Coast Salish foods of today: Evolving towards a new path

Knowledge keepers share what has been lost, and what has been held onto, in Coast Salish food culture.

Jared Qwustenuxun Williams is a chef, a food sovereignty advocate, the elders’ kitchen manager with Cowichan Tribes, a storyteller and a writer, among other things. There is a glossary of Hul’qumi’num words at the bottom of the article.

This series has traversed the history of changing Coast Salish food systems. After discussing the foods of the pre-contact world and the complex ways that colonization affected hwulmuhw foods, we’ve come now to the common foods we currently see in our communities. It comes as no surprise to any who have read the first two articles of this three-part series to learn that the hwunitum food system has had an direct and lasting impact on what hwulmuhw people eat. Our modern diet is dramatically different from previous generations, with hwulunitum foods dominating the menu. Over the past six generations, a diet of predominantly seafood protein and natural fats has become increasingly dominated by processed carbohydrates. Our true hwulmuhw food has become gentrified out of the price range for many people, or taken off the menu all together.

To help get a better understanding of the modern diets of hwulmuhw people I spoke to my shhwum’nikw Hwiemtun, Fred Roland, a Cowichan elder and knowledge keeper for many nations. And I spoke with my friend and fellow chef, Xunimutsun, Tyrone Sylvester, executive chef at the Rod Cod Cafe in Cowichan Bay. Both are fantastic sources of information on what people are eating in our community in modern times.

Laughter is medicine

After so much heavy work talking about our foods, I got to sit with Hwiemtun, who had me laughing almost right off the bat. “Again, Grandpa Lee sorta stepped into our territory and has taken the lead on a lot of our sulhtun we eat every day, cause he brings us the famous chucken to our territory.” What my uncle is referring to is Lee’s Chicken, and its renown as one of our relatives’ favourite foods. “And we can’t forget Auntie Wendy!” It’s a great example of how we use humour to laugh through our suffering. Uncle knows that losing our foods is dire and holds long-reaching consequences.

He tells me about how globalization has smothered our food system. “Seasons are now obsolete because we are getting stuff from other seasons that come globally through trade and export. Now that we are getting all these foods we are saturating our whole food system. We never had the opportunity to even experience bananas, oranges, avocados, all these things that again are now common things we use everyday. But you think three decades ago — where was it? You’d have to go to a real xisul fancy restaurant to get any fancy food like that. But now it’s available everywhere.”

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Gentrification of hwulmuhw food

Something that I found shocking as a chef was the realization of just how much our traditional food is worth on the hwunitum market. People often seem shocked at the volume of salmon hwulmuhw people consume and I didn’t understand why until I started buying salmon.  Xunimutsun summed it up well saying, “I tell people, co-workers and friends, how often we get to eat salmon and they are just blown away ‘cause they don’t get it too often. But it’s a staple in our household.” Some of our elders’ favourite foods like xihwu’ are often not even commercially available or are priced out of the market. Xunimutsin explains, “It blows my mind that the communities sometimes can get sea urchins, and restaurants pay top dollar just to get uni.” 

In this new world, we have something called tribal food fish, which is a practice where our tribes provide community members with fish, as we have for generations. Sometimes, as a tribal member, when I receive food fish it’s hard not to see the financial value through my chef eyes. Xunimutsin shared similar thoughts, saying, “Yeah, like halibut, we pay $50 a kilo or something silly like that, and spot prawns are $20 a pound. And the tribes give us a couple pounds, every couple months.”

Food in modern Hwulmuhw culture

During my interviews our conversations almost always lead to how our foods have changed in relation to our culture. In this case more directly on how the foods we eat at ceremonies have changed. Hwiemtun talked at length about this subject. “I am going to our thi lelum and seeing people ordering in. You know, Lee’s Chicken, Pizza. And yeah, our culture is not remaining as a solidified practice if you’re allowing stuff like that to creep into your cultural teachings, your diet. It is evolving, it’s constantly evolving, and the more we open doors to more exotics it’s going to change the way we look at things.”

When I asked Xunimutsun about how he felt the change in food had affected our culture, he said, “I guess, really, it does keep us inside more than going out and getting it. It changes that part of the culture. Instead of hunting and harvesting, we’re just purchasing everything from the grocery store huh?” Xunimutsun went on to say. “I can’t say that I’ve ever had a deer roast — I personally haven’t cooked one. Only time I ever had deer was at the big house. Every time I’ve been to Puneluxutth’, there’s always ducks in the kitchen.” Sometimes when I hear community members talk about the Puneluxutth’ kitchen it makes me feel like we left our foods at the big house. 

