As modern development speeds toward some of the last truly subsistence-based economies and tribes in the world, researchers are working to better understand this way of life. Two anthropologists from Kenai Peninsula College have been working on a project just like that for the past two years and recently presented what they learned in Soldotna.
In January, subsistence fishers in the village of New Stuyahok on the Nushagak River took part in a blessing of the water. Blessing the water seeks to keep it healthy and provide a suitable home for the salmon and other wild foods the villages and cultures of the area depend on.
I learned this, and much more, at a presentation entitled “Salmon Science, Stories and Celebration” given by Kenai Peninsula College Anthropology professor Dr. Alan Boraas in Soldotna. It’s the culmination of more than two years of meeting and interviewing people in the native villages of Bristol Bay for a study commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“So this study, which is really voices of the people, is to express how that culture operates today as a salmon culture and it focuses on the Nushagak and the Kvichak Rivers,” Boraas told the crowd of about 50.
He teamed with Dr. Catherine Knott of KPC’s Kachemak Bay Campus in Homer and asked just a few basic, open-ended questions to gain a better understanding of how the Dena’ina and Yup’ik tribes there value salmon and the other natural resources around them. They interviewed fifty-three people from seven different villages. Working through a Yup’ik interpreter, a village elder is asked during one interview what would happen if the salmon didn’t come back.
“He 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. The depth of the reliance and the importance of salmon in their lives is reflected well, I think, in that response to that question,” Boraas said.
Dr. Borass’ work studying the native cultures of the Cook Inlet Basin goes back nearly 40 years. He said people in the villages where a traditional subsistence lifestyle has managed to remain the primary way of life simply don’t view salmon and other food sources, or the systems that support them, as a commercial commodity.
“People raise to the sacred that which is most important in their lives. Salmon and clean water are that thing,” he said.
He also discussed how even in places where subsistence still rules the day, modern technology has demanded some level of monetary income to pay for boats, nets, fuel and other supplies and the difficulty in finding a balance between the demands of modern fishing and cultural traditions.
“If you have a full time job, you can’t also spend eight hours a day on subsistence. It has to be some kind of part-time type work that would 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.
The idea of a freezer full of fish is an important one, as it is one of three components of what the people of these villages regard as wealth.
“People would say one of three things and sometimes all three,” Boraas said, describing the local notion of wealth. ”A freezer full of salmon. That’s a wealthy person. Family. That’s wealth. And one I didn’t expect: freedom. Nobody talked in terms of materialism,” he said. ”Now…a good four-wheeler and a good boat, that’s a good deal but wealth is defined in terms of fish, family and freedom,” he said.
This was just the first of three presentations at KPC on the cultural importance of salmon and wild food to the natives of Bristol Bay. At the next presentation on November 7th, local fishermen and educators will gather to share stories, poems and songs celebrating salmon, and the final meeting later in November, scientists will sit in on a panel discussion on king salmon in Cook Inlet.