Last of the salmon people — EPA assessment describes culture of Natives still supported by wild salmon, clean water

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

In the battle over whether or not, or under what conditions, to allow development of the Pebble Mine prospect, much of the ammunition lobbed back and forth has been in the form of very large, ultimately very quantifiable numbers — an estimated 80 billion pounds of copper, over 100 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum; an open pit mine potentially two miles wide and several thousand feet deep with up to 10 billion tons of waste material stored in two tailings lakes held back by four-plus miles of dam; the potential of thousands of jobs in construction and mine operation; located in the headwaters of the largest wild salmon run in the world, where commercial fishing and related jobs account for about 75 percent of local employment.

Yet, not all factors in the decisions to be made can be entered into a calculator, such as the potential effects to Native villages of the region that rely on wild salmon and clean water as a cornerstone of not only their diet and economy, but their culture and the sustainability of their way of life. How do non-numeric concepts, like freedom, family and tradition, fit into equations balancing the millions of dollars worth of value in the Bristol Bay watershed’s commercial and sportfishing industries, or the potential billions of dollars worth of minerals in the ground?

Two anthropology professors from Kenai Peninsula College, Dr. Alan Boraas with the Kenai River Campus in Soldotna and Dr. Catherine Knott of the Kachemak Bay Campus in Homer, were tasked with qualifying the unquantifiable elements of the potential effects to Native villages of the Nushagak and Kvichak river watersheds, should the salmon and clean water they rely on be compromised.

The nature of their findings is clear — salmon are inextricably important to the history, culture, spirituality and sustainability of the villages. But how to weight those findings in the overarching reckoning to be made about large-scale mining in the region, however, is less clear.

The Environmental Protection Agency is nearing completion of its “Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay,” undertaken in 2010 to examine how potential large-scale mining development projects — of which Pebble is one — might affect water quality, habitat and salmon fisheries in the Bristol Bay watershed. The draft document was issued in May 2012, and the peer review report on the document was released in September. The EPA and its contractors who compiled the assessment — including Boraas and Knott — are revising the report now, addressing public comments and responses from the panel of experts used for the peer review.

A timeline for release of the finalized report is not yet known. When it is finished, the assessment report could affect permitting decisions for Pebble Mine, potentially even as restrictive as the EPA issuing a Section 404(c) finding under the federal Clean Water Act, which could prohibit the discharge of waste tailings in the watershed if it is found that the disposal would have “an unacceptable adverse impact on one or more of various resources, including fisheries, wildlife, municipal water supplies, or recreational areas.”

Boraas and Knott authored Appendix D of the EPA report, a cultural assessment of the region titled, “Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Cultural Characterization of the Nushagak and Kvichak Watersheds, Alaska.” As an appendix of a larger document weighty with measurements, figures, estimations and numeric data, their cultural assessment is a bit incongruous in its relative lack of numbers, feeling a bit like a sonnet in the middle of a tax return. What numbers there are — 53 people interviewed in seven villages with populations mostly in the hundreds to low thousands — are miniscule in scale to the tens and hundreds of thousands, millions and billions throughout the rest of the report.

But in a presentation at KPC’s Kenai River Campus on Nov. 1, Boraas made the point that such direct, numbers-to-numbers comparisons are inadequate to grasp the value of salmon to Yup’ik and Dena’ina Native village residents of the region. It’s apples of cultural significance to oranges of money and other numeric metrics, when, to residents of the villages studied, value isn’t measured in dollars.

“People raise to the sacred that which is most important to their lives,” Boraas quotes, from a theory popularized by anthropologist Robert Redfield in 1920s to 1950s, as the organizing principle of the cultural assessment. For the villages studied in the Bristol Bay cultural assessment, “salmon and clean water are that thing,” he said.

Beginning the assessment, Boraas expected to find evidence that salmon is historically and traditionally important to the villagers in the watershed — these are indigenous cultures that developed around salmon and other natural foods, after all. But what he was not expecting was the degree to which salmon and clean water still are important to the culture today, he said. This is not a hyperbolic importance, or a tradition just recollected out in ceremony and on holidays. This is a living, breathing, inextricable underpinning to life.

