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Nature Feeds Our Culture

Preserving Culture in Southeast Alaska

For the Haida people of Alaska, the yearly return of the salmon sustains a timeless tradition.

Nature Feeds Anthony Christianson's Culture

A crew of four is lugging scientific equipment upstream through an emerald rainforest in southeast Alaska. Over fallen trees and up rocky banks and across the luxurious moss of the forest floor: each step brings them closer to the next pool of crystalline water. They are surveying for young salmon, and the small fish lurk deep in the refuge of these pools.

When they arrive, Melanie Kadake sets down her pack and pulls from it a simple live minnow trap. She opens its tin mesh, drops in a big pinch of bait, clasps it shut, and sets it deep in the pool, tying it off on a nearby branch.

This is part of the strict scientific protocol established for assessing the range of wild salmon. Streams where salmon are scientifically documented are eligible for the most stringent protections available under Alaska state law.

Salmon and Tradition

The place where the crew of Haida tribal members explores for young salmon, here where the forest meets the sea, is a traditional use area of the Haida people, an indigenous group of southeast Alaska and British Coumbia. Harvesting salmon is a longstanding practice. Their work is important because among the Haida, the value of the salmon is simply beyond measure.

“They give themselves to us, and we have a lot of stories about how we have to respect the salmon as an animal,” says Anthony Christianson, a Haida leader.

“We have to make sure that their home is intact, and that’s part of why we are engaging in the assessment work — so that we can make sure their house is set for them, for when they come home to have a clean place they can go in and rest and go spawn and recreate the next cycle of salmon that we can use to continue to exist.”

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Role of Science

The people of the Native village of Hydaburg are intimately familiar with where the salmon are. But only recently — when the threat of large-scale logging loomed — did they realize the value of blending their traditional ecological knowledge with science.

And so as the crew from Hydaburg tests the waters of their traditional use areas, they are following scientific protocols they have learned through a partnership with The Nature Conservancy. When the tribe documents where salmon are spawning and rearing, they are better equipping themselves to protect the living resources on which their subsistence tradition depends.

“The Nature Conservancy brought a high level of capacity to help us expand our current work in the fisheries, trying to build a tribal fisheries program,” Christianson says.

Preserving Culture

For the Haida people of Hydaburg, the patient work of keeping culture alive takes many forms. Just as the tribe is protecting salmon streams, it is also teaching the Haida language to young people and instructing people of all ages in carving totem poles. The Hydaburg totem park — among the largest and most impressive anywhere — is vivid evidence of the resurgence now underway in this remote Alaska village of 400.

“We describe ourselves, our clans as eagle and raven — they benefit equally from the salmon returning. The bear, the killer whale, the sharks — all the things we hold as clan emblems or crests all depend on the salmon as a resource,” Christianson says.

For the people of Hydaburg, nature matters because it nurtures the fish and animals on which people depend.

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[Top image: Mayor Tony Christianson goes seine fishing for salmon in Eek Inlet off Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska. © Erika Nortemann/TNC]


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