The Sockeye Mother by Hetxw'ms Gyetxw (Brett D. Huson) & Natasha Donovan (Illustrator)

In early spring, during the time of Wihlaxs (the Black Bear’s Walking Moon), salmon fry leave their hatching grounds in search of nursing water. It doesn't take long for these tiny fish to become independent of their yolk sacs. After a couple of years, the little sockeye becomes a smoult, preparing itself to move from freshwater to the saltwater of the ocean. When the spring salmon make their trek up the Skeena River, it is time for these smoults to make their journey to the sea.

The Gitxsan, who live near the Skeena River, prepare their nets to capture these spring salmon. A ceremony is held to give thanks and pray that the salmon will always return and nourish the people and land.

The smoults who make it to the Pacific swim north to feed and grow. After two years, the “sockeye mother” swims against the current of the river to return to the exact place where she was spawned. This is the time of Lasa lik’i’nxsw (the Grizzly Bear’s Moon). People and bears catch thousands of salmon at this time. Grizzlys often carry their catch into the forest where they eat only the eggs and fatty bellies leaving the rest of the fish to decay and nourish the forest.

The salmon that make it to the nesting areas lay their eggs and “die a replenishing death” thus fertilizing the water and land.

What I love most about this book is how it highlights the Salmon’s role as a keystone species both ecologically and for the Gitxsan people in Northern BC, culturally. At the same time as it takes the reader through the life cycle of this important fish, it shows us how connected the people are to it during each phase.

I appreciated that the text uses Gitxsan terms and doesn’t hesitate to use challenging vocabulary. It explains that the sockeye has to avoid predators and “dodge the changing landscape denuded by the clear-cutting of man.” Some scientific vocabulary is explained in small text boxes. The back matter gives extra information about the Gitxsan people and shows a map of their unceded territory.

The sense of connection between people and salmon is there in the use of the Gitxsan language in the text, but it’s integral to the illustrations. The images are gorgeously coloured in the shades of the rainforest and river. Having visited this part of the world, I can attest that it captures the terrain brilliantly. What brings it all together though, is the use of traditional art into these landscapes.

All school libraries should own at least one copy of this book. 

Below is a video that provides a pronunciation guide for the language used as well as additional information. 

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