In the summer of 1933, Weston Price set out to locate native peoples still living on this continent who might shed light on the health and nutrition of their ancestors before the widespread encroachment of modern foods. He described visits to Indian reserves in the Pacific Northwest where native populations had been relocated several times to accommodate the “acute need” for their ancestral homelands by the United States and Canadian governments. His chronicle of rampant tooth decay, tuberculosis and crippling arthritis suffered by the inhabitants of these reserves illustrated the shameful destruction of health, livelihood and well-being of once thriving and prosperous aboriginal peoples.
Dr. Price did encounter native groups whose interaction with whites and modern foods was almost nonexistent. In his pioneering work, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, he recorded their excellent health attributes, and he also noted that the source of their nutrition was largely land animals that they hunted, along with bountiful and diverse seafood, the latter especially true for tribal groups living along coastal areas he visited in British Columbia, Vancouver Island and southeastern Alaska.
Of the many gifts from the sea, the ooligan or candlefish is briefly mentioned by Dr. Price as a very small but nutritious, high-fat fish whose oil is rendered and used as a condiment to enhance many other sea foods. It also functioned as an important article of trade. Compared to the mighty salmon, the ooligan has historically received very little press, but its ancient and enduring importance to not only coastal indigenous peoples, but to those with whom they traditionally traded in the interior, cannot be overestimated. The story of this diminutive fish and the people who came to call it “the cure of all humanity” represents an emblem of another world view that once dominated the cultural history of this continent.
Thaleichthys pacificus is a member of the smelt family, and the ooligan (also spelled oolichan or eulachon, among many variants) is a close relative of the smelt that run in early spring in the waters of the Great Lakes. The appropriately named fatty fish (Greek; thale: rich, ichthys: fish) is very high in nutritious oil—from 16 to 20 percent by weight. Its modern-day moniker of candlefish reflects the fact that dried ooligan contains so much fat that it can be lit and used as a light source.
Like salmon, the ooligan is an anadromous fish, which means it lives most of its life in the sea but migrates in the spring back to the fresh waters where it was born to spawn. The ooligan has faithfully returned to the cold estuaries and river mouths of the northwest Pacific coast since earliest times.
At the time of first contact with Europeans in the 18th century, the Pacific Northwest coast and inland territories (comprising what is now northern California, Oregon, Washington, western British Columbia and southeastern Alaska) were populated by numerous indigenous tribal groups representing some of the greatest language diversity anywhere on the globe. These inhabitants of an area of differing climatic zones developed unique ways of life to fulfill their needs, which were deeply dependent upon and adapted to their natural surroundings. They made their tools from wood, stone, bone, antler and shell. The inhabitants of this region had also created a sophisticated, seasonal trade network that distributed the wealth of the giving land and sea among all its residents.
In Our Box was Full: An Ethnography of the Delgamuukw Plaintiffs, anthropologist Richard Daly depicts the astonishing abundance of the seasonal cycles of fishing, hunting, gathering and trading engaged in by indigenous peoples: “In the Kitsumkalem-Kitselas area, the Frog Clan hunted mountain sheep, groundhog, caribou and grouse; hemlock bark was used for string and rope; fireweed fiber was spun into string; beaver was hunted for robes. . . the fishing of humpback, sockeye and spring salmon, and steelhead was carried out. . . [F]ishing was done by pronged spear and by employing fishing weirs with basket traps attached.
“[T]he women, the old people and the young were pressed into service to carry, wash, and cut the fish for drying and storage. At the same time, special processes were involved in preparing the heads—drying or boiling them for oil—as well as the eyes, bellies and eggs.
“The late fall fish, especially coho and steelhead, were often allowed to freeze on the ground in the night frost, then stored whole in earth pits or root cellars until needed. [Lamprey eel and sturgeon] were used quite extensively as smoked storage food.
“Even at the height of the long fishing season the weirs were often opened and traps pulled up and the gaffs laid down . . . so that processing and smoking work [ c o u l d ] catch up. The bottleneck in the production process has been the labor- intensive work involved in carrying out the many steps that go into the preparation of the red-fleshed salmon, as well as the many specific tasks needed for the gourmet preparation of special portions of the fish. . . The fishing season began with a feast each night, hosted by a different chief.
