Dori Thompson pours hooligan into a heating tank on May 2. (Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)

Dori Thompson pours hooligan into a heating tank on May 2. (Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)

Hooligan oil cooked at culture camp ‘it’s pure magic’

Two-day process of extracting oil from fish remains the same as thousands of years ago.

A thick, pungent smell wafts up from a five-foot, wood-plank pit as workers slosh thousands of sausage-sized hooligan that have been sitting for about a week.

For the dozen or more people gathered on the banks of the Chilkoot River, it’s a good smell.

“They’re ripe,” said Marsha Hotch, a Tlingít elder from Klukwan who is guiding the process.

A man hands her a white, five-gallon bucket from the pit. Hotch walks over a few yards to a steel tub about five feet long and three feet across that is filled with steaming warm water and dumps it in.

The crowd cheers as the fish splash into the water. It’s the beginning of the two-day process of extracting the precious oil from the hooligan — also known as candlefish or eulachon. It’s a similar process to what’s been done for thousands of years, even as steel has replaced the wooden canoe that was traditionally used.

“It’s pure magic,” said Ted Aakwtatséen Hart, a culture ambassador for the language camp. “I feel like I’m doing the same things that my ancestors have done for millennia. We’re gathering around the same places, eating the same food, singing songs, speaking our language, learning from our elders. It’s a very uplifting time.”

Ted Hart dips Pilot Bread into the warming eulachon oil on May 2. (Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)

Ted Hart dips Pilot Bread into the warming eulachon oil on May 2. (Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)

Hart’s two kids came to watch part of the hours-long process of getting just one batch of oil.

Volunteers pour bucket after bucket of hooligan into the hot-but-not-boiling water. Hotch warns the participants that the biggest danger is that the water gets too warm and cooks the oil. During the first day of warming they nearly let the water get too hot, and were only saved by pouring cold water in from the Chilkoot River.

“If it heats up too much, it’ll turn to mayonnaise,” she says.

After about a half hour, the water turns more turbid as the oil rises to the top. Helpers skim off pine needles from the top.

It takes some six hours of warming before all the slightly amber-colored oil is ready to be skimmed off the top.

The first day’s work yields about five gallons of oil which is eaten as a sort of condiment. Locals dip dried seaweed, pilot bread or even drip it on California sushi rolls.

The next day, a crew including Hart arrives early in the morning and processes two more batches, a total of about 15 gallons of oil. The product is traded and given as gifts around the region. It will also be used at local ku.éex’ (potlatches).

The oil has been a valued trade good for the Chilkoot and Chilkat Tlingít for millennia. The “Grease Trail” through Chilkat Pass — which was eventually made into the Haines Highway we know today — referred to hooligan oil that was hauled to the Yukon to be traded for Interior goods like furs and copper nuggets. Trading parties of up to 100 people carrying 100 pounds each could last more than a month, according to the Sheldon Museum.

The extraction of hooligan oil has continued uninterrupted through the centuries, but for several of the adult participants, it’s their first time.

A participant looks for eulachon eggs to snack on May 1. (Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)

A participant looks for eulachon eggs to snack on May 1. (Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)

By the third extraction, Hotch says the group seems like it’s got the process down.

“The first cook was just refreshing their memory, then they kind of took off with the process the second morning,” said Hotch.

This year’s crew is largely composed of the families participating in the Tricky Raven Language Program, a twice-a-week language learning group taught by Hotch. Learning Tlingít during the oil extraction had mixed success for Hotch. On one hand, she said, Tlingít language is easy to use when communicating about traditional activities. On the other, the instructions had to be precise and clear. Most of the language ambassadors are still in the beginning stages of learning, unlike Hotch, who is fluent.

“As a language instructor, it’s pretty hard to teach such an intricate thing,” said Hotch. “If I taught in Tlingít I think we’d all get frustrated.”

There are at least a handful of other oil extraction operations around the Chilkat Valley at private residences. While oil extraction is open to anyone, it’s primarily Tlingít families who participate as part of their cultural tradition.

Still, the number of families participating is small enough that there’s no guarantee the tradition will continue. Hotch says while she grew up extracting oil, the tradition had weakened by the time she returned from high school in Oregon. She said with her young family, she decided to start up the tradition again. Now her children all know how to do the process from start to finish.

“One of my sons lives in Fairbanks and has children. Every time we are gonna cook, he and his wife made it a priority to come down and cook,” she said.

There’s an even more existential risk to the tradition of hooligan oil harvesting that the Chilkoot Indian Association tribe is bracing against: the loss of fish.

So far, the hooligan returns have been relatively stable at the Chilkat and Chilkoot rivers, said Meredith Pochardt, a fisheries biologist for the Chilkoot Indian Association.

But farther south tribes have been watching the fish disappear from rivers where they once were abundant. About a decade ago, the federal government listed the Pacific Northwest population of hooligan (known regionally as Pacific smelt) as “threatened” after tribes raised concern about a population drop. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration attributed the decline to climate change and overfishing.

“The common trifecta of climate change, overfishing, habitat destruction have been the case for eulachon up and down the coast,” said Pochardt.

Pochardt said there’s no clear sign of a population decline in the Chilkat or Chilkoot populations, but there’s always concern. That led the Chilkoot Indian Association to initiate its own research program in 2010 to get a unique first-hand look at population numbers..

Pochardt said, so far, there’s no clear trend around the upper Lynn Canal, where she monitors nine different streams. Unlike salmon, eulachon don’t necessarily return to the streams they were born in. They’re sensitive to sound and other disturbances, meaning some years, the fish might almost entirely avoid a river, as happened in 2015. Pochardt suspected pile driving at the ferry terminal in Lutak Inlet discouraged eulachon from coming to the Chilkoot that year.

The fish’s sensitivity has led to cultural taboos. Hart says Tlingít traditionally let a first run of hooligan push up the river before the dipnets were dropped in the water. That allowed the “scout fish” to come up the river and lead the way for the rest of the run.

“If we just are mindful right now and we pay attention to this run then we’ll ensure the population continues and they don’t become an endangered species,” said Hart.

Currently there’s no regulation of fishing in the Chilkoot River or codified legal protections for hooligan from industrial disturbances, something Hart said he’s concerned about.

“These little fish are very, very precious. We gotta do what we can to make sure they keep returning every year,” he said.

He said he’s worried that harvesters waste fish and treat them disrespectfully, despite requests from the tribe.

After the oil is skimmed from the top of the tank, the group at language camp does what it can to keep the runs strong.

A drain is opened from the bottom of the tank so that the sludge of fish meat and bones can slide down into the Chilkoot River, where the nutrients will feed the next generation of hooligan and other river life.

• This story was originally published by the Chilkat Valley News.

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