Sadie Dennis spent her youth learning the traditions of her people and her village. Now, at 75 years old, she wants to make sure the next generation has access to those same lessons that have helped enrich her life.
“If you don’t teach the younger ones, they don’t know and they say, ‘Nobody taught us how to do this’,” Dennis said. “But when you show them, they’re really happy. You can see a big smile, they’re happy to see what they made.”
Dennis grew up in the village of Lax Kw’alaams where she spent most of her days fishing on the Sadie B, a gill netter that her father, Edward Bryant, named after her.
Back then, the father-daughter duo began early in the morning, leaving the harbour at 6 a.m. to fish along the coast of Dundas Island.
“I always used to look forward to it,” Dennis said. “Dad would bring in the nets, and as he would reel them in, I would gather the fish.”
After spending a full day out on the water, the pair would return to Lax Kw’alaams where they would deliver the fish to villagers and men working at the camps. Not everyone had boats to fish, so Dennis’s father would sell to them also.
Mildred, Dennis’s mother, would also teach people how to can salmon to have food stocks for the winter time.
“Back then we would use cans because we didn’t have jars,” Dennis said. “And you would do it on wooden stoves. It’s amazing how much things have changed.”
Once they had canned enough fish, Dennis’s mother taught her the art of smoking salmon from beginning to end. Dennis was 10 years old when she tried to make her first batch, an attempt that was nowhere near as good as her mother’s, but a good effort nonetheless.
“It wasn’t the best, but it was something,” Dennis said. “My mum told me I’d get better at it with time.”
Dennis said understanding how to preserve food was a necessity for her family when she was younger, as the they didn’t have some of the modern conveniences that are taken for granted today. Without deep freezers or fridges everything had to be salted otherwise it would spoil.
“It was nice when we got our first refrigerator,” Dennis said. “Now everything is a push button. Even for washing clothes, we used to fill up the tub and use a washboard.”
Dennis’s life on the sea continued when she met her husband, Stan Dennis, who she would also accompany out on fishing trips. The couple had four children, all of whom she has taught how to fish, can and smoke salmon and other fish.
“My mother always said she wanted me to know how to do it because she wasn’t going to be around forever,” Dennis said. “She said, ‘You’re going to get married and have a family and I want you to know how to do all of this so you can teach them’.”
Dennis said her children have learned the ins and outs of traditional coastal life, and they have passed on those lessons to friends who don’t know. However, what was more important for Dennis is that they learned how values of generosity and a giving spirit can be rewarded in ways that aren’t easily quantified.
“My mum and dad would always say that you might not get any money in return, but it comes back in a different way,” Dennis said. “You get help, but it comes back in a different way.
“I didn’t understand my mum or my dad when they told me that, but I’ve seen that it does as I get older.”
Dennis moved to Prince Rupert in the late 90s to be closer to her mother, who became ill as she got older. Even though she passed away in the year 2000, Dennis said she continues to cherish her mother’s philosophies and outlook on life.
“She lived a good life and she was a good teacher to the young ones back home,” Dennis said. “I try to do that for the young ones I meet here.”
For the past six years, Dennis has been involved with the Friendship House on Fraser Street in Prince Rupert where she continues to pass on the lessons that were passed on to her by her parents to the young people who may not learn.
“We all teach each other,” said Dennis, who teaches cooking classes, gives cedar weaving instruction and helps to cater events at the Friendship House. “It’s good experience and I enjoy doing it.”