Food is Medicine: Wellness Champion Shawntei Michell

How grandma taught her the sacred knowledge of traditional food harvesting


Shawntei Michell, from Witset First Nation, BC, shares her experiences learning on the land from Elders, including teachings around fishing, dip-netting, and preserving salmon, and the skills she learned at last December's Canning Champions Forum co-hosted by the FNHA and UBC.

Shawntei Michell has a lot of experience participating in traditional harvesting, hunting and trapping, fishing, and preserving. For the last four years, she has been dedicating her summers to her grandma's smokehouse. Her passion for harnessing cultural teachings and practices really came to life when she had her own kids, she says. ​“The resilience, independence, and strength of my grandma is inspiring, and she is someone I look up to."


Photo by Dale Cutler.

At the beginning of her learning journey, Shawntei did “baby work," as she describes it. Her grandma would cut salmon into skinny strips, and Shawntei would put them in the smokehouse. She did this for three years, by then Shawntei felt she was ready to learn more and take on more responsibility.

Her grandma's knowledge – and the knowledge of other First Nations Elders – is invaluable and sacred. Shawntei tells us her grandma does not share her teachings with just anybody because they have to be received and respected. “That is why she got me to watch for years."

Shawntei's grandma told her, “Do you know how I learned? I watched my mom and my big sister. She never showed me, she never handed me a knife … I used my eyes all the time."

So, one day when she was finally ready to share with Shawntei the traditional ways of their community and family, her grandma saved a small jack-spring salmon for her to practise the teachings she had learned. “I felt pressure because I wanted to make sure I did it perfect, the way I was taught. The way my grandma does it, there is a purpose for everything. Every cut has a purpose."

Shawntei has been curious about her community's traditional ways ever since she was little. She remembers going down to the river in their canyon and seeing all of the men in the community gaffing and dip netting. As a little girl, she always thought that it was only for men, but one day she saw a matriarch and Elder in the canyon using a big dip net, and it gave her the hope and courage to do the same. Shawntei shares that when she started prioritizing the smokehouse, she was able to receive the teachings of the dip net. “The feeling I got the first time I put the net in and pulled out a fish was incredible. It progressed from there, and being able to catch fish and then know how to process and smoke the fish was a true gift; both worlds came together."

Shawntei shares that the biggest compliment came when her grandmother asked her for 25 fish last summer. This gave her the confidence to continue making and surpassing new goals and milestones on her journey. For example, she continued to push herself and her skills with dip netting. She challenged herself and has graduated to using a longer dip net. She says, “It is a big arm work out, but so worth it! There is no limit … I am not just a beginner at the ladders where it was safest for me. I can trust my body now that I can stand at the edge of a rock and believe in myself, knowing I can do this and I will be safe."

Last December she had an opportunity to attend the First Nations Health Authority and the University of British Columbia's (UBC) Canning Champions Gathering. Shawntei raises her hands to UBC for this experience as she brought that knowledge home with her to start trying out different techniques. She says after two days of learning how to preserve, can, and make jerky, she was able to put those skills to the test by making homemade jam for her family and curing her own moose jerky. The school where she works has been so inspired, they bought a dehydrator so Shawntei is able to continue these teachings with the students at school!

Whether Shawntei is in her grandma's smokehouse or dip netting, she is constantly harnessing her skills, challenging herself, and passing those teachings down to her kids. “I have priorities every summer now – whereas once I felt like I had nothing to do, now I am booked every season. Every season I will be busy on the land and in culture. One thing leads to another. Not only am I harvesting, I'm challenging my body in other ways – I got my ski instructor certificate, learned how to snowboard. In the summer, I am going to do half harvesting and half river rafting. I want to know the river so well that I want to be in it and I want to fish in it."

Shawntei plans to continue this work every summer and continue to be a wellness and cultural champion in her community.

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