River Dee is a lyrical and art-historical examination of the linkages (and divergences) between human–fish relations in the waterways of Aberdeen, Scotland and Edmonton, Alberta. This work explores the lives and experiences of the waters and fish in the European medieval period and the pre-capitalist, social and economic system that ultimately shaped Aberdeen’s fishing industry.
Drawing on their time growing up in Edmonton, and studying at the University of Aberdeen from 2010-2014, Todd explores the presences and absences of fish (and fish-related economies) in both places, imagining how fish wove their way into each place over the centuries immediately preceding Euro-colonial expansion/conquest/genocide in the Americas. This work re-invokes Todd’s speculative fish-ction character, the Ness Namew, an imagined lake sturgeon who travels between prairie waterways and Scotland [loch ness] to haunt and tease the colonial psyche.
A well-appointed bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) swims up to the microphone. They reach into their pocket and grab a pair of spectacles that they balance on their nose with one of their fins. They pause for a moment to look for their speaking notes, typed out neatly on moss green index cards. Ah, yes, they are tucked away in their briefcase which they placed on the floor next to the podium in front of the assembled journalists.
A small leopard frog was circulating amongst the crowd passing out trout filet sandwiches, garnished with prairie flowers. The journalists, feeling a bit peevish about the trout interrupting their royal watch, distractedly grab sandwiches as the frog weaves through the onlookers.
"Ahem," the bull trout cleared their throat authoritatively as they glance down their nose through their glasses to the gaggle of onlookers.
"I’ve come here to share a story with you here today, on the banks of the Uisge Dhè (River Dee), just metres downstream from the Balmoral Castle. I know many of you are here to mourn the Queen, who passed last week in the halls of the manor Queen Victoria built here with Prince Albert nearly two centuries ago. But I have some fishy business to bring up here, business to do with the Treaties, dare I say, Trouties, the Crown has broken with my nation since the British stole the lands my relatives inhabited since Time Immemorial."
There is uncomfortable shifting within the crowd, as folks stare at the silvery charr incredulously. A tired journalist from London, eager to file a story for his editor before dinner furrows his brow in confusion: "Is a....trout....from....Canada...about to deliver a mani-fish-to?" he ponders.
The bull trout clears their throat again and launches into their speech:
"As glaciers receded at the end of the last ice age some 13,000 years ago along the landmass currently occupied by the province of Alberta in the settler-colonial nation-state of Canada, the charr known as Salvelinus confluentus, bull trout, made an impressive journey.1 The fish wound their way from Ice Age refugia up rivers and waterways that had carved through glacial till to establish the present-day creeks, rivers, streams, and lakes of the Rocky Mountains and plains known today by their contemporary names—the Bow, the North Saskatchewan (kisiskaciwani sipiy), the Cline, the Tay, the Red Deer, and the Elk. Along this journey, bull trout and their fellow salmonid kin storied cool clear waters rushing from glaciers high in the sacred rocky mountains for millennia.2 And plural Indigenous nations have co-constituted life and stories alongside and with these fish across dynamic and powerful homelands in the Rockies since Time Immemorial.
In these waters, an alliance of trout and charr, have always shared time and space, along with many other nations of fish and other aquatic species. Salvelinus namaycush (lake trout), Oncorhyncus clarkii (westslope cutthroat trout) and Oncorhyncus mykiss (Athabasca rainbow trout) moved through these waters alongside bull trout and many other species.
A world away in the tundra expanses of the 40 million year old Cairngorm Mountains,3 the River Dee (Uisge Dhè) starts its journey eastward from a spring high in the granite mountains, and rushes along the countryside to meet the fiery North Sea.4 The earliest records of the river inscribe its divine origins, and salmon and trout have made this godly river their home for lifetimes. One such fish that has lived in Uisge Dhè for a very long time is the brown trout (Salmo trutta). Today, the brown trout is a prized sport fish in Uisge Dhè, with celebrities and royals gathering at the water’s edge to fly-fish Salmo trutta and Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) along bends in the river populated by castles and villages that wend their way back through hundreds of years of Scottish history.5
600 years ago, Salmo trutta in the Uisge Dhè and Salvelinus confluentus of the kisiskaciwani-sipiy had no reason to know one another. They swam through rivers worlds apart, connected to their respective homes through countless seasons that layered like silt along their watery homes. Salmo trutta, known for their distinctive spots that dot most of their body, can live in rivers, lakes, and the open ocean. They are wily and resilient, celebrated as a prized sport fish here in your waters, and marveled at by commoners and royals alike.
My people, Salvelinus confluentus, named for where the waters meet, used to swim through rivers that stretched down from the glaciers into the foothills and across the languid expanses of the open prairies in the Bow, Red Deer, and North Saskatchewan Rivers. We snapped at rock flies and nestled our young in redds in the lively waters of these powerful rivery beings. Humans fished for us, but we had agreements with their nations, too, that governed how and when we would be caught. When humans broke these protocols, we found ways to assert our autonomy, refusing to be treated carelessly. Laws wove us together through time and space, and we were well known for our speckled pink and olive brown flash in the cool, clear waters we inhabited.
You, your people, also shared space with trout, and our larger family of salmonids for a very long time. Not the same trout as my nation, but salmon and trout swamalong this winding stretch of the River Dee as it tumbles down from the Cairngorms towards the shores of the North Sea all the same, as they have for centuries.
This unassuming bend in the river has been visited by Scottish and later English royals since at least the 14th century.6 The castle behind you, the one that Queen Elizabeth died in last week, is reputedly built on the site of an old hunting lodge used by King Robert II of Scotland in the 14th century.7 As the wealthy and powerful of these lands made their way here, feasting and recreating while many in their countries starved and struggled, the trout of these waters allowed themselves to be caught by whoever needed them. Fed people through famines and wars.
