Voices Of The Upper Yukon


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A presentation I put together at Gates of the Arctic National Park in Fairbanks, Alaska describing a cultural resources project.

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Voices Of The Upper Yukon

  1. 1. Voices of the Upper Yukon River Surveying Local and Traditional Knowledge of the Salmon Fisheries
  2. 2. Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or TEK is… “A cumulative body of knowledge and beliefs, handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relation of living beings, including humans, with one another and with their environment. TEK is an attribute of societies with historical continuity in resource use practices; by and large, these are non- industrial or less technologically advanced societies, many of them are indigenous or tribal.” -Fikret Burkes, Natural Resources Institute, Univ. of Manitoba
  3. 3. Why TEK is important “Any study aimed at understanding the natural environment must include the role of humans as participants within the natural environment.” -John Sallenave, Senior Policy Advisor, Canadian Arctic Resources Committee
  4. 4. Objectives of this study include... Collecting data on the Upper Yukon River subsistence fisheries. Learning the seasonal cycle of subsistence living, finding out how people live here. Learning local place names and interactions among species. Learning how to better manage Yukon River fisheries. Training local research associates. Establishing better relations between local stakeholders and the NPS. Encouraging more local participation in subsistence policy decisions.
  5. 5. In Search of Local Expertise… In 2005, research began in Eagle and Eagle Village on a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project, to document local subsistence knowledge and practices concerning the Yukon River Salmon Fishery. Researchers asked 19 local fishers for their observations about the stock status and health of the salmon runs, local harvest and processing techniques, and recommendations for better management of the fishery.
  6. 6. Eagle, Alaska Eagle has been the historical home to Han Native Alaskans since before the arrival of Europeans in Alaska. In the late 1800s, Eagle became a supply and trading center for miners working the upper Yukon River. By 1898, its population had exceeded 1,700. In 1901 Eagle was the first incorporated city in the Alaska Interior The gold rushes in Nome and Fairbanks lured people away from Eagle. Present-day Eagle is home to around 200 people, mostly of European descent. Eagle Village has a small population that is about 50 percent Han.
  7. 7. Local resident researchers One of the goals of the study was to train local Eagle and Eagle Village residents in interviewing, camera work and oral history documentation skills. Local researchers showed an unique understanding of their subjects, including familiarity with place names, fishing methods, and life ways. Local fishers trusted neighbors not to give up their hard-won, closely-held, secrets.
  8. 8. Fishers told personal stories Chief Isaac Juneby was born in Eagle Village, and has been subsistence fishing on the Yukon River since he was 11 years old. “One of the things that I like to do or pass on is that traditional culture…passing on anything that I know that will be beneficial to them in the years to come…I once said that that I would rather know that the fish I eat are good because I prepared them with my own hands.”
  9. 9. Subsistence fishing is the basis of life on the Upper Yukon “People out here don’t have choices. It’s a thousand miles to get to the grocery store, and for some people that’s not even an option. The fish run is very important to them and they need to be able to get to the fish.” -Scarlett Hall
  10. 10. Fishing “fuels” other year-round activities that comprise bush life Dog teams are used for hunting, trapping, and recreation. Dogs are more reliable than a snowmobile, and cost less to maintain. On average, one dog requires about 200 chum salmon per year. “A lot of our winter travel with the dogs, for hauling wood and water and just transportation back and forth during wintertime on the river. It’s safer than any other type of transportation. We take the kings in the summer for ourselves and then in the fall when the chum roll around we start putting them on the rack for the dogs.” -Scarlett Hall Andy Bassich’s dog team
  11. 11. Fish wheels gather fast… Fish wheels are the most efficient way to catch the large amounts of salmon some families require. “Yesterday we turned the wheel for 24 hours, we couldn’t stay on top of it. We had about 550 fish in the morning, cleaned them out and then by afternoon, the baskets were completely full, the fish were falling out of the boxes back into the river...” –Andy Bassich
  12. 12. …but nets are easier to assemble Elders like Matthew Malcolm are legendary for their knowledge and net-handling skills. “It is just really something to watch Matthew fish! When you’re out there with the boat, he’s pulling, getting the boat up so that he’s pulling up the net, he’s taking the fish out of the net. Sometimes he gets in trouble, you know, and we give him hand, but usually he does this himself. And it is amazing, to watch him get these fish out of the nets sometimes, it is just incredible!!! -Barry Westphal
  13. 13. Economic changes pose challenges “You average the year with $25 to $50 a day checking your nets and wheel. You know, if you're not getting good fish, you can't afford to run up and down the river. You know, it's not worth it. You know, with the gas price up, no way.. It's wear and tear on your motor, yourself. “ Albert Carroll, Jr. Andy Bassich heads out to check his fish wheel
