There are many clever – yet often quite simple – methods of suspending a fish over a fire in a way which ensures it is cooked to perfection.
One such method has become well known in bushcraft circles in the UK. This is the technique commonly known as ponassing. Indeed, we teach this method during our Elementary Wilderness Bushcraft Course.
Working particularly well on salmon and other similar salmonids such as trout or char, this technique involves removing the head, bones and tail, leaving one complete fillet, which is then suspended over the fire using a stick framework.
Despite its prominence, I don’t get the impression many people practicing or teaching this technique in the UK are particularly aware of where it comes from – geographically or culturally.
Moreover, it’s worth reflecting on the importance of fish in these cultures.
North West Pacific Coast
I’ve written about the importance of fish and fishing in indigenous cultures in previous articles such as Gaining A Native Perspective: Visiting The Dokis.
While fish have been an important source of nutrition to many peoples and an important component of their culture, nowhere is this more the case than for the First Nations of the Pacific North West Coast of North America. From northern California north to Alaska, indigenous cultures were centred around – and dependent upon – what could be harvested from the sea.
This was noted by western culture from the time of first contact. On his third voyage of discovery, Captain James Cook spent a month anchored in Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island. John Webber was the official artist and he depicted life in the longhouses of the indigenous peoples.
Note the racks of fish hanging to dry in the image below.
Anthropologist Michael Kew describes North West Coast native fishing know-how as “an incredibly varied and highly refined assemblage of tools, techniques and knowledge, the culmination of thousands of years of evolutionary development. These tools and techniques were not imported ready made, nor did they suddenly spring into being. They developed slowly and painstakingly as more effective variations were invented or introduced and applied to achieve more rewarding ends. The final result adds up to one of the most elaborate and productive fishing technologies achieved by any non-industrial society.”
Fish and fishing were not just at the heart of material culture for North West Coast peoples, fish and fishing were also at the heart of their spiritual lives. Material and spiritual were inextricable.
It is within these cultures that the technique of roasting a salmon over the fire in the way now familiar to many British students of bushcraft originates.
It’s one of but many methods of cooking fish and it can still be seen today, most publicly at events such as the annual Mill-Luck Salmon Celebration or the Coast Salish Canoe Races, for example.
The Contemporary Importance of Salmon
Salmon continue to be important – materially, culturally and in terms of biodiversity. These fish are important to coastal peoples as well as inland communities who live on the rivers which form the migratory routes of these amazing fish.
Peter Johnsen’s project The Great Salmon Tour aims to “create a new vision where we protect biodiversity and freshwater habitat not only as moral obligation, but as a way to preserve our own cultural heritage and well-being.”
Johnsen explains further, “Salmonids’ spiritual, nutritional, and recreational importance to people and communities along all 360 degrees of the northern hemisphere makes this one of the most valuable fish groups for humans. The importance of these fish cannot be overstated; the critical danger of extinction and/or severely reduced populations due to high environmental stress that many of these species and populations are in goes unnoticed.”
So far The Great Salmon Tour has visited five communities dependent upon salmonids and in doing so has observed more than nine different species of the fish. Johnsen explains that each place and each species have its own story to tell.
A central objective of this project is to present these stories through text and film.
Below we have chosen two films which we think you will find particularly interesting (and relevant to your interest in bushcraft):
I think it behoves us to understand the deep cultural significance of salmonids along with their continued importance as a source of subsistence.
Next time you split a stick and slide a nicely-filleted salmon into it, before placing it over the fire think about where this technique came from and how much some people still rely upon the body of knowledge from which it came.
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