But. Nearly six hundred years ago the tides turned. Your worlds, the ones woven through these waters, these forests, your religions, and these hauntings—they expanded outward in the name of your crowns.8 9 Your people imposed your laws, your horizons on whole continents. The waters my people swam through for millennia in those cold clear rivers were caught up in a bloodthirsty hunger your nation and its neighbours here in the subcontinent of Europe fomented. With your neighbours—France, Spain, Portugal, and a host of other crowns that coalesced into later nations – you set your sights on our waters. Our lands, our relatives.
You fished out banks and rivers. You cut open sturgeon namew for their swim bladders to send back to Europe to make your wine and your bonbons.10 Fish societies that had survived five mass extinctions over nearly half a billion years on earth could barely survive you. Fish, with our plethora of laws, protocols, and millions of years of knowing—we were no match for your rapacious being. You gutted the land and strew the viscera of your colonial worlds along the shores of lakes, rivers, streams, and estuaries.
Did you know that when your grandfathers came to the banks of my waters one hundred and fifty years ago, to my home, they tried to fish for me? Did you know that when they tried to fish for me they lamented I was not as grand as noble as your european fish? They sneered at how finely and quickly I jumped at lures, and later on, they were angered by how well I hunted the fish they eventually introduced from their european waters.
They called me a garbage fish. Worthless.11 A waste of time to sport fish because I was too eager to be caught.
They ordered your cousins to fish me out. Throw me on the banks. Let me rot. They rejoiced when I receded from the prairies, disappeared to the smaller creeks and streams of the upper reaches of the foothills.12 They refused to listen for decades as locals rang the alarm at my disappearance from waters where once I was abundant.13
It was not enough to label me a garbage fish. They brought their own fish from Europe over. To replace me. The first Salmo trutta stocked in Canada were brought over from a hatchery in Scotland.14 Colonizers stocked the rivers and lakes with their familiar fish quarry, tried to refashion the glacier waters into granite Alba. They tried to use my salmonid cousins, the affable and admirable trout of your lands, against me.
However, the joke is on you. Because we do not move the way you move. We got to know the new fish. We made new stories. They wove their way into our waters. We made new nations. Forged new alliances. Signed trouties between us. When brook trout joined us from eastern north america in 1903,15 we welcomed these new Salvelinus to our worlds. They shared their stories of the ways your european nations, and later their settler empires, devastated the countryside for centuries. When Salmo trutta derived from european stocks arrived in my waters in 1924,16 we welcomed them into our growing families. Our trouties expanded to unite Salvelinus, Oncorhyncus, and Salmo in our worlds.
The Salmo from your rivers shared their stories of swimming up the River Dee for generations. Of weaving their way into the homes of the finest and most powerful in Europe. Of holding all your secrets as you laughed and played on the edges of their waters.
They remembered kings and queens. Farmers and paupers. They saw your wars and lamented your hubris. They held many ceremonies to try and mend the harm your country enacted across whole continents.
They prayed you would stop extracting life and worlds from places you had no business colonizing.
The trout and the salmon in your rivers have been watching for thousands of years, remembering your words. When you die, they swim up and down the rivers at dawn, singing laments for you as your cross into the next world.
They carry intrigues from your wars that you have long since forgotten.
They told us stories of how they enacted their own laws. Refracted justice across waters that were claimed by lords and courts as blood was shed between kingdoms and peasants were pushed off the lands of these mountains to make way for sheep and nobles.
As we lamented the relentless assault of settler society on our waters, Salmo trutta shared with us their own forms of revenge back in their Scottish waters.
Of how they choked one nobleman (who had a better moral constitution than most of your noblemen, but he was a wealthy white aristocratic colonial landowner all the same) who lived in this castle, with just one of their bones.17
How to find you."
There was a sputtering in the crowd and someone in the back yelped in alarm. The journalists looked in horror at the trout filet sandwiches they had been eating, and gingerly placed them on the paper plates they held in their hands, no doubt imagining their own potential grisly fishy demise.
The bull trout looked up in amusement.
"Never underestimate the fish," the bull trout drawled.
The journalist from London had his scoop.
And that was how the prairie fish alliance began the First of the British Trout Reclamations.
Nelson and Paetz 1993.
Wynter, Sylvia. 2003. Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man; Its over-representation – an argument. CR: The New Centennial Review, Vol. 3, No. 3, coloniality's persistence (fall 2003), pp. 257-337 (81 pages) https://www.jstor.org/stable/41949874Quijano, Anibal. 2000. Coloniality of Power and Eurocentrism in Latin America. International Sociology 15:2. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0268580900015002005
Holzkamm, Tim E., Victor P. Lytwyn, and Leo Gilbert Waisberg. 1988. “Rainy River Sturgeon : an Ojibway Resource in the Fur Trade Economy.” The Canadian Geographer 32(3); 194-205.
Lorne Fitch, “Two Fish, One Fish, No Fish – Alberta’s Fish Crisis,” Don Meredith Outdoors (Blog). Posted March 26, 2015. https://donmeredith.wordpress.com/page/3/RL
Roberts, Wayne Emerson. “The Bull Trout- Endangered in Alberta.” In Endangered Species in the Prairie Provinces, Natural History Occasional Paper no. 9. Edited by Geoffrey L. Holroyd, Philip H.R. Stepney, Garry C.
Trottier, W. Bruce McGillivray, David M. Ealey and Kevin E. Eberhart, 129-131. Edmonton, AB: Provincial Museum of Alberta, 1987.
Produced with support from Bamboat | Mitchell and the Canada Council for the Arts.