“The salmon have permeated all aspects of their lives — social aspects, spiritual aspects, their very reason for being,” Boraas said.

To conduct the assessment, Boraas and Knott compiled existing research and information available on the region, then traveled to conduct interviews in seven villages — Dillingham, Iliamna, Koliganek, Newhalen, New Stuyahok, Nondalton and Pedro Bay. Village or tribal councils or representatives chose the interview subjects — 24 women and 29 men — and most were in their 40s or older, given the traditional respect toward elders. The villagers were asked — often through translators, as English was not their first language — a series of open-ended questions crafted to elicit responses that would illuminate the central question of the study — how are salmon and clean water important to your lives?

At the most utilitarian level, salmon is food. In the villages studied, natural foods — primarily from fishing and hunting, are the bulk of the diet. By far the most utilized staple of harvested foods is salmon, making up as much as 82 percent of the subsistence diet, Boraas found.

“You put that diet together among the best diets anywhere in the world. This is one of the best diets you could possibly have, with salmon being the base,” Boraas said.

One of the interview questions — if you couldn’t have wild salmon, what would you do? — got at just how important salmon is as a food source.

“(One respondent) said, ‘We’d starve.’ When we asked that question we got some variation of that response. People did not say, ‘Well, we’d move away. Well, we’d eat something different. Well, we’d change.’ Moving away, eating something different was not an option. ‘We’d starve.’ And I believe many of the folks would rather starve than not eat salmon,” Boraas said.

But salmon is more than just what’s for dinner. Salmon feeds the ways in which the culture operates. Functionally and economically, salmon is the cornerstone. Subsistence fishing for salmon is the most readily available way to fill freezers and pantry shelves.

“It’s important to point out that subsistence is not welfare, it’s a preferred lifestyle and a full-time job,” Boraas said. “… The people do not perceive of themselves as poor, even though, by material standards, they are poor. Even though, by some standards, they look like they’re unemployed, and they’re not. They work tremendously hard and long hours and all to achieve this amazing diet of which in some places, as much as 80 percent is wild foods.”

It’s unfair to apply the stigma “subsistence” sometimes gets to what goes on in these villages, he said.

“We have this concept in urban Alaska that subsistence is one step above welfare — that is, only poor people do subsistence. Well, they would differ with you. They would say we’re rich, we’re rich beyond measure. It’s the lifestyle of our ancestors and it’s the lifestyle we want to live,” Boras said. “… They don’t view themselves as failures for not moving to Anchorage or going to college. They feel sorry for people who have to leave the village. They want to live there.”

Another question — how is wealth defined in this community? — illustrates the stark difference in value systems between the villages and most of the wider Western world. People answered one or some combination of three things — a freezer or two full of salmon, having extended family around them, and freedom.

“No one said money, no one said a big bank account. No one said any of the materialist things that we normally attribute to wealth in our community, or in other communities in Alaska or the United States. Nobody talked in terms of materialism. Now to a lot of people, a good four-wheeler, a good boat, that’s a good deal. But wealth is defined in terms of fish and other wild foods, family and freedom,” Boraas said.

Salmon also provides income, through seasonal commercial fishing, to facilitate the subsistence lifestyle

Photo courtesy of Dr. Alan Boraas, Kenai Peninsula College. Wild salmon runs are the keystone of the functionality and sustainability of villages in the Bristol Bay Watershed. Villagers subsistence fish for food and cultural importance. Here, boats line the bank in New Stuyahok.

— to buy boats, gas, guns, four-wheelers, snowmachines and whatever else is necessary but unattainable through subsistence means.

“That short, one month or month and a half job is what’s critical. If you have a full-time job you can’t spend also eight hours a day on subsistence. It has to be some kind of part-time-type work that will provide you with enough cash. And, remember, cash is not wealth in itself, but that small amount of cash then translates into a full freezer,” Boraas said.

It’s an ideal that’s familiar in the Alaska mystique.

“In other words, they live the lifestyle that most Alaskans want to live,” Boraas said. “But they’re considered unemployed by the broader culture, or underemployed, at least. They’re considered poor. ‘Oh, too bad you can’t go to Wal-Mart and buy groceries, wouldn’t that be nice? Then you wouldn’t have to go out and do all that (subsistence work).’ They say no, they want to do that.”