“Berry-picking occurred in the autumn after the salmon season (and while the men were taking groundhog and mountain goat) around Kisgagas and Bear Lake. . . . Women of the western vil lages would spend a few weeks in the mountains at their well-tended berry patches picking blue huckleberries and blueberries on the sites where their grandmothers picked before them. They might also make trips down some of the valleys for swamp cranberries and wild crabapples, saskatoons and soapberries; also thornberries and rosehips. . . . In less than a month they would have prepared (picked, boiled in wooden boxes with heated stones, then spread on leaves to dry on racks over the fire) forty to sixty pack-loads of berry cakes. . . . Both the dried salmon and the dried berries frequently had to be backpacked in relays from House fishing sites and main berry sites several kilometers home to the village for winter storage. . . . The dried berry sheets were rolled and stored in ground pits until needed, as were [wild] rice-root bulbs, hazelnuts, fern root, and hemlock sap cakes composed of pounded and mashed cambium of young, sun-exposed western hemlock.
“Feast gifts at Gitwangax and the upper Nass included grizzly bear and mountain goat hides…. In the Stewart area and on the upper Nass it is said that marmot territories were extremely important because the pelts were a highly valued trade item. So’o, a favorite sweet springtime food, was prepared from the inner bark of the hemlock as well as the inner bark of pine and birch. There is mention of devil’s club medicine, caribou hunting… cranberries; huckleberries; beaver; black bear; grizzlies; mink; and crabapples…Containers were made from birchbark, and drums were often bentwood boxes.”
Fat Of The Land And Sea
Assuring adequate sources of fat year-round within hunting and fishing populations to supply energy needs and maintain body heat meant that fat-bearing animals were always sought and universally treasured. “[H]unter-gatherers, such as the Gitksan and Witsuwit’en have solved the same problem through the pursuit and storage of a number of diverse sources of high energy foods that successfully combine the protein of the dietary staple (stored, dried salmon) and the carbohydrate of berries, sap bark, and root produce with various sources of fat. The cornerstone of this diet was fat and protein obtained from the combination of fish and game. In the indigenous Gitksan and Witsuwit’en economy, this form of dietary combination was achieved in the course of fishing, hunting, plant harvesting, sharing and barter. The produce could be combined in a sustaining manner over the course of the annual economic cycle by means of highly efficient drying and storage skills. Moreover, the well developed network of exchange and trade in fat- and protein-rich foodstuffs was traced across the land in the form of sinuous trails linking the settlements of peoples over the general region.
“A central ingredient in the diet. . . is dry-smoked salmon. This protein-rich foodstuff also contains an amount of fat and is supplemented with additional fatty foods such as the oil (locally called “grease”) rendered from the freshly caught oolichan as well as from salmon, groundhog, beaver and big game. Fat rendered from salmon heads was prepared in summer, hung in bladder pouches in the rodent-resistant family meat caches, and saved for winter use. . .
“The salmon themselves contain varying amounts of oil, although they utilize much of it in the course of fighting their way upstream to their spawning beds. Spring and sockeye have the highest oil content. Most animal species hunted in the late summer and fall have been pursued at that time of year expressly because they have generally finished rearing their offspring and have fattened over the summer months. Fat game was taken for its hides and furs as well as its oil riches. The marmot/groundhog of the Alpine Tundra Zone is especially noted for its luxuriant autumn fat. Gitksan hunters describe both its lean and fat flesh, and its taste as ‘bacon-like’. . . The groundhog fat was stuffed into the stomach of the groundhog and hung to dry, sometimes over the smoke of the fire. . . The mountain goat, too, is a fat game animal; its head, neck and backbone yield fat that can be rendered to oil. . . the meat would be cut into thin strips, smoked, and put away in cache houses. . . The fat encasing the kidneys is rich and sweet. . . .
“. . . In the western Gitksan villages at the end of summer, each House chief ensured preparations were carried out for the groundhog trapping and the hunting of mountain goat and bear as well as the woodland caribou. He would be expected to ensure that only certain areas would be hunted each season, while others were left fallow. Today he is still expected to warn against over-harvesting. . .
