Cherokee Nation citizen Stephen Summerfield fishes using a rod and reel on July 6 on the bank of Lake Eucha near Jay. He has been fishing and gigging since he was young, learning from his father Henry Summerfield. LINDSEY BARK/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Cherokee Nation citizen Stephen Summerfield demonstrates how to fillet a sand bass, by cut down both sides of its rib cage to remove the meat. LINDSEY BARK/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
To cook fish, Cherokee Nation citizen Stephen Summerfield uses corn meal, salt, pepper and vegetable oil. LINDSEY BARK/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Cherokee Nation citizen Stephen Summerfield places a prepared piece of fish into boiling vegetable oil to cook thoroughly until it has a crunch-like texture. LINDSEY BARK/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
A fish fry may include fried fish, fried potatoes, hot links, onions and other foods that Cherokees might enjoy. LINDSEY BARK/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
JAY – Even today, many Cherokees continue living off the land by gathering or hunting. Another way is by gigging or catching fish and cooking them in a fish fry.
Cherokee Nation citizen Stephen Summerfield is a second-generation fisherman, learning to gig and fish from his father, Henry Summerfield, and his father-in-law, William Turtle.
Summerfield grew up catching fish around Lake Eucha. His father taught him how to fish via rod and reel, a three-pronged gig with a 12-foot pole and noodling, which is catching fish with bare hands.
“Whenever we go fishing, there’s a lot of ways to actually catch fish and gig fish,” he said. “I like to go gigging. We just go after rough fish at nighttime. During the daytime we like to go after perch, red ear, crappie, sand bass, black bass. We use a rod and reel during the day time for those.”
He said there are several types to catch. “On the fish, it’s whatever’s biting. We’re not going to throw anything back. Whenever we have a fish fry its either brim, perch, crappie, sand bass, black bass. We even try to catch red horse. Whatever fish is going to bite, we’re going to eat it.”
Summerfield said cleaning fish depends on the fish type and person. Elders cleaned fish differently than it is done today, he said. “Growing up whenever they would catch brim and perch and blue gill, the elders would scale the perch and they would clean them, pull the heads off of them and gut them and they would cook them whole. They would eat everything. They didn’t let anything go to waste.”
Now, fish are usually filleted, removing most of the meat without the bones. When filleting, fish are sliced with a knife down the backbone, then slicing down each side of the rib cage to the tail of the fish, taking only the meat.
“We’d cut them down that way so we wouldn’t have to scale them,” he said. “We’d just cut them down the sides and pull the meat off of them and we would just eat the meat and wouldn’t have to worry about the bones. I know there’s several different ways of doing this and everybody’s got a different way. But this has always been the best for us.”
With a fish fry, most fish are deep fried using a cast iron pot and cooking oil. Once the fish are cleaned, Summerfield breads them with corn meal, adding salt and pepper for taste. Each piece is placed into hot oil and cooked until having a crunch-like texture.
One exception when cleaning red horse fish, they will have bones in the meat and to help with it, Summerfield said he makes several slices along each piece so that the oil will cook through and “crystallize” the bones to make the meat more edible.
Fish are commonly eaten with bread, fried potatoes, onions and hot links, though various side dishes can be used. Fish can also be smoked or grilled as a healthy alternative.
Summerfield said catching fish is a lifeway for Cherokee people. It was one of the ways past generations were able to eat.
“Back when my dad and them was younger… they would just wade up and down the creek and they would just gig fish. They didn’t have fishing laws back then. They gigged whatever they needed to feed their families and nothing went to waste,” he said. “That’s what they lived on. You couldn’t go to the store and buy frozen fish. There wasn’t that back then. You lived off the land. That’s how he got started, supplying food for the family. Then he just passed that down to me and I continued on to my son and my grandson…You lived off the land and that’s what we’re trying to instill in our younger ones today is how to live off the land.”
Lindsey Bark grew up and resides in the Tagg Flats community in Delaware County. She graduated magna cum laude from Northeastern State University in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in mass communication, emphasizing ...
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