Beyond food and income, salmon is a foundational element of the culture in the villages, whereby extended families still participate in fish camps to catch and process salmon, much as they have for generations.

“A little bit of the technology has changed but the picture could have been taken 100 years ago or 200

Photo courtesy of Dr. Alan Boraas, Kenai Peninsula College. A fish-drying rack in a village in the Bristol Bay Watershed. Native villagers along the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers still do subsistence fishing much the same way they have for generations.

years ago. Same process — fish camp, subsistence is life,” Boraas said, of a photo he took in one of the villages he visited, in which a grandmother, her daughter and the grandchildren were all gathered at a fish camp site, some filleting salmon, some carrying it to racks to dry, all involved in one way or another.

“Family doing multigenerational meaningful work. Where else do we have that?” he said.

That activity and the time spent doing it together is vital for the family driven, interconnected nature of the communities to continue.

“Teaching and learning is happening, the emotional support that goes along with being part of a family. The people will speak eloquently of how important having that family activity is,” Boraas said. “It is within this context that values are passed on — how to handle fish, how to act in nature, how to be a Yup’ik or Dena’ina, how to live as an adult, how to conduct yourself right — this is all done in this multigenerational system where meaningful work occurs.”

Once the meat is processed, it is shared, not necessarily always out of need, either. It is done more to reinforce the bonds on family, love and interconnection. In Dena’ina, for instance, the grammatical construction for the concept of sharing food and sharing love is the same, Boraas said.

Sharing salmon is a critical cultural function.

“To take that away you would see a huge blow to the culture. Then it’s missing, then it’s gone and that really reflects the deterioration of the culture,” he said.

Salmon and clean water also figure heavily in spirituality in the villages, as evidenced by religious traditions still practiced today. People pray when they catch salmon, Boraas said, and some believe the river’s water has curative powers. One elder woman told a story of how she was close to death as a child, about to go to the “big church” in the sky, but was brought back and her body healed by her father pouring water in her mouth.

The fact that those beliefs are maintained and celebrated in an area that was missionized into Russian Orthodox Christianity is in itself substantial, Boraas said. The tradition of missionization typically is taken to mean an indigenous culture is changed into something else, its own culture suppressed and traditions discounted. But that is not the case in these villages, Boraas said.

Instead, local religion is more of an indigenized orthodoxy, with Native traditional beliefs incorporated into the Orthodox tradition. The priests themselves are Natives, “and so understand the traditions and understand the beliefs that the animals have wills and souls, and they’re OK with that,” Boraas said.

The First Salmon ceremony is a common practice in the villages, where the first catch of the season is shared and part of it is placed underground so that it also can be shared with the ancestors.

And coinciding with the Orthodox observance of Theophany, recognizing the baptism of Jesus, the

Photo courtesy of Dr. Alan Boraas, Kenai Peninsula College. An Orthodox priest and villagers of New Stuyahok gather for a Blessing of the Water ceremony following the rite of Theophany in January.

villages practice a Blessing of the Water ceremony. Boraas attended such a ceremony in New Stuyahok in January. The morning following the church service, the priest and parishioners walked out onto the frozen river to where an Orthodox cross was carved into the ice.

“The moment the priest dips the cross in for the third time the water is perceived to be sanctified. And whereas baptism is meant to remove sin, this baptism is meant to remove contamination, human-caused contamination,” Boraas said. “The symbolism cannot escape anyone — people raise to the sacred what is most important in their lives, and clean water, pure water, uncontaminated water, baptized water, sacred water, is what’s most important. And the water then is made ready for the salmon to return.”

Given this, Boraas and Knott came to several conclusions of how the development of large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed could impact the villages there, including: degradation of nutritional health, loss of political power, deterioration of mental health due to the loss of culture, loss of language and traditional ways, loss of meaningful work by extended families operating together, reduction of gender equity resulting from loss of economic activities and social networking opportunities due to the potential diminishment of subsistence foods and harvest preparation, loss of the means to establish and maintain strong social networks through sharing, impact on belief systems that revere clean water and a clean environment, and an increase discord in and among villages if salmon were to go away.

