How Oolichan Came to the Northwest

The oolichan, or saviour fish as it is also known, has helped shape and strengthen First Nations culture in the Northwest. It was not only a great food source, but it was used for medicinal purposes and was an important commodity, not only for the Nisga'a Nation but other Nations in the Pacific Northwest and across the continent. This is the Nisga'a story of how oolichan came to the Northwest.


Figure 1: Oolichan
Photo by Dave Gordon


The story of how oolichan came to the north west began with Dudusonx and how a Supreme Being sent his son to earth bearing gifts for men. Wherever he went, Dudusonx threw a concentrated oolichan in that area. But Dudusonx only visited the tribes in that section [Pacific] of the coastline. (Harrington, 1953)

Each year when the oolichan return, there were rules that had to be followed to ensure the success of the current and future runs.

'A rigid code of behaviour must be observed, or the oolichan would remain in the ocean. Refuse must not be thrown into the river. Women must keep well out of sight during the run. Spilling grease offends the oolichan as careless waste. And 'once the oolichan run begins,' wrote Rev. Mr. Holcombe, missionary on the Skeena around 1860, 'the Indian custom is to meet the fish as they come and speak to them: 'You fish, you fish! You are, you are all Chiefs!'.' (Harington, 1953)

The oolichan was also known as the 'saviour fish' due to its timely arrival right after the winter. In the Nisga'a culture, the arrival of the oolichan signified the beginning of a new year. 'The Nisga'a year starts during the spring equinox, with the migration of the pre-spawning oolichan into the lower Nass. The annual harvest round began in March with the movement of the wilps to their oolichan fishing locations... '(Nisga'a Tribal Council, 1995)

A good way to observe oolichan making their way up each river is to simply watch the excitement! There are many species of wildlife that also look forward to the arrival of the oolichan, and it is highly evident by the swarms of gulls above the rivers. It is quite a sight to see.


Figure 2: Bald Eagles on the Skeena River
Photo by Linda Wilson


When the oolichan arrive on the Nass River around March, there is often snow on the ground, and areas of the river are still frozen.

'[In order to] fish for oolichans when the river is frozen you have to cut through the ice at the approximate place where you fished when there was no ice. Frozen or not, the oolichans still come up to spawn and the people who thrive on the fish ready themselves to greet them.' (Gonu, 2004)

Families prepare to camp at Fishery Bay to harvest the oolichan. Their stay lasts as long as it takes to harvest the fish, approximately a month, then they move back to their village.

' Fishery Bay work starts right away. Everyone helped, men, women and children. When men know the oolichans have arrived they start fishing. If the oolichan have not arrived then they get the wood for processing the oolichans. When fishing begins there are different ways to fish depending on weather conditions.' (Peal, 2004)


Figure 3: Modern Net Fishing
Photo by Myles Stewart


In times past, before mesh nets were used, First Nations used plants and animals to help with their fishing. For example, materials were harvested for nets such as stinging nettle. The oolichan rake, or k'idaa, was used to catch the fish simply by raking along the water. (Stewart, 1977)

There are several distinct oolichan runs on the Nass River and the people of the Nisga'a Nation know this difference and use each run for a certain process.

Once caught, there are many different ways to process the oolichan. They can be cooked by boiling, baking or frying. Alternatively, they can be preserved by sun drying, smoking, and rendering the oolichan grease, which is one of the more important methods of preservation.


Gonu, Melin. (2004). Oolichan Fishery Nisga'a Stories Behind the Photographs. (pp. 5-7) Wilp Wilxo'oskwhl Nisga'a Society.

Nisga'a Tribal Council (1995) The Land and Resources: Traditional Nisga'a Systems of Land Use and Ownership. Ayuukhl Nisga'a Study Volume IV. Wilp Wilxo'oskwhl Nisga'a Publications.

Peal, Charmaine (2004) Fishery Bay. Nisga'a Stories Behind the Photographs. (pp. 23-26) Wilp Wilxo'oskwhl Nisga'a Society.

Stewart, Hilary (1977). Indian Fishing, Early Methods on the Northwest Coast. United States: University of Washington Press.


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