Finding the recipe: spit, roe and pigments in traditional First Nations paint

The spit was the key. That part of the puzzle was what two University of British Columbia graduate students needed to solve their project: recreating and documenting pre-European painting techniques used by First Nations to make traditional wood finishing.

Doctoral candidate, Jun Lee, and master’s student, Vinicius Lube, used saliva chewed with fresh salmon roe as the paint binder to recreate the texture and appearance of paint found on some centuries-old First Nations artifacts, carved in western red cedar wood. They hope their research fills a technical gap in a literature predominantly occupied with the cultural and spiritual aspects of traditional First Nations painting.

“I personally hadn’t tried salmon roe, before that occasion, it was a totally new experience,” says Lube on chewing the delicacy. “But for science, we had to do it!”

Recovering and documenting indigenous knowledge

Graduate students Jun Lee (left) and Vinicius Lube hold up the yellow and western red cedar wood blocks with traditional wood finishing that were used in their project. | Photo by Simon Yee

Graduate students Jun Lee (left) and Vinicius Lube hold up the yellow and western red cedar wood blocks with traditional wood finishing that were used in their project. | Photo by Simon Yee

According to Lee and Lube’s research, prior to European contact First Nations people used wood finishing to enhance the quality of various wooden objects. Wood finishing was also used to signify owner status and to make symbolic references. The western red cedar, which the First Nations refer to as the “Tree of Life,” was the most commonly used wood and was used to craft many items such as totem poles, canoes, bowls and masks. The various pigments they used included red ochre, bone black and green earth. However, in the late 19th century, First Nations incorporated European paints, pigments and methods into their painting tradition.

“First Nations would choose what was the easiest method, because the main goal was to finish the objects, not to maintain the techniques,” says Lee. “They would go for what was most convenient.”

So, as part of their class project on “wood finishing of the past” suggested by their course professor, Philip Evans, Lee and Lube sought to rediscover this indigenous knowledge. From their research, they knew the ingredients First Nations would have used, but it did not explain the method and technique of how to mix and create paint from those ingredients.

After a few failed attempts with other approaches, such as alcohol and water, the Museum of Anthropology’s Bill McLennan suggested they try chewing salmon eggs. This tip provided the lynchpin: the finishes produced from the salmon-roe/saliva mixture, especially the red and black colours, showed the greatest resemblance to artifacts on display at MOA. Lee and Lube surmised that one of the saliva enzymes, like amylase, plays an important role in breaking down or softening the salmon roe membrane.

“Hopefully our research, such as determining ratio of saliva and roe and pigment mixture, among other data, can prove helpful,” says Lube.

To follow up their research, Lee and Lube are going to examine how the paint will fade over time by exposing the painted wood to the weather outdoors for several months.

“The paint [on the cedar wood] is currently very rough and grainy, but maybe after being exposed outdoors, bigger particles will come off, leaving a smoother texture and perhaps will provide a visual appearance similar to those artifacts at the museum,” says Lube.

Pros and cons

Because the finishes were made using natural pigments, Lee and Lube think one of the most important aspects of their project is the paint’s sustainability.

“A good thing about this technique is it involves sustainable actions, if you see salmon eggs as a renewable resource, unlike petroleum-based finishes,” says Lube. “From an environmental standpoint, it’s a more positive way of painting things.”

However, they did note several major drawbacks: large amounts of saliva were needed to act as a solvent, the paint is less consistent than modern finishes, the procedure required fresh as opposed to frozen salmon roe and the roe itself may not be accessible year-round.

“Once you have prepared the paint, you have to use it, you cannot store it; it’ll go bad. If you produce a lot, you have to use a lot. With oil-based paint, you can use it, close the can and store it,” says Lube.

All of these factors inhibit this technique from staging a modern comeback or being used in mass production. Nevertheless, Lee and Lube think that on an individual basis, it can be used as an educational tool to create unique art and to help the younger First Nations generation learn the ways of their forebears.

“We’re hoping the younger generation of First Nations are curious to know how their ancestors did art in the past. Perhaps they will try this technique out and see how it works on their artistic creations,” says Lee.

Lee and Lube’s research article will be made available to the public on the MOA and/or the UBC Library Archives.