“We tend in this world to monetize things and to say, ‘Well they could eat beef, no problem. They could be bought off, no problem.’ No, they couldn’t be,” Boraas said.

Compensation valued in dollars wouldn’t cover the costs in culture and lifestyle should salmon go away, he said.

“I don’t see how you could include a monetization of a belief system, to know that the water is pure and clean, then gets contaminated. How can you put a number to that? How can you put a number to their meaning of life?” he said.

But there are numbers surrounding this issue, numbers that dwarf the populations of these villages. Boraas, not being involved in the other areas of the EPA’s assessment report, doesn’t comment on those numbers, or anything beyond the scope of he and Knott’s cultural assessment. But there is a number he does give serious weight to — one. As in, the Bristol Bay watershed is the only one left in the world that continues to support successful, traditional indigenous villages on runs of wild salmon runs.

He rattled off examples of 30 other cultures throughout the world for which wild salmon was the keystone species, now irrevocably changed because their fish are gone — the Hupa in California, the Abanaki in Maine, the Umatilla in Washington, the Saami in Norway, the Ainu in Japan.

“There are no cultures of the other almost 30 that can today rely on wild salmon because the salmon runs have been destroyed. Only one place — only one place — can cultures carry on the traditions of their ancestors, making the transition from prehistory to now. The technology changes, but the attitudes, many of the beliefs, and the impact on the culture are still there. And that’s the Dena’ina and the Yup’ik of this area,” he said.

These are villages that work, he said. The rate of suicide is below the state average, which, while any is painful, is far better than the epidemic levels present in many other villages throughout the Bush. Boraas said that he also did not see any evidence of alcoholism or associated social problems, even though these are “wet” villages.

“These are villages that have made successful, I believe, transitions from prehistory to now. Part of the reason they work is their heavy subsistence on wild foods and a traditional lifestyle, and their belief system’s intact,” he said.

Preserving that has value, he said, but beyond just a caretaker mentality. It’s actually the other way around — that the villages have the potential to help urbanized Alaska, not just urbanized Alaska can help them.

“As we lose cultural diversity we lose the capacity to adapt in the future. I believe the people of the Nushagak and Kvichak have solved a lot of problems of our way of life. They are, in fact, the model of sustainability with a value system not dependant on rampant materialism, but dependent on three absolutely fundamental ideals — wild food, extended family and freedom,” he said.

This concept of freedom is one that the more “civilized,” urbanized world could use more of, he said. In the villages, it’s the ability survive in the vast, open, dangerous wilderness surrounding them, to live the cherished subsistence lifestyle by using cultural and traditional knowledge coupled with learned experience to make one self-reliant.

“The folks here know that they would rely on their own knowledge, skills, understanding, and that frees them. That’s freedom. That’s your own self and your own cultural traditions you’re relying on, not someone saying, ‘Do this, don’t do that.’ Freedom doesn’t mean being wild and crazy and doing anything you want to. Freedom means applying the restrictions and the knowledge and the basis of your culture to get along in this world,” he said.

“It frees you from being dependent on whatever government or corporation. It frees you from that kind of dependence that, I think, is self-limiting,” he said.

That’s not to say there isn’t a need for government and regulations and a societal framework representative of group values, more that one should be able to do what they can for themselves, he said.

“We need to have, at our core, that we are free to make decisions that are dependent on knowing the cultural traditions of your area, because it means you’ve learned about that interface between the natural environment and cultural environment to make those kinds of decisions. That’s freeing and, I think, a good thing. So that’s why we should care. The cultures as they have emerged from prehistory to now still carrying on those traditions provide a model for us for how to live,” he said.


1 Comment

Filed under Bristol Bay, Kenai Peninsula College, Pebble Mine, salmon

One response to “Last of the salmon people — EPA assessment describes culture of Natives still supported by wild salmon, clean water

  1. Catherine Cassidy

    That is a fantastic explanation of a very complex subject. Kudos to Ms. Neyman and Dr. Boraas.

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