Focusing on the Humans of the Salish Sea

Editor’s note: The printed version of this article called the program in Christchurch, “Humans of New Zealand.” The project is more specific to the location and titled, “Humans of Christchurch.” The article below has been edited to reflect this correction.

While working in Christchurch, New Zealand, San Juan Island resident Gail Richard was asked to help write for Humans of Christchurch, a spin-off of the popular Humans of New York series. Upon returning home, she was inspired to start Humans of the Salish Sea

“I just fell in love with the concept,” Richard said.

Richard is a retired interpreter and storyteller who wanted to take what she learned in Christchurch and utilize it to share the stories of people from all around the Salish Sea. The region spans two countries and thousands of miles.

“It’s natural for me to look for stories,” Richard said. “It kind of fell in very naturally.”

A couple of years ago, Richard brought home from New Zealand the desire to find photographers and writers willing to donate their time and skills to the project. She was finally starting to get Humans of the Salish Sea rolling when the pandemic shut down everything. But that hasn’t stopped her from writing more than 30 profiles over the past year, partnering with photographers in the area where the person being highlighted lives.

“I think we did pretty well,” Richard said.

A goal of Richard’s was to ensure each of her subjects’ voices came through, so she recorded conversations, transcribed them word-for-word, then edited them into an easily digestible format.

“My goal is to keep it with the mission of the project,” Richard said, adding that she steers away from politics and commercialism.

Richard wants her stories to appeal to a broad range of audiences. She noted she mostly avoids well-known people in communities adding that it isn’t a popularity contest.

“All these different people who make up this wonderful world of the Salish Sea,” Richard said. “I’m looking for the diversity of different islands and different places in the Salish Sea. … I’d like every area in the Salish Sea to be represented.”

Sometimes Richard’s interviewees are shy or hesitant to share their stories.

“It was easier in Christchurch to be honest, I’m not sure why,” Richard said.

She added that she spends the time to dig down and find the deeper story about her subject. She calls these deeper stories “gems.”

“I’m looking for something unique that’s still about that person but is still unique,” Richard said.

To read the Humans of the Salish Sea profiles Richard has written and view the accompanying photos taken by photographer volunteers around the area, visit One of Richard’s profiles is below.

“Because everybody has a story,” Richard said. “It’s not about what you did in life, it’s not about your accomplishments, it’s about who you are.”

Yuxweluton, Songhees Nation, Canada

Submitted by Gail Richard

The name Salish Sea was introduced by a man from the United States and put into effect by the Samish Nation. The name Salish applies to a wide area from the Puget Sound and extends up to Comox.

The meaning is in the environment. I am heavily into the environment and trying to create awareness among the young people. I was an educator for 25 years and 14 years with the Nation and carried that on as a personal study.

I want to create respect for what we have around us. It was easier to appreciate a long time ago when I was growing up because we lived on the resources from the ocean and the seashore. But nowadays the ocean, seashore and kelp meadows have changed. We cannot live on the bounties of the ocean anymore, they are not there. Even the whale families and the salmon families know that.

When I think back to my years growing up in this area things were a lot different. We didn’t have as many distractions as young people do nowadays. We used to spend our time outside on the beaches harvesting, fishing and sometimes hunting- this was our way of life. It was experiential learning which was very important to us.

I remember days when our mother brought us down to the beaches here and taught us how to harvest from the seashore; all the shellfish, crustaceans and octopus and the good things on the beach. When we needed to go fishing we knew where to find the fish and how not to take too much. Sustainability was a very big part, not only for our ancestors and elders and also us and we were actually learning. We were learning not only harvesting but also how to prepare it by drying or smoking.

This area was very well known for the herring runs which used to be twice a year. People would travel from all over the Salish Sea to harvest herring and herring roe and smoke and dry it and bring it back to their homelands. This was part of a barter system and we would in turn travel to the Fraser River to harvest sockeye and do the same process of smoking and bringing it back to the island.

Realizing that our people traveled across the Georgia Strait to the Fraser River and the way they navigated that journey points to the fact that the oceans and the streams and the lakes were a transportation system that we relied on. It amazes me that our ancestors did that and navigated their way over to the Fraser River across that large span of the Georgia Strait. I think about today’s transportation systems and about traveling by canoe and how it probably took a long, long time to get to where you were going which meant you probably had to plan your travel for a long, long time.

The Salish Sea, this bio-region has been created and it has become a sanctuary, a place of protection for the life in the sea. It covers about 1,500-square miles, which is a lot of ocean and there’s about 400 islands in that ocean and all of these islands are places where harvesting can still be done. The result of creating the Salish Sea is people are caring more about the environment and the ecosystem and the habitat. It is important for us to have tourism which respects what is here. I think what they call bio-centric education should be a part of the school system today and I hope to share that in the region.

We realize that these habitats and the places the fish make their returns to are changing so rapidly that it’s difficult to control. We can hope the fish will come back to these streams and rivers. That return has become less and less and that is what people have to look at and respond to. I realize a lot of it has to do with climate change and over-harvesting. As stewards of the land that was one of the teachings we- that we didn’t take more than we needed. The Songhees and Esquimalt Nations are trying to look at ecotourism and not only create understanding about the environment and what is left, but also how we can protect it more by creating awareness amongst all people. And we think about how schools can implement environmental programs — this is one of our aims in creating awareness around the Salish Sea. We do this with all respect to elders and our ancestors.