Changes in harvesting practices

When Xunimutsun said he’d never cooked a deer roast it made me think of how Hwiemtun talked about how hunting had changed. He said, “our whole demeanor has changed because now we can drive places. You know we have all these modern amenities that have changed our energy and the relationship to our food. You know, when we were kids we’d have to walk up Pi’paam, and go hunt deer up there and carry it home. It’s different now ‘cause we drive there. We lose that whole essence of what that felt like, to get to the place to know that you’re gonna go hunting and you have to come all the way home with that. So you had that appreciation.” 

coast salish food
These creeks and forests still hold some of the medicines and foods of yesteryear, but sadly very few people know what or where to harvest anymore. And even the people who know, struggle to find the time. Photo by Jared Qwustenuxun Williams

Xunimutsun’s next story hit home for me, as a person who struggles to walk in two worlds. “We had crabs, like a lot. That’s something that we don’t have too often now. I remember having a lot growing up. Crabs and mostly smoked fish. My grandpa would have that smokehouse going quite often. I would definitely eat more crabs if it was readily available and, you know, if I ever had a boat and some traps. But I don’t, and I spend most of my time in the restaurant. My hours are so weird. I wake up, go to work for 10 a.m., then I don’t get home till 9 p.m. So my whole day is gone before I even get home.” How can we expect people to run two races simultaneously? Working as a chef is a hard and dedicated career and many of us cannot carry the old world practices into the new world as we simply don’t have time. 

Canning carries on

During both interviews the topic of canning came up as something that is still being done as a way to preserve traditional foods. Hwiemtun talked about canning haput, and the different spices used then versus now. “When I am jarring deer meat or elk meat, I remember when late dad and grandpa used to jar it. They would have just the meat and some salt. Whereas now we are putting in onions, garlic and hot sauces. We’re adding our new touches to everything. Where things like smoked salmon were just straight salt, now we are using sea salt, using different peppers, and different hot sauces, as we are adapting to using different contemporary resources we have now.”

Xunimutsun talked about how much canned salmon they go through in their house. “We go through a lot of canned salmon. My mom does all the canning. All the sockeye that we get, she’ll can it. My favourite, and my mom’s favourite, is salmon soup. Just potatoes, onion, celery and that canned salmon.” But when I asked Xunimutsun if he knows how to can, he said, “That’s only her. I do want to learn. I want to learn how to can multiple things. I never thought growing up that I should watch how people can. You go in the kitchen and there are people canning cherries, peaches, apricots. And you think nothing of it, you just can’t wait till it’s done.”

Looking at future change

My shhwum’nikw Hwiemtun summarized the evolution of modern hwulmuhw food really well when he said, “If you start to look at it globally, you start to look at how resources have been rearranged. Because now we have become agriculturalists, we have become systematic growers, we’ve come to a level of mass production.”  Hwiemtun talked about how the traditional  food world had changed from an isolated family-based food system to an industrial food system and how everything would continue to change. “And that’s gonna continue changing. It’s like what we call human evolution, you know: nothing stays permanent. We are constantly evolving, everything is evolving. It’s even like our culture, it’s like our hwulmuhw people. So when I think about preserving the culture, there is only so much of a culture that we can preserve because it’s constantly evolving. Yeah, we can hold on to some of it, but so many things have sort of evolved and changed in our culture, in our food, and in the way we do things.”

Final Thoughts

The current hwulmuhw food system is in dire disrepair and the systems that have existed to keep it flourishing are faltering. But in the midst of all this change is, as my uncle said, an evolution. A new beginning where we can pick up the pieces of our old food system and combine it with the new hwunitum food system, picking the best from both worlds. While poverty has forced many hwulmuhw people onto new diets of fast foods, many resilient hwulmuhw are still canning fish and elk. As we move forward in this new world, one thing becomes more apparent. We need to remember the old world, remember where we came from, because in order to walk this new road together we have to break bread, or share smoked fish, with those around us that we call friends.

To the new road that we walk together siem nu siiye’yu, to a new road together!

Huy tseep q’u siem nu siiye’yu, huy tseep q’u,
Thank you my respected friends, thank you,

Jared Qwustenuxun Williams
Grandson of Qwustanulwut 

Hul’qumi’num words

  • chucken – chicken
  • haput – deer
  • hwulmuhw – First Nations person
  • hwunitum – non First Nations person
  • hwulunitum – non First Nations people
  • Pi’paam – Mount Tzouhalem 
  • Puneluxutth’ – village on Penelakut Island
  • shhwum’nikw – uncle or aunt
  • sulhtun – food
  • thi lelum – big house
  • xihwu’ – red sea urchin
  • xisul – fierce

This Food For Thought article is made possible in part with funding from the Real Estate Foundation of BC and Journalists for Human Rights/RBC. Their support does not imply endorsement of or influence over the content produced.

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