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Salmon and seaweed soup.Julie Van Rosendaal/The Globe and Mail

Cultures are created, traditions are passed on and relationships are strengthened in the kitchen and around the dinner table. The potlatch, a celebratory, community-strengthening, gift-giving gathering, has been fundamental to the culture and governing structure of coastal Indigenous communities, particularly in the Pacific Northwest and interior western subarctic, since far before European settlers arrived.

Events such as weddings, deaths, births and the passing of titles and responsibilities were marked with potlatch ceremonies, which involved food, songs, dances and speeches, until 1885, when the Government of Canada banned the practice in an effort toward assimilation. During this time, hundreds of ceremonial objects were confiscated and dozens of individuals were arrested or imprisoned for hosting or participating in potlatches.

Some continued to be held underground, and eventually the ban was repealed in 1951. But many First Nations communities were not informed when the ban was lifted, so for some, hosting or participating in these traditional gatherings didn’t resume until decades later. Along with residential schools and other policies aimed at assimilating Indigenous peoples, such as outlawing languages, festivals, dances and other practices deeply tied to identity, the potlatch ban is now widely recognized as an act of cultural genocide.

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Chef Ximana Nola Mack grew up in a smokehouse in Bella Coola, B.C., immersed in Nuxalk (nu-halk) and Carrier food traditions, in a family strengthened by fishing, foraging, preparing and eating meals together. Like most Indigenous families, they have felt the intergenerational impacts of these actions.

“We pretty much lost most of our culinary techniques – they were hidden,” she says. “People still practised them, but we lost a lot through residential school and not being able to practise our potlatching. They still did it, but not as often as they wanted to.”

Mack nourishes people through food, sharing and teaching the traditions of a region she says tends to be lesser known across the country than those of other Nations. “We’ve lost a lot of natural methods we used to prepare food – the crabs, the clams, the shrimp and seafood … it’s a lost art.”

As a catering chef who often collaborates with other chefs for special events, Mack is used to feeding large groups of people. She caters the occasional potlatch, but the pandemic had an impact on these gatherings, and now the cost of living – the price of ingredients and the gas required to travel to potlatches in neighbouring communities – is affecting them as well.

For Mack, the best place to showcase the food culture of coastal First Nations, address food insecurity and educate people about the importance of Indigenous food sovereignty is around the table. “This is who we are,” she says, “and this is how we feast.”

To learn more, visit the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, B.C., a museum, art gallery and education facility that houses repatriated potlatch artifacts in a First Nations community. You can also visit to view an online virtual tour, short films and downloadable educational materials.

Recipe: Salmon, Fish Egg and Seaweed Soup

Salmon soups were (and are) common at potlatches across First Nations communities. Chef Ximana Nola Mack shared a recipe for hers, made with seaweed, salmon roe and the fat of eulachon, a tiny, oily species of smelt also known as a candlefish for their ability to burn like a candle. “When we do potlatching its mostly soups and stews and bannock – easy grab and go,” she says. The soup is light but hearty, with the salmon roe, which can also be scattered on top as a garnish, adding tiny pops of flavour.

4 cups vegetable stock

500 g salmon

1 tbsp. eulachon grease (or other cooking fat or oil)

125 g salmon roe

1/2 cup dried seaweed, plus extra for garnish

In a soup pot, combine the stock, salmon, eulachon grease and seaweed. Heat to a simmer.

If your roe comes directly from a salmon rather than from a jar, simmer the cluster of eggs, still attached to the membrane, briefly in water in a separate pot to help release them.

Add the roe to the soup and cook just to heat through, so they remain soft and don’t turn hard and rubbery.

Serves about 4.

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