I’m writing this half-way through the 12th Annual Mat-Su Salmon Science and Conservation Symposium in Palmer. As I wrote last week, the keynote address for this symposium is: Indigenizing Salmon Science and Management. This presentation was delivered by Dr. Courtney Carothers and Jonathan Samuelson.
I must admit that I really didn’t understand what this presentation was going to be about. After listening to it, I must further admit the topic made an impression on me. Here’s the gist of the presentation, at least how I understood it.
The indigenous peoples of Alaska (I’ll use the term “First Peoples”) have cared for, protected, and managed the land and its resources for thousands of years while subsisting off these resources. For the most part, the lands were in pristine condition and the salmon, specifically, were returning by the millions when the white man first arrived here. They did a good job of protecting and managing the lands and resources.
Over time, as the non-native population increased, the need to actively manage the salmon resource grew as it was being exploited, in some cases, to dangerously low levels of returns. The lands were being developed and salmon habitats were being altered and, in some cases, lost. The knowledge of how to protect and manage these natural resources, developed over thousands of years by the First Peoples, was marginalized and eventually ignored as the non-native populations grew and began active management.
Many of the First Peoples lost their traditional fishing sites as land ownership issues arose. The cultural clash between the non-native concept of private land ownership verses the First Peoples concept that land and land use was shared but the land itself was not owned by any one individual, resulted in the Alaskan natives losing access to most of their ancestral lands.
With the institution of “limited entry” to regulate commercial salmon fishing, Alaskan natives who still had fishing sites lost the ability to fish because they didn’t know how to work within the Western culture paperwork systems. As a result, most of the newly issued commercial fishing permits went to non-native fishers.
With political changes like the ANCSA legislation, where the Alaska natives received hundreds of thousands of acres of land and nearly a billion dollars in reparations to settle land claims, the First Peoples began asking that their voices be heard in protecting and managing lands and animal resources in Alaska.
The First Peoples are learning how to deal within the Western-culture oriented systems but are still largely ignored when they ask for input in the management of resources on their own lands.
It’s hard for non-natives raised in a western-oriented culture to understand the Alaskan native culture of love and respect they have for the land and the animals. Jonathan tried to put that feeling in perspective.
He told the story of how his family returned every year to the traditional family fish site to catch fish. He spoke of how they worked to clean up and care for the land since no one lived at the location anymore. He spoke of getting the fishing gear ready for the arrival of the salmon runs. He then told of this last year’s gathering.
His grandmother, the family matriarch, had passed away. The family met at the fish site at the same time and worked to mow the grass and all the other things they did every year when getting ready to catch fish. Only this time, the objective was to honor his grandmother and bury her on the property, not to catch fish. They felt about their grandmother the same way they felt about the land and the animals.
Speaking from my Western culture upbringing, it almost seems like this feeling Alaskan natives have for their land and resources would, in our eyes, be called a religion. I don’t think it is but calling it that is possibly the closest thing we have in our culture to describe this relationship. Before I’m misunderstood, let me be clear — I am not calling their feelings and beliefs here a religion. I am using that approach to attempt to describe their viewpoint.
Like I said, the cultural differences make the First Peoples view of how they relate to the land and its resources hard for Western culture people to grasp.
Rather than continuing to be ignored, they would like to have “a seat at the table” in developing and implementing management and protective strategies for their land and resources. I think that would be fair.
Howard Delo is a retired fisheries biologist and outdoors columnist. Delo’s views are not necessarily those of the Frontiersman or its parent company, Wick Communications.