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Who are the 'real heroes' of the Kuskokwim River king salmon shortage?

Jill Burke
Loren Holmes photo

During last week's Alaska Federation of Natives conference, Alaskans heard a lot about how dismal salmon runs are affecting Native villages, and how the Native community is pushing for greater control over the situation -- including stronger legal protections for their hunting and fishing rights in the Alaska and U.S. constitutions.

While the movement is unified across AFN members, it would be a mistake to assume all Alaska Natives are unified on the issue. The right and ability to feed one's family, how best to be a good steward of the state's wildlife resources, and who gets opportunities to gather wild foods first are emotional topics that delve into legal, social and political arenas. 

Heralded as heroes

When salmon fishermen on the Kuskokwim River went out to catch kings this summer despite a mandatory closure triggered by the need to conserve a weak chinook run, many heralded them as heroes. They were viewed as family men standing up for their right to put food on the table and as activists no longer willing to stand by while outsiders -- state and federal officials -- told them how and when to fish. Dozens of fishermen received citations. Nets were cut. Fish were seized.

During a panel discussion at AFN in Anchorage last week, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski called the situation "an embarrassment" for both governments, asserting that the agencies have "ignored the traditions and culture of our First People."

"Our families are becoming criminals for putting food on the table," added Myron Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents. 

"Hunting and fishing rights are a God-given and spiritual right that cannot be denied," said Randy Mayo, from Stevens Village, speaking earlier in the week at a rally in downtown Anchorage advocating a constitutional change to protect aboriginal rights to gather and share traditional foods.

'This is 2012 -- not 1912'

But not everyone believes defying the closure was the right thing to do, a point made recently by Mark Leary, director of development and operations for the Native village of Napaimute, a very small community located midway up the Kuskokwim River. In an essay posted to the village's website, Leary says:

"We are still dealing with the effects (the politics) of this disastrous King Salmon season, but as winter comes closer the People will have persevered and filled their freezers with the many other kinds of food still abundant in our waters and on our lands: Chums, Reds, Silvers, whitefish, waterfowl, berries, moose, bear, beaver, etc. I know my family’s own freezers are full. Nobody’s going to starve as some lamented back in June. This is 2012 – not 1912."

He goes on, recalling what he's heard from Native elders about the old days:

"Also in their memories were times when there were fish and game shortages; sometimes due to bad weather patterns, sometimes simply due to the natural fluctuations of wildlife. They always adapted, found other things to eat, did what they had to do to survive. They had to. There was nobody else to help them except themselves. No “Disaster Declarations”. No QUEST CARDS. Yet, there were times when some didn’t make it – stories of starvation – but those stories are from a very distant time."

Leary also makes this observation about how, regardless of a poor king salmon run, people found a way to get what they needed:

"This year, in the traditional spirit of adapting to circumstances, one industrious family that I know of cut, smoked and dried over 140 silvers during August. It can be done. It takes changing the normal ways of doing things and a little more work, but isn’t that what the strong People of our region are famous for: persevering and adapting. If it wasn’t true, the People would have starved long ago and there would be nobody left in our region today. Instead we are flourishing."

For Leary, those who didn't fish this summer, the people who abided by the closures, are the real heroes:

"And it makes me sad that while we’ve made heroes out of the 31 people that fished in protest during the subsistence King Salmon fishing closures, nobody has ever talked about the real heroes of the 2012 King Salmon season: the hundreds, maybe thousands of people that didn’t fish. These were the people that could see beyond the “right now” and truly thought about our children and grandchildren by not fishing. These are the heroes to me – the people that stuck together and endured the hardship of not fishing for King Salmon so that we could conserve what little there was for our future generations."

Messy topic

No matter how it's addressed, subsistence, for all of the absolute stances posited by people of various perspectives, is a messy topic. Those who advocate fishing when they need to are not necessarily opposed to conservation. Indeed, many pushing for constitutional changes also agree that wild food resources, including salmon, must be available for future generations. 

Read more about the AFN discussion on subsistence here and here. Read more about Leary's perspective here.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)