“[G]oat fat was a suitable gift for an important guest in the feast hall. Haimas, in hosting his first major feast, showed his guests that he was not the poverty-stricken eater of shellfish (which was considered, in the vicinity of his coastal village, as fat-poor starvation food that coastal peoples resorted to in late winter), as had been rumored by his rivals. He invited his guests to join him in his ‘shellfish diet.’ He then almost drowned his guests in the plethora of mountain goat fat that he had prepared in advance. Deer, moose, sheep, and caribou also yielded considerable quantities of fat. ‘Friendly’ rivalries between chiefs are remembered by today’s elderly. At these events hosts challenged guests to out-consume them in grease, and they would sit, tied by etiquette, through the many hours of the feast séance without being able to exit in order to relieve themselves.
“In early spring, many of the Gitksan and some of the Witsuwit’en journeyed to the coast to obtain the oolichan grease and storage oolichan, which are smoke-dried. According to Kuhnlein et al. (1982, 159-60) the oolichan is not only a fat-rich food but a vitamin-rich substance that has both nutritional and medicinal uses: ‘the saturated fats of ooligan oil are similar to lard and higher than that present in corn oil and corn oil margarine…. There is no doubt about the superiority of ooligan grease in providing vitamins A, E, and K in comparison to the other three fats.’”
“Kuhnlein and Chan’s 1998 monograph, Ooligan Grease: A Traditional Food Fat of Western Canada and Alaska, published in Circumpolar Health (pages 1121-4) notes further that: “Sampling and analysis of ooligan fish and grease from several areas of western British Columbia revealed outstanding nutritional properties, in particular for retinol [vitamin A] and the monounsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids. The traditional method of preparing ooligan grease enhanced the content of the important long-chain fatty acid, DHA (C22:6), which is an outstanding and unusual finding further demonstrating the healthful properties of ooligan grease. Heavy metals, organochlorine pesticides, and PCBs were present, but did not exceed the current established guidelines. Given the cultural importance and the nutritional attributes of ooligan fish and grease, it is concluded that the benefits of these foods are substantial, and far outweigh the known risks for contaminant exposure from consuming them. Nevertheless, the presence of these contaminants in an outstanding food used traditionally by First Nations in British Columbia and Alaska has resulted in anger, resentment, and fear of long-term health effects caused by industrial activity that is carelessly conducted with insufficient pollution controls. All concerned must bring this situation to the attention of the industries and government agencies which can correct this situation.”
Friend And Saviour
For as long as can be remembered, and therefore, probably for millennia, the appearance of the ooligan at the end of winter and early spring was greeted with exuberant joy by coastal peoples nearing the end of their food stores and with no other sources of fatty animal food at hand. From Our Box was Full: “The arrival of the oolichan. . . was traditionally announced with the cry, ‘Hlaa aat’ixshi halimootxw!’ or, ‘Our Saviour has just arrived!’ [Ooligan] was a prized gift in feasts and between neighbors. This was one of many gifts the people were permanently indebted for, and they could counter only by regarding the natural world with respect and gratitude.”
Ironically, when missionaries later sought ways to deliver the story of Jesus Christ with the proper degree of moral weight, sanctity, and personal importance to their audience, they grasped the example of the ooligan, universally revered as friend, saviour and healer by native peoples. I imagine those early missionaries must have rejoiced at the serendipity of the marine metaphor. IX??S, transliterated as ICHTHYS, and also meaning “fish,” is the Greek acronym for “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour,” and was of course the early symbol of Christ, the “fisher of souls.”
The ooligan runs last only several days, with first the males and then the females gathering in larger and larger schools in the clear, cold sand-bottomed waters of northwest river mouths and estuaries. Hungrily circling sea gulls and eagles helped alert the people that their friend had arrived as well. Native fishermen dipped the ooligan with nets into their canoes, and many families would catch between five and ten tons of fish for immediate use, to dry or smoke for storage, and to process into grease.
The traditional, labor-intensive means of processing ooligan grease involved placing the fish in large wooden boxes or canoes, appropriately called “stink boxes,” where the fish would ferment for four or five days, and up to two weeks, to help release the oil. Fresh water would be added to the fermented fish, and then stones, heated in a fire, would be placed with tongs into the canoe or box until the water boiled. As the stones cooled, they would be retrieved by wooden, sieve-like ladles and replaced by more heated stones, keeping the fish cooking gently at a simmer. The ooligan oil would separate and float to the top of the vessels where it was skimmed off and poured into smaller wooden boxes. The ooligan grease was usually cooked a second time to clean it further. The spent fish mash would be pressed through pliable baskets to capture more oil and then finally released into the river. Each House family would also utilize its own secret details of grease preparation, with connoisseurs able to recognize by taste ooligan grease produced by various families. A standard recipe using one three-person canoe yields five or six gallons of ooligan grease, with the added benefit that the oil that saturated the canoe during processing greatly enhanced its water-proof qualities.
