Q & A with Gitga’at Chief Ernie Hill Jr.

By Meg Mittelstedt and Keith Rozendal

Eagle Chief Ernie Hill of the Gitga'at First Nation waits to speak at a protest against the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, May 29, 2010 Photo: © Robin Rowland

Leigh Joseph and Nancy Turner fondly recall Chief Ernie Hill Jr.’s vivid stories about his love for riceroot — one of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of wild species in the Gitga’at system of traditional foods. The plant still grows in significant numbers in the maze of fjord inlets around Hill’s home — the small, 200-population, Gitga’at tribal community of Hartley Bay, near B.C.s northern coast.

As hereditary chief for the Eagle clan, Hill shares responsibility for governing the Gitga’at. For 43 years, he’s also served as the school’s principal.

RIIC: What do you call riceroot in your language?

Miyuubmgyet. Miyuup, that’s rice. Miyuubmgyet would be “rice of the people” or “people’s rice.” We also call them chocolate lilies in English.

RIIC: Take us back to some of your earliest memories of eating riceroot.

Our people used to go way out there on the outer islands and harvest abalone and fur seals. My aunts took me there when I was much younger. They just loved paddling and rowing and didn’t like outboard motors. While we were there we found riceroot below the tree lines. I didn’t know you could get them out there, but they were big and MAN were they ever good!

RIIC: How do you get it out of the ground and ready to cook?

It’s got a funny flattened bulb where the individual grains are adhered. You try to get that out without losing any of the grains. If you find more sandy soil, it’s really easy to just pull them out. The whole bulb comes up and then you just take the individual grains off. It’s really difficult to clean, to get all the mud off.

RIIC: Was it traditionally steam-cooked?

Yeah, that’s right. Usually in a bentwood box with heated stones. Now I just boil it until it’s soft. You don’t want to cook it too much. You add sugar and ooligan grease after draining the water off. We’ve known Nancy Turner for a long time and the standing joke among us is that we’ll eat anything, as long as you add sugar and ooligan grease!

RIIC: How does it taste?

It’s got a very unique taste. I’ve gathered pretty much everywhere, wherever I can find it. But there are some places where it’s much better than others. The roots aren’t as bitter. But I like that bitter taste. Fortunately, not many people do. So there’s more for me!

Chief Ernie Hill heading to harvest riceroot Photo: © Lynne Hill

RIIC: Is it a commonly eaten plant in your community?

No, not really. Some of the elders still do.

RIIC: When you bring it back, how much do you take at a time?

Not a heck of a lot, maybe a couple of cup-fulls.

RIIC: And that’s enough for a good meal?

Well that’s enough for me for several meals. You kind of save it for special occasions.

RIIC: What sort of special occasions?

Oh, well, whenever I feel like having any! You know, we have a saying, and I’ve heard it ever since I was a little kid: Sta’mawksł na stołgan. In Tsimshian, it means “snow piling up on one side of the tree.” We’ll save the riceroot and we’ll bring it out to eat then. Like in the middle of winter, when food is scarce. You hoard all these little things and just save them until then.

RIIC: Do you talk it up it to some of the young people, to see if they’ll try it out?

We’re trying to change the eating habits of the kids. We’re trying to, but it’s easier, cheaper, to order a box of potato chips on the plane than a box of apples. Diabetes is rampant in First Nations communities, especially in northern Canada. When we first moved back, more than forty years ago, we’d actually go out and catch supper, you know. We depended heavily on the sea food. And since then it’s changed drastically. I firmly believe that diabetes came here because of the change in diet and if you go back to our original diet — you know, the sea — maybe it will help curb some of that.

RIIC: Do you think riceroot could be a big piece of that return?

Oh yeah, we need to bring back all the traditional foods that we used to eat. We just had our Joint Review Panel hearings a little while back [on the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and sea terminal], and the basic thrust of my testimony was that we depend so much on the food. We identified something like 50 different species that we depend on, and that’s just in the sea alone! That’s not going into sea mammals or anything.

RIIC: Or the animals and plants on the shore! Do you think a spill would threaten riceroot?

Yeah it definitely can! When the Queen of the North sank just a few miles from Hartley Bay, the oil and diesel from the ferry contaminated our clam beds, cockle beds and mussel beds. The high tides would bring that pollution all the way up to the tree line. So this was what we were saying to the Enbridge people. Our culture depends so much on the food, and if you take that away, our culture is gone. All we would need is that one spill. Well, not even that. The increased tanker traffic and the wake and things are going to raise havoc among our people here.

What do you think?

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