To Swinomish fish cook, treaty rights come down to feeding the people

It’s a misty Nov. 3 morning and Swinomish fish cooks Eric Day and Medicine Bear are cooking coho for elders on the Swinomish Reservation. Senses are stirred by the earthy smell of alder smoke, by traditional music playing on Day’s sound system, by the sound of Day’s knife scraping clean an ironwood skewer, and, of course, by the scent of cooked salmon.  

As often happens at an Indigenous place, the past, present and future meld here. Day and Medicine Bear cook outside the senior center, a newer building bearing traditional architectural details, overlooking Txiwu’c, an ancestral village site on Swinomish Channel that is now Swadabs Park. 

Eric Day, Swinomish, and Medicine Bear, a Lakota resident of the Swinomish Reservation, cook coho salmon Nov. 3 for delivery to elders. R. Walker

This scene the fish, the smoke, the sound of drumming and singing would be familiar to the ancestors at Txiwu’c. The fishing rights they reserved and the habitat restoration, environmental protection and fisheries management that are now taking place all lead to this: The ability to meet the spiritual and dietary needs of the people. 

“A lot of times when we do have meetings with people who we want to talk with about fishing and what impact [a policy or action] has, I always mention that I cook fish for the community,” said Day, a member of the Swinomish Tribe’s Senate. “That’s part of what we’re protecting, the ability to be able cook for the people and provide the salmon for them. It’s not about money, it’s about the connection with the land and water. It’s about feeding the soul and the spirit.” 

Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12 and other essential nutrients, and has long been recognized as being good for heart health and bolstering the immune system. Stories abound about ancestors who lived well past 100, having lived on salmon-rich diets. The people took care of the salmon, and the salmon took care of the people. Today, much work is being done to protect salmon habitat from degradation and correct poor planning policies to care for the salmon, so the salmon can continue to care for the people.

“The salmon is the very essence of who we are and where we come from as Native American people,” state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, 40th District, said May 11 during an event on Orcas Island. “When you have healthy salmon, you have a healthy economy. Your social structure is strong, your body is healthy. You have clean water, you have clean habitat, you have clean air.”  

Day and Medicine Bear cook 100 pounds of fish each week for elders. The senior center delivers 60 to 70 plates and the remainder is picked up, Day said. 

Day said coho salmon, also known as silvers, have softer flesh. He likes sockeye, which he said has a richer taste. Kings, or chinook, are thicker and have a lot more oil, he said. Humpies, or pinks, are usually smoked. 

Coho fisheries were shorter this year because of low returns, Day said.

“I fished for humpies this year and we did pretty good, but it’s not like it used to be,” Day said. “When I went fishing out of high school, we’d have a four-day opener but we’d be out there for three weeks because they kept extending it. That’s how good it was.”

Swinomish fish cook Eric Day cleans a coho salmon Nov. 3 outside the tribe’s elder center. Photo: R. Walker