For final storage and transport for trade, the grease, solid like butter or lard at room temperature, would be packed into cedar boxes of at least fifty pounds’ capacity, and often as much as 150 pounds. A 19th century observer of the transport of boxes of ooligan grease gives this description: “More than one hundred must have passed us, and they were without a single exception, not only the men, but also the women and children, laden with large cedar boxes, of the size and shape of tea chests, which were filled with the rendered grease of the candle fish caught in the Nass waters. . . They passed us in twos and threes. . . little children even, of tender years, carried burdens of thirty or forty pounds weight, and tottered along in silence. One savage had, in addition to the usual load of grease, perched on its summit an old and decrepit woman, perhaps his mother. This man could not have had less than two hundred and fifty pounds weight on his back; but they are a tough, hardy set, and great carriers” (Charles Horetzky, Canada on the Pacific, 1874).
Ooligan Fishing Today
Ooligan fish and grease were widely valued and sought not only by the aboriginal coastal peoples who harvested it locally, but among tribal groups far into the interior and even as far away as the Great Lakes Region. People would travel hundreds of miles over established “grease trails” that served as ancient trade routes across the North American continent long before contact with Europeans. These grease trails served not only as conduits of commerce, but also of communication among groups to share information, visit their friends and families, reconnoiter new hunting, fishing and gathering territory, and, sometimes, to wage war. Ancient portions of the original grease trails have been overlaid by modern highway systems, including parts of the Alaskan Highway.
As the 18th century waned, trade along the grease trails was interrupted by massive native population losses due to European-introduced epidemics of small pox and other diseases. Surviving groups, responding to new pressures, began to trade with the colonizers and eventually, the value of non-native goods replaced many of the indigenous wealth items of trade. However, ooligan grease managed to maintain its status as “the grease that cures humanity” and continues to be held in high esteem today. One source notes that in 1978, a gallon of ooligan grease fetched $85 in Bella Coola, British Columbia.
The use of ooligan has been embedded in Pacific Northwest native culture for many centuries, and the people see their spiritual paths linked with that of the fish as well. Ooligan has long provided not only nutritional, but medicinal, social and spiritual well-being to native peoples, and continues to ensure their vitality on many planes, as well as to reinforce the relationship of humans with this world as one interwoven fabric.
Anthropologist Richard Daly concludes: “Each proprietary group, or House, legitimately receives the gifts of nature from its lands and fishing sites. These groups reciprocate respectfully, and show their gratitude, they say, through their participation in the endless spiral of feast-giving. They feel perpetually indebted to the ancestor spirits of all life forms lodged in the land. All they can do by way of recompense is eventually give their lives back to nature and, meanwhile, fulfill their feasting duties to local society. Peoples of the Northwest Coast tradition recall a time when these powers of the land once had human forms, or could transform back and forth at will, as attested by the transformative nature of Northwest Coast art. These are the beings that gifted the human world with light and knowledge, giving humans special skills and powers, and revealing themselves to the first and founding ancestors of the House groups. They are the source of the peoples’ legitimate ownership of inalienable property as well as of their eternal indebtedness. . . . This ‘social imaginary’ or traditional ideation, gives moral impetus, impelling people to show respect and gratitude to what the Westerner calls the natural world and to what foraging peoples generally call home.”
Caption: The Samson Beaver family of the Canadian Rockies, in a 1906 photo by artist Mary Schaffer. Note the beautiful facial structure of father, mother and child.
How Much Ooligan Grease?
In an interesting note to his chapter on “Gifts, Exchange and Trade” from Our Box was Full, Richard Daly contemplates what the actual consumption of ooligan grease may have been among tribal groups close to ooligan spawning grounds, compared to those further within the interior who would have had to import this valuable commodity.
“An oolichan grease box used for freighting the grease into the upper Skeena River area [western British Columbia] averaged, very conservatively, twenty-five kilograms [about 50 pounds]. Assuming fifty persons on average resident in each of the Houses said to exist in protocontact times, or at least in times before European-induced epidemics, [that is, before mid 18th century or so] then there was a population of approximately 10,000. Kuhnlein found that, in modern conditions, one family of five consumed five million calories of grease in a year at Nuxalk in the Bella Coola region [near local ooligan spawning grounds], in order to gain 6.8 percent of their annual caloric needs. To obtain 6.8 percent of caloric need per family of five would require twenty-two boxes of grease being packed over the trail from the spawning grounds, solely for local consumption.
