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The Sockeye Mother

To the Gitxsan people of Northwestern British Columbia, the sockeye salmon is more than just a source of food. Over its life cycle, it nourishes the very land and forests that the Skeena River runs through and where the Gitxsan make their home. The Sockeye Mother explores how the animals, water, soil, and seasons are all intertwined.


There’s a strong undertow today. The turbulent waters caress the backs of the little semelparous life forms emerging from their gravel nests. A small free-swimming fry bears witness to the currents of spring, after spending weeks developing and using up its nutritious yolk sack. It’s one of few remaining fry leaving its long winter’s home to seek out nursing waters.

This is the time of Wihlaxs (the black bear’s walking moon), which is early spring to the Gitxsan peoples of the Pacific Northwest Interior. Change is in the air, the days grow longer, and renewal is the life force that guides the world around the little fry’s waterways. Flora cells are starting to stir, preparing to bud and bring green to the landscape. Stores of food for the people along Xsan (river of mists) is running low, but preparations for the new seasons of fishing and gathering have begun. New snow falls to take away the old snow, which the Gitxsan call dalugwa.

Miso’o, or sockeye, are one of many species of salmon that call Xsan home. Although all species are valued, the Gitxsan prefer the flavour and number of Sockeye that return to their spawning grounds every year. The cultures along Xsan, otherwise known as the Skeena River, flourished and shaped their existence around the life cycles of this keystone species. Little does this small sockeye fry know that its life cycle not only nourishes the people and other beings along the watersheds, it is the whole reason the forests and landscapes exist.


After a couple of years of “schooling” in the deeper parts of the nursing lake, this sockeye has become a smolt. Its little silvery body begins taking the shape of its blue-backed future self. The smolt is outgrowing the lake, and this signals Lasa ya’a (the spring salmon’s returning moon), so the little sockeye begins its treacherous journey down the Skeena.

As the spring salmons return, the sockeye smolts depart to relieve their urge for saliferous waters. April carries summer innuendos, as warm winds flow through nearly blooming flowers. The scent of pines and cedar waft across moist pillowy moss. The nets and rods of the Gitxsan people scour Xsan in hopes of taking part in the return of ya’a, the spring salmon. Ceremony is held and feasts occur to welcome the runs of salmon who come to replenish the land. It’s not only a time to give thanks, but also a time to send prayer that the salmon will always return, that they will provide nourishment for all that is living within its realm.

The young sockeye has so far avoided predation, dodged the unnaturally changing landscape denuding from the clear-cutting of man, and escaped the hungry hands of ’watxs, the otter. The smolt and her school have made their journey to the Pacific, and north to the ocean waters, where they will continue to feed and grow.


For two years the sockeye mother has been feeding in the ocean waters, while avoiding sharks and killer whales. Through instinct, smell and much that is still not understood, the sockeye mother swims against the powerful currents of Xsan to return to the exact place in the rivers where she was spawned.

It’s now Lasa lik’i’nxsw (the grizzly bear’s moon). August is the time when all the Gitxsan people and grizzly bears pluck hundreds of thousands of sockeye from the Skeena. Many predators such as the grizzly discard most of the carcass. They carry their catch sometimes hundreds of metres into the forest, only to eat the fatty bellies and eggs. The decaying bodies of the salmon leaves nitrogen that nourishes the soil.

Battered and beaten by the journey, she is literally decaying due to lack of food and constant hard work. She finds a male partner who’s dug a nest to her liking. She lays her eggs. She can now die a replenishing death. The dying salmon bodies become fertilizer for all the flora that shape the great lands. Without the sockeye mother, the Gitxsan as they are, would simply not exist.


  • The Science Writers and Communicators of Canada Award, Youth Category.
  • McNally Robinson Book for Young People Award

Educator & Series Information
Recommended for Grades 4-7 for theses subject areas: Science, Social Studies.

This book is part of the Mother of Xsan series, which uses striking illustration and lyrical language to bring the poetry of the Xsan ecosystem to life.