we ask the children to consider what do Salmon teach us? what ways of being on these Lands do they encourage? After they have witnessed salmon returning to their spawning grounds the children come to know that salmon can do hard things and that they never give up. We return to these Salmon teachings when we face setbacks at school, and these teachings chart a path of perseverance and commitment for us when we experience challenges. In this regard, the potential loss of the salmon on these Lands is more than a threat to food security or traditional practices. It would result in the loss of instructive ways of being in the world.

Lukas Diamond (age 8) sharing salmon teachings.

In the face of the pending crisis in the Fraser watershed, our project highlights the importance of those with deep local knowledge, particularly Elders and knowledge keepers, sharing the teachings of and from these Lands within schools. Experiences that contributed to more respectful relationships with salmon were predominantly participatory, responsive, and wholistic encounters that engaged learners in mind, body, and soul. Consistent with Indigenous and post-human worldviews, encounters in which the Land was understood as sacred, agential, and existing independently of the human desire, moved us beyond human-centric exchanges to more respectful encounters. Having regular access to the same green space was paramount for learners in contributing to developing deeply meaningful and joyful relationships with Land. This is an important consideration for urban planning to ensure access to wild spaces near schools.

While we are mindful of the ongoing impact of colonization, systemic racism, and human-centrism with the Fraser watershed, we also believe that transformative change is possible. Observing children passionately advocating for salmon and caring for them like family brings us much joy and optimism for the future. It is the accumulation of these collective moments in which we are living in balance and harmony with the Land that become significant. As Dr. Kari Grain (2022) suggests, transformative change results from “relentless incrementalism” (p. 49)—the small, deliberate, and regular actions by a critical mass of people. We invite everyone to join us in contributing to this change by caring for salmon like family. Below we have included some of our community partner organizations who support citizens in caring for the Land. If we all do as Elder Rick asks, and plant trees near creeks where shade is lacking, together we have the potential to restore our watersheds, as well as our relationships with the Land, the Salmon and with one another.

More information about our projects is available here:

  • Hill, C., Whintors, N. & Bailey, R. (2023). We are the Salmon Family: Inviting reciprocal and respectful pedagogical encounters with the Land. Engaged Scholar Journal, 8 (4), 1-22.
  • Hill, C., Bailey, R., Power, C., & McKenzie, N. (2021).  Supporting communities in caring for Salmon and each other: Creek restoration as a site for multi-system change and wholistic re/conciliation. In J. Hare (Ed.) Special Edition - Action Research and Indigenous Ways of Knowing. Canadian Journal of Action Research, 21(3), 72-94.
  • Vendramin, A. (2022). Honouring Diverse Learning Through Outdoor Education


  • Grain, K. (2022). Critical hope: How to grapple with complexity, lead with purpose, and cultivate transformative social change. Penguin Random House Canada.
  • Hotti, A. (2022). Dene Nation. Lives in Delta, BC. Oral teaching. Personal Communication. August, 2022.
  • Ream, T., Braxton, J. M., Boyer, E. L, & Moser, D. (2015). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Jossey-Bass.
  • Brandon (2021). Gray fish on water during daytime [Image].

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