Compass: Subsistence is more than the catch

She brought dry fish to the school for my little son. A gallon sized bag of salmon strips. She poked her head into the classroom and called my son's name, with a smile on her face. He saw the salmon and smiled too. She gifts him with strips from time to time. It makes him her son, as well as mine.

She is from the Kuskokwim. She moved here to Copper River country with her family. They are going to use our fish wheel this year. She said they want to trade vegetables from their greenhouse, for use of our site. They don't have to trade. But still, it's a good way. A way of community.

I saw the pictures of the men from the Kuskokwim, who were charged with fishing illegally during a poor king salmon run last year. It didn't sit right with me. I agree that if the numbers are low, we need to address the cause. But the root of the problem is often deep. Like the bottom of the ocean, not easily seen. Not as easy to see, and cite, as some fellows out in the open. Doing what they've always done. Fishing for their families.

Several years ago I saw an advertisement for a sport fishing operation. They promoted "rodeo fishing", where tourists could float the river in a one-man raft, hook a king salmon and let the strong giant pull them up-stream, giving the tourist a thrill. When I talked to the local wildlife trooper about it, he said that while it was somewhat unethical, it wasn't illegal because the client eventually landed the fish and consumed it. I wonder if the tortured fish tasted the same? I wonder if the tourist even liked the taste... or if he was in it just for the game?

Is it wrong to fish or hunt for money or sport only? How much is too much? I often have this discussion with my dad, who guides from time to time. He says that every good fisherman or hunter has a primal urge to participate in the harvest, a desire that goes beyond the need to feed, beyond greed. Some people act with integrity in the field and on the water. But many do not. How do we sort out the morality of it all?

We can't legislate morality, but we do have an opportunity to learn how to interact with nature in a way that is ethical, sustainable, and in a way that promotes community-the backbone of society. There are societies in Alaska who know and practice this way fairly consistently. The men who were on trial, for fishing during a closed season, wanted the judge to recognize their spiritual right to fish. I don't know much about Ellam Yua (the Yup'ik word for Creator), and I don't believe that a spiritual deity favors one human being over another, or grants special rights to one over another. But I do know that some people act with integrity when it comes to Creator's bounty, and some do not.

I've eaten some good salmon strips in my time, but there is something about the way my friend from the Kuskokwim makes hers. She uses an ingredient that can't be seen, but I can taste it in every bite. She takes her time with the fish, it is a labor of love, perhaps an expression of Ellam Yua. Once all the work is done (and it is a lot of work) she doesn't hoard her stores away. She shares with my son.

Subsistence is about more than just physical survival. It is a way of life that sustains the spirit, as well as the flesh. It is a way that has become rare, devalued by modern society, which emphasizes quantity over quality. There are those who know and practice traditions that support community, of which seasonal fishing is a vital piece. We would do well to learn from the people who live this way, not criminalize and shame them.

Chantelle Pence lives with her husband and three sons in Chistochina, where she works as a consultant (Copper River Consulting) and plays as a writer.