Fishnets, food, and cultural ice-scapes
Part of my Anishinaabe education while working in Pikangikum involves learning to procure food on the land — trapping, hunting, and fishing. On a mild winter day I’m invited by elders Oliver Hill and norman Quill to set a fish net under the ice. The chosen location is a bay on Pikangikum Lake, a short 15 minute snowmobile ride from the community. We set up just off the winter road, a busy communication route between northern communities north of Red Lake.
Fishing goes deep in Pikangikum people’s history and culture. The present community itself sits on the location of a summer gathering place at which fishing was the major productive activity. Once an outpost of the Hudsons Bay Company, then a full trading post were established late in the fur trade, Pikangikum people gradually settled there for more of the year. The lake is situated on the Berens River system which runs into Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. It is at once very productive fishing lake, and is easily accessible from other settlements and hunting areas up and down river in its drainage area, making it an attractive meeting place.
Setting fishing nets under the ice used to be very labour intensive Oliver says. Without a shuttle, auger and chainsaw, holes needed to be chiseled out every couple of meters so that a long stick holding the cord of the net could be passed between them, stretching the net out. Our first hole, which we make near a small island requires us to cut through a meter of ice; an unexpectedly thick accumulation. It takes nearly half an hour to make, using chainsaw, auger and chisel. My arms ache and I have trouble keeping a grip on the tools as I bash at the last pieces of ice, now under a meter of water, camera swinging from my shoulders. I rest to let my aching arms recover, with the excuse of a good photo opportunity.
Ice fishing using nets set under the ice has played an important role, both in terms of subsistence and commercial livelihood support. In the 1950s, during a period of low fur prices and intensive fur conservation programs, people in Pikangikum turned to commercial fishing. While fur trapping never ceased to be economically important, for a period, it became a secondary activity to fishing. Commercial fishing was often undertaken while lakes were frozen over because wind was a major factor in summer, determining whether people could pull up their nets from boats on the big lakes. Although many large lakes in the Berens River watershed were fished commercially, Pikangikum Lake, because of its immediate accessibility from the settlement, remained one of the most important areas.
The first hole near the island is now cut and Norman lowers the ‘jigger’ into the water. Oliver has me bent at the waist, listening intently for the scratching sound of the jigger as it digs into the underside of the ice, swimming along below us. The ice carries sound very well. It is imperative that we locate the jigger when it finishes its trip, otherwise we may end up having to bore more than one hole!
Pikangikum has long since lost their commercial fishing licenses, and the trapping economy has largely collapsed in the north. Subsistence fishing however remains an important activity both in terms of procuring healthy food, and in terms of cultural significance. Social strife in the community makes opportunities to go to the land valuable. Fall moose hunting and spring duck hunting and trapping trips present major opportunities. Fishing often becomes a more accessible way to leave the community, even for an afternoon. On warm winter and spring afternoons, productive fishing sites on the ice near islands and bays just outside of the community become gathering places. Fishing, which has subsistence economic value, also takes on recreational and cultural value. These can be considered sites of social reproduction where knowledge of how and where to carry out these important activities is reproduced. These sites in the Pikangikum cultural landscape can be easily ignored if the observer focuses on the more celebrated loci of activity, notably the family hunting and trapping camps and associated traplines. In the present context, ice fishing presents opportunities to eat well, and gather at locations outside the community when traveling to family camps is too difficult.
We pull the net through beneath the ice and tie it off to a stick buried in the snow. Norman has brought out some old couch cushions. He uses them to cover the openings we’ve made, providing insulation, so that when he returns for fish, he doesn’t have to chip through new ice. Very nice use of old cushions, I think! A couple of days later, the cold returns, and we’re huddled back in the land-use planning office doing interviews.
A couple weeks later I’m back in Winnipeg. I call Paddy Peters at the land-use planning office. It’s unseasonably warm again; so warm in fact that the ice road has turned into a slushy mess, making surface travel to nearby communities and camps difficult. No matter, he tells me there are scores of people out on the ice, taking advantage of the weather to fish again.