• Anthropologists document loss of salmon would mean loss of cultures
By Naomi Klouda
Salmon cultures dotted the world over from the Saami in Norway to the Ainu of Hakaido, Japan. Most of the more than 30 world salmon cultures are now diminished or faded away since the salmon no longer make their way to the nets.
Most that is, except in Alaska and particularly those of the Bristol Bay region, said Alan Boraas in a talk, “Fish, Family, Freedom and Sacred Water,” Friday night at Kachemak Bay Campus.
Boraas, an anthropology professor with the Kenai Peninsula College in Soldotna and anthropology professor Catherine Knott of the Kachemak Bay Campus in Homer, were assigned a study looking at the potential effects to Native villages of the Nushagak and Kvichak River watersheds if the salmon and clean water they rely on are tainted. The Environmental Protection Agency hired the study as part of its 404(c) Clean Water Act assessment of the watershed around the proposed Pebble Mine.
Their study took them to nine villages inhabited by Yup’ik or Dena’ina peoples. They interviewed 153 of the region’s 4,337 population over the course of a year, including analyzing other data to give a picture of the region.
“The EPA didn’t have a lot of experience with indigenous people in Alaska. Urban Alaska doesn’t have a lot of understanding of subsistence issues in Alaska, for that matter,” Boraas said. Most people sense tribes’ tight connections to fish, landscape and waters. But the study found a much more integral alliance that contains their deepest beliefs in what is nutritional, spiritual, cultural and a part of their identity.
To get at the answers, Boraas and Knott asked primary questions: How are salmon and clean water important in your life? If you couldn’t eat wild salmon, where would you go? How is wealth defined in this community? Do you pray when you catch salmon?
On the first question, answers came back often the same: “We wouldn’t be Dena’inas anymore, without salmon and clean water.”
“They didn’t voice alternatives like, ‘we would go buy beef at the store,’ or we would just move to the city,” Boraas told Friday’s crowd. “They are not just getting nutrients, although nutrients are there. This was a question of identity.”
A look at cultures around the world who lost their salmon to industrialization or trawling show that’s exactly what happened. “They are still trying to get their identity back,” he said.
On the question of wealth, the interviews often revealed that if there was a lot of salmon and wild meat in the freezer, then people felt wealthy. “They didn’t say anything about having a big truck or a big bank account,” he said.
The data bears out the same story. Since 1980, Alaska has obtained information on the amount of subsistence foods taken from the wild. Per capita, the people of this region remove 900 pounds per year. “They are not eating that much (individually), but that is what is shared,” Boraas said. “Subsistence doesn’t equal economy. Subsistence equals culture.”
Another way this fact became self evident was through the concept of sharing. One interviewee said, “If you don’t share, you’re nobody,” meaning sharing food is a way of holding up your end as a member of the community. “It’s not so much a system of distributing food, as it is a way of sharing love,” Boraas said.
Subsistence gets portrayed as a poor-person’s lifestyle, but it is not. The act of hunting or fishing food is more far reaching than supplying grub for the table.
He asked a man why he lives in this village. “He is a man who thinks why use two words when one will do? His answer was ‘freedom.’ Freedom to live by the rules he was taught as a youngster. Freedom to use the skills that allow him to make do in wild country and the mental ability to do it,” Boraas said.
Family has a lot to do with subsistence, because it is as a group that people go to fish camp or pass on knowledge. Language becomes part of it because it is important to pass on the specific words that depict places, people and things.
Spirituality enters into subsistence as well, as in the act of praying and practicing gratitude.
“This is ritualized ecology. When things come back, if we do the right thing, the animals will come back,” he said. This is evident in practices like offering a piece of the meat “to the other side,” that has been practiced for eons. It’s also shown in the sacred waters rituals.
In their presentation, Boraas and Knott showed a small video of a Blessing Waters ritual, this one completed during Theophany in New Stuyahok on Jan. 17. A Russian Orthodox priest and the congregation conduct a ceremony at the Nushagak, where a cross is etched in ice. The priest conducted a kind of baptism of the waters to remove human-caused pollution, “to make it safe for returning salmon.”
“He dips the cross in the water three times. The water is now holy. It has curative powers,” Boraas said.
People of the region continue to believe their water holds healing properties. So holy are the water’s powers that one elder recounted a time when as a girl “before I was a lady” she grew sick and almost died. Her father brought her water. “That’s strong holy water,” she emphasized at the story’s conclusion.
In the end, the study concludes helping the salmon people hang onto their culture isn’t just about them.
“It’s about them saving us,” Boraas said.
“The cultures of the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers provide us with a blueprint for how to live sustainably in the 21st Century. We’re the unsustainable ones who brought bioengineering and Frankenfish,” he said.
Now the studies’ 151 pages are part of the EPA’s “Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay.”
It began 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. In their revisions they are addressing public comments and responses from the panel of experts used for the peer review.
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.”
Since the EPA scientists relied on the multitude of data already available on the area, Boraas and Knott’s report is the only one that introduces new data. The talk focused only on their findings and expressed no opinion about the Pebble Mine.
Comments are closed