“Gitksan and Witsuwit’en consumption was thus probably considerably less than that 6.8 percent consumed by modern Nuxalk people, with their ready access to the fish. With a Gitksan-Witsuwit’en population of 10,000 and double or triple relay loads along the trails, with dogs carrying an additional 10 to 20 kilograms, the people could feasibly have transported enough grease to supply each family of five with the equivalent of five to six gallons and distributed approximately the same amount in gifts and barter with inland neighbors. This would have entailed about 4,000 boxes of grease moving inland each spring and increasing in value as it moved further from its sources. The amount of grease people like to have on hand today is about a gallon. This is kept in the refrigerator and used on special occasions. That is approximately 20 percent of the contents of one grease box.”
Did Ooligan Lend its Name to the 33rd State?
Some 230 years after the place name of Oregon first appeared in print, modern, historians are reexamining its origins while shifting weight from the experiences of the colonizers of the New World to that of the pre-existing history of indigenous inhabitants. “Ourigan: Wealth of the Northwest Coast” by Scott Bryam and David G. Lewis was published in the Summer, 2001 issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly Review (vol. 102, no. 2) and provides a fascinating and very plausible treatment of the likelihood that “Oregon” is directly related to “ourigan,” a variant name of ooligan fish.
Members of British and French geographical expeditions who found themselves in the upper Midwest of the North American continent in the mid 18th century had frequent contact with native people who told them of a northwest route to the Pacific Ocean. These native scouts and traders had intimate and extremely accurate geographical understanding of the region, and they described a trade route from the Great Lakes across the northern Rocky Mountains to what is now the upper Fraser River. What the native people called the Ourigan River closely matches in actual details the location of the Fraser River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean at Vancouver, British Columbia. According to Bryam and Lewis, “Furthermore, the Fraser lies within what was once a vast indigenous trading network, known as the ‘grease trails.’ The key commodity traded through this network, which stretched from the Pacific Coast eastward across the Rockies, was the highly sought-after oil, or ‘grease’ of the fish commonly known by First Nations and Native American peoples as ooligan, oolichan and other variants.”
By the early 19th century, European cartographers first mapped “Oregon” as a large territory on the northwest coast encompassing what is now British Columbia and the states of Washington and Oregon. In many instances, however, the River Oregon was mistakenly shown as what we call the Columbia River today, adding confusion to the origin of the name. As the territory designated by the name “Oregon” finally came to rest on what is now the 33rd state in the Union, the place name was contoured to modern geographical determinants and no longer encompassed the original territory understood by native peoples.
Bryam and Lewis shed further light on the millenia of trade and interaction between northwest coast and interior native tribal groups: “As to the geographical accuracy of the route west, it was common for Indian traders and scouts to have detailed information about landscape and cultural features, and many early Indian maps maintained constant scale over vast areas. . . . Historically, the Cree were expert canoeists; and according to geographer David Pentland, they possessed ‘a profound knowledge of the drainage systems that they used for travel.’ Furthermore, ‘familiarity with the entire river system is reflected in Cree [place naming].’
“Archaeologists have proposed the theory that these links between the Pacific Coast and the Northern Plains/Great Lakes may be the oldest long-distance trade patterns that Plains communities were involved in.
“Probably because of its widespread trade and the great value placed on the grease throughout the region, ooligan was a common word in Chinook Jargon, the trade language used in the Northwest.”
In the Northern Plains territories, Cree was the trade language used, and “Cree society played such an important role in indigenous trade that the Cree language has been regarded as the lingua franca of the Northern Plains, southern boreal forest, and Manitoba Lakes regions.” Ooligan was a trade word, among others on a list of highly valued trade commodities that would have been therefore understood on both sides of the Rockies. Interestingly, in western-most Cree dialects, there is no “l” sound, and speakers of these dialects would substitute an “r” sound, so that “ooligan” would be pronounced “ourigan.” It is this word that the European colonizers are likely to have heard first in reference to the territory of great wealth far to the west, and that would become a dreamed-of destination on their maps.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2007.