Native tribes were strategically situated throughout North America. They used roads as networks for travel and for trade and welfare. These networks enabled tribes to make contact with each other throughout the year.
A common name for the roads from the Northwest coast was Grease Trails. The term came from the fact that oolichan oil was one of the main items carried and traded on these trails.
Oolichan 'oil' is an important food source, consisting of many different styles and tastes, much like European cheeses. Oolichan oil is not made from rotting fish, as is often thought, but is boiled and refined into its final form as a valued condiment. (McDonald, 2006)
The Grease trails however, had a much broader purpose than to carry and trade oolichan oil. They were road networks used to carry important products, people and information, much like the modern highways do today. Important messages of feasts, warfare and other news were carried along these trails.
Charles Horetsky, a surveyor for the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1872 got a first hand glimpse of the travels on the Grease Trail:
These roads were a part of the infrastructure that integrated the various nations and made life in aboriginal times more agreeable. They were maintained and they were valued. (MacDonald, 2006)
One known Grease Trail ran from the Upper Nass to the Skeena River.
The Native name for the original Grease Trail was Genim Sgeenix, it was approximately sixty kilometres long and up to one meter deep. It was one of the widest trails in the region.
In addition to Mr. Horetsky's account, there was also another account left by a postmaster at Kitwanga in the year 1917. He recalled some activity of a potlatch, and observed that the chief provided about 500 tins of oolichan grease. He commented that 'even at 1917 prices, that augured considerable wealth.' (Harrington, 1953)
It was highly evident to European observers in that time that the oolichan oil or 'grease' as they called it was so valuable that Chiefs would always make sure to have a lot of it for their guests of honour at their gatherings. The oil was very high in value and Chiefs sometimes dramatize their prestige by throwing some of it into a fire. When it was time to feed the guests of honour, they would serve a wealth of food that had been harvested throughout the year, much of it with the oil. Once gifts were distributed, only the prestigious guests of honour received their own lot of the oil, while lesser ranked guests received smaller portions, if any. To be given the oolichan oil by a Chief and his tribe was an honour in itself.
Grease trails were utilized throughout the year. Natives came overland from points on the Upper Skeena and far beyond. They came when the snow was still deep, travelling on snow-shoes and hauling their belongings on sleighs. When the ice was melted on the water, there were always canoes to be hired.
Once reaching their destination during trading season, a fair transaction would occur between individuals of different tribes. In the 1800s, a large box of grease equalled one caribou skin, or 30 groundhog skins, or one white Hudson's Bay Company blanket, or $1.50 cash (Harrington, 1953). The trade usually depended on what each tribe wanted or needed for their own. Some articles would then be traded along another network with another tribe, and so on.
There were various routes to travel, depending on the destination. Kitsumkalum was connected to the places we now call Port Simpson, Kitimat, Hazelton, Morice Town, Prince George, the Peace River, the Nass, Telegraph Creek, Dease Lake, the Yukon, Wrangell, and other places such as Hartley Bay, and Kitselas, throughout the rest of North America.
Today these paths are overgrown by bush and no longer visible. One path, referred to as The Apple Orchard Path, (although there is no evidence that it had a name during Robin Town days) shows some important qualities that indicated it was more than a simple trail through the bush that involved some engineering. (MacDonald, 2006)
With the arrival of Europeans and the railway, these traditional roads were used less and less to the point of extinction. However, the prized oolichan oil continues to be produced by the same people, and still carried on to trade with other neighbouring nations today.
Collison, W.H. (1941) The Oolachan Fishery Vancouver, BC
Harrington, Lyn. (1953, March). Trail of the Candlefish. The Beaver Magazine Of The North. (pp. 40-44)
McDonald, James. (2006). The Beautiful Town, An Ethnohistorical Return to Robin Town on the Kitsumkalum Canyon Kitsumkalum Social History Research Projects, Book Series #2.
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