Indigenous salmon stream caretaking: Ancestral lifeways to guide restoration, relationship, rights, and responsibilities

May 14, 2024
This article is authored by Kirsten Bradford, who is part of the Fall 2023 cohort of CER Funding Program recipients. Kirsten is a non-Indigenous interdisciplinary fisheries scientist, and recent master's graduate of  SFU's School of Resource and Environmental Management. Alongside collaborators from five First Nations, Bradford is co-producing a paper with the intention to uplift Indigenous salmon stream caretaking knowledge and restoration, and the relationships, rights, and responsibilities tied to salmon streams.

On the Pacific Coast, Indigenous Peoples have, and continue to, care for salmon and their freshwater habitat through complex, adaptive, and place-based caretaking practices. These caretaking practices, nested within broader stream governance systems, support vibrant salmon social-ecological systems.

Today, this ancestral caretaking knowledge has been repressed and marginalized by colonial systems, but efforts exist to reawaken, reclaim, and rebuild Indigenous stream caretaking practices and responsibilities.

Transform to restore (Lauren Marchand, 2023). Syilx illustrator Lauren Marchand created ‘Transform to restore’ as an intention setting image, to articulate the goals and vision of this collaborative research project. “Ancestral energy surrounds us, guiding Indigenous People through time. Salmon remains return to water for abundance, sustaining today's Indigenous communities. Present-day Indigenous People bear equal responsibility for the land. Coyote prints symbolize transformation, navigating two worlds with unchanging teachings. Orange and blue colours symbolize the balance between the past and present.” Artist statement by Lauren Marchand, 2023.

Motivated to support these efforts, early in my degree I was connected to Kii’iljuus Barbara Wilson, a Haida knowledge holder, cultural advisor, and soon to be mentor. We began with the common understanding that Pacific salmon populations are struggling, and that together we have an opportunity to shed light on Indigenous salmon stream caretaking practices and protocol for more ethical and sustainable salmon futures.

As a non-Indigenous graduate student, who has been connected to and guided by salmon all my life, I felt deeply humbled to be partnered with Kii’iljuus. But I admit that I also felt intimated, and at points uncomfortable, as I was finally forced out of the salmon ecology research bubble that I had surrounded myself with up to this point in my career.  

This discomfort stemmed from two place. First, I wondered, what is my role in this work as a non-Indigenous person? And second, I struggled with the unknowability of the research project. While my peers were building experimental designs, statistical models, and interview questionnaires, I wondered: Will my project ever have a clearly defined scope and research question?

Over the course of two and a half years, I learned to lean into these uncertainties and to understand them as strengths of the work. I was graciously mentored and supported by Kii’iljuus, and my other Indigenous collaborators. I turned to the work of many Indigenous scholars to understand, to the best that I could as non-Indigenous person,  Indigenous world views, research methodologies, and science.

With this support and learning, I brough together a group of researchers, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, including members of, or people working on behalf of, the following Nations: Haida, Nisg̱a’a, Syilx, səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), and two Nuu-chah-nulth Nations, ƛaʔuukʷiʔatḥ (Tla-o-qui-aht) and Hupačasath. Together, we gathered Indigenous knowledge of human-salmon relationships to recognize its value by developing a collaborative research paper. We are students, mentors, practitioners, and knowledge carriers, connected by our concern for Pacific salmon, and our commitment to conduct research and salmon habitat restoration in a more holistic, and respectful way.

As a group, we were guided by core principles that supported ethical and effective collaboration. As we built the collaborative, we asked first, knowing that the answer may be no, and didn’t assume there would be interest or capacity to collaborate; we worked with transparency, following through on our words with actions; we built trust over long periods of time and leaned on pre-existing trust-based relationships; and at the foundation of this collaboration, we had respect for each other, for salmon, and for the land, as we worked to do research in a different way. We do this work alongside a larger movement within the scientific community that aims to co-produce research in transparent and respectful ways to support Indigenous resurgence and self-determination.

In our collaborative paper, we introduce Indigenous stream governance as the structures that ground stream caretaking. We then present a literature review of 8 Indigenous stream caretaking practices. We finish the paper with three focal stories of contemporary Indigenous salmon stream restoration: Syilx sockeye restoration, ‘səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) led salmon habitat restoration in xʔəl̓ilwətaʔɬ (Indian River Watershed)’, and ‘Nuu-chah-nulth Peoples and salmon: responsive methods through steadfast lifeways’. With support from CERi Community-Engaged Research Funding Program, we worked with Syilx artist, Lauren Marchand, to bring the themes of this collaborative work to life through her illustrations.

Indigenous salmon stream caretaking practices (Lauren Marchand, 2024). Eight stream caretaking practices are shown here: assessing systems health, enhancing salmon migration, enriching stream habitat, harvesting salmon predators, working with beavers and trees, returning salmon bones to the water, moving salmon to strengthen populations, and harvesting salmon for thriving populations. These practices can transform salmon habitat, support healthy salmon populations, and maintain human-salmon relationships.

By looking to the past, to guide the future of salmon restoration and caretaking, our paper highlights how ancestral knowledge and governance continues to guide Indigenous People’s reciprocal relationships to salmon, including their rights and responsibilities to care for and restore salmon streams. We honour, uphold, and celebrate the knowledges and stories shared through this work, so that they may guide salmon habitat restoration, for the potential benefit of all. This work will be published in a scientific journal soon, to support Indigenous Peoples and their work to restore their salmon streams and revitalize their caretaking rights and responsibilities.

As a non-Indigenous fisheries scientist, I wasn’t prepared for the lessons that this project taught me and continues to teach me. As we built this project from the community up, I learned how to be vulnerable within my work, and how to research with both my head and my heart, something that as western trained scientists we are constantly told not to do. While this project is coming to a close, my learning continues. This learning journey is one full of making mistakes, acknowledging them, and then working to do better. It is a learning journey I am deeply grateful to be part of.

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