  14. 14. Many spoke of environmental changes seen over the years “It’s much warmer now in the wintertime than what we used to have. So evidently, this has affected the water, I mean, this has affected the fish. One of the things you could notice is that there are getting, a lot of more sandbars…So you see this sudden change within our lifetimes—not in evolutionary time—affects the water and the animals. I think that will drastically affect them one way or another. ” -Chief Isaac Juneby
  15. 15. King salmon caught now are smaller than in the past. Nearly all the fishers interviewed found that the king salmon they catch have become smaller and smaller over the years. “Instead of the huge, big kings we’re getting smaller fish. And you know, there’s several ideas to why that’s happening and one of them is the large mesh nets that are being used commercially which target big fish. We don’t want to lose that genetic line.” -Scarlett Hall
  16. 16. Bigger nets catch larger fish “Drift-nets and large-mesh gear--in my opinion--target large females. And I think we’re beginning to change the genetics of the Yukon River stocks and that’s a huge concern of mine at this point in time. I know when I first came here in, in 1983-84, it was quite common to see a 65- pound fish come out of the river and, I doubt very much that there are probably more than 4 or 5 that I saw last year out of the whole Eagle area that were that big.” -Andy Bassich
  17. 17. The Old Days “I remember fish that were just like humongous, you know, I mean, huge fish, that would swamp the boat practically if they weren’t dead, you know, just. I remember one time my dad and I checked the net across from our old fish camp down there. I was young teenager or something and the fish was giant and it wasn’t dead and, you know, he wanted to keep it of course. And it almost flipped us!” -Sonja Sager Fisher Mike Molchan hoists a large king salmon in this archival photo
  18. 18. Pests and disease Some fishers attribute occasional outbreaks of Ichthyophonus and tape worms to warmer air and water temperatures. Parasitic sea lampreys let go in fresh water but leave scars. “Last year I caught a lot of fish that had lamprey marks on it…I just throw it away because, even for dogs I don’t think it would be good. And I had quite a bit of fish that were like that. And one of them was a big fish and it actually was pretty bad. The quality of fish, in sickness, that one I noticed. Tape worms reside in the stomach and gut -Chief Isaac Juneby of salmon
  19. 19. Many fishers took time off to let king stocks rebuild Today, Upper Yukon fishers like Don Woodruff are more likely to ease off their efforts if they see a weak run. “I’ve taken a bit of a sabbatical from the king salmon fishing because I wanted the stocks to rebuild. And I took a personal leave to make my contribution to salmon getting up on the spawning ground until they build up enough where I think that we can start harvesting ‘em again for personal consumption and drying ‘em for strips.”
  20. 20. Salmon meals take many forms Primary means of processing are: drying, smoking, kippering, jarring (canning) and freezing. There is a tremendous variety in cutting techniques, drying and or smoking systems, jarring, and recipes for cooking.
  21. 21. Salmon eggs are rich in protein Skeins of chum eggs hang to dry Chum salmon eggs fill five-gallon buckets Eggs can be brined or dry salted, too.
  22. 22. The spirit of sharing lives along the Upper Yukon The same spirit that compels some to forgo fishing when runs are weak provides a sense of community and sharing. “When you get your first anything, you share it with the elders, you share it with the whole village. There used to be a guy here, if he caught one fish he made a big pot of soup just so it would feed everybody. That’s what we tried to get across, that anything you kill should be shared…your first salmon, that should go to the whole village.” -Ethel Beck
  23. 23. Teaching traditional life ways “I want him to have a connection to the land just like I do. And I don’t see how he cannot, you know, growing up here. You tell your kid, ‘don’t step on the edge of the cut bank,” tell you kid, ‘hey, that’s overflow,’ tell him all those kinds of things. You should always just do subsistence and I think that’s the important thing. Take what you need and try to take good care of it.” –Sonja Sager Sonja Sager and son Finn
  24. 24. But those ways face changes “There’s a certain segment of young people that would like to find out if they’ve got what it takes to go out and cut logs and build a cabin and fish and hunt and find out if they have what it takes. You can’t do that now. My grandson will not be able to go downriver and build a cabin on a nice looking bench over the river. But I think people should have the opportunity because we’re not short on land, we’re short on people.” -John Borg John Borg talks with interviewer
  25. 25. Keeping this life alive Fishers were asked what measures would best preserve and enhance salmon runs that are the fuel to their unique life way. Responses included: 1) Remove requirement to completely pull nets during closures. 2) Undertake further study on the effect of large mesh nets on size selectivity. 3) Rethink models of “customary and traditional.” Go beyond racial conceptions of fishing dependence and recognize that there is now a 40- plus year history of non-Natives learning about the fishery from Native experts, who are fast disappearing. 4) Develop quantitative analyses of subsistence fisheries. 5) Study correlations between low snow cover and/or cold winters for effect upon fry survival. 6) Study the demographics. Are there more or fewer subsistence fishers riverwide? More or less harvest?
  26. 26. “I think the northern environment is particularly delicate because it grows so slowly. Whatever damage is done may not be reversible. We need to think of it not as what I can get out of it but rather how we can preserve it for others. When I say others I don’t always mean people. We are here with animals, and without them we wouldn’t be here.” -Elizabeth Sager