Ways of Life

Oolichan Grease

Near the end of each winter, the Nisg̱a’a prepared for one of the most important fishing activities of the year: the annual oolichan run up the Nass River. Beginning around the end of February, they started to fish vast quantities of oolichan, a small and very oily member of the smelt family. One sign of the oolichans’ arrival would be the sudden appearance of large numbers of sea mammals at the mouth of the river, as these animals hunted the oolichan.

Oolichan was not usually eaten as a fish meat. The vast majority of the catch was rendered for its edible grease which could be stored for many months. They boiled the oolichan in large cedar bent boxes until the grease separated and rose to the top. They then skimmed the grease and poured it into other boxes to store it for trade with other tribes or eating throughout the year. Oolichan contained so much grease that they could be burned like candles when dried, earning them the nickname “candlefish”.

The Nisg̱a’a traditionally fished oolichan with either nets or an oolichan rake called a k’idaa. The k’idaa was a long pole with comb-like wooden teeth on the end that was used to “rake” the oolichan from shallow areas of the river. For example, the ancient village of Ank’idaa took its name from the practice of catching oolichan with the k’idaa at that location.

Oolichan were also caught with nets. Sometimes a simple dip-net was used to scoop the oolichan out of the river, and other times a long oblong-shaped net would be anchored with tall stakes in the river and allowed to hang in the current. Every few minutes, the net would fill with oolichan and attendants would gather the net and empty it before setting it in the current again.

Dip-nets were made of twine spun from the fibrous pith of tall stinging nettles. The larger oblong-shaped net (called a “hlist”) was made from twine that was spun from fireweed pith. The fireweed twine was known as “w̓ahaas”, or “thread-made-from-fire-weed”.

Oolichan Fishing on ice with mountains in background
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Closer view of Oolichan fishing (sledge in foreground)
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Oolichan drying on racks
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Oolichan Fishing village
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Woman at the drying racks
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People by the box filled with Oolichan
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Many Oolichan drying racks
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Misty moutnain above a fishing village with Oolichan racks visible
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Oolichan rack without any fish on it
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Houses in the village
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Houses in the village (closer)
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