How Alaska Natives Lost the Right to Fish Sacred Salmon | Civil Eats

How Alaska Natives Lost the Right to Fish Sacred Salmon

In a new book, Yup’ik agricultural specialist Elias Kelly discusses how the state’s approach to fishery management has excluded subsistence fishing and outlines a more cooperative approach.

An Alaska Native subsistence fisherman steers his boat loaded with salmon on the Yukon River.

Photo credit: Jay Dickman, Getty Images

The many modern-day threats to the Alaska Native way of life are well-documented, but nothing offers an inside look into this world quite like My Side of the River. Weaving together personal stories and historical accounts, the debut book from Yup’ik agricultural specialist Elias Kelly explains how the 1971 Congressional Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA)—which extinguished aboriginal rights to hunting and fishing—forever changed Alaska Natives’ ability to feed their families.

Growing up in Pilot Station, a small Native village along the Yukon River, Kelly learned how to hunt, fish, and gather from elders like his uppa (grandfather). He went on to become a tribal council leader and a fierce advocate for Alaska Native rights in addition to working various jobs for the U.S. Forest Service and Alaska Department of Fish and Game, where he put so-called “Native science” to use alongside Western methodology.

“I think it is time to consider alternative fish and wildlife management methods, such as traditional management principles or the idea of co-management.”

This dichotomy between Native and non-Native approaches to wildlife regulation and conservation runs throughout My Side of the River, from details about Kelly’s own experiences with fish and game troopers to an overview of the historic Katie John case, which bolstered Alaska Native subsistence rights.

Kelly asserts that misguided management efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Alaska Department of Fish and Game—what he says is often referred to as “wildlife micromanagement”—have contributed to the recent historic fisheries collapses and the pervasive Alaska Native food insecurity we’re seeing today.

In his new book, Kelly highlights the importance of subsistence harvests and points to the fact that, in 2000, some Alaska Natives harvested more than 700 pounds of wild foods per person.

“What Natives do is not a choice. Harvesting animals and birds, drying and storing fish is part of establishing our food security,” Kelly writes. “The economic reality of living in Native Alaska, where supermarkets do not exist, means there are few other options.”

And yet, restrictive subsistence regulations have left many Alaska Natives in rural areas no choice but to engage in so-called “poaching” to meet their food security needs.

Civil Eats spoke with Kelly about subsistence rights, tribal sovereignty, and the importance of a more cooperative approach to fish and wildlife management in Alaska—one that takes into account traditional Native wisdom and values.

You are both a subsistence fisher and a commercial fisher. How are these two intertwined?

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Like many Natives, I grew up hunting and fishing with my relatives. I started helping out with commercial fishing when I was 10 years old. We didn’t see a conflict between commercial fishing and subsistence fishing. We usually went commercial fishing and kept some for subsistence needs. Subsistence fishing provided our food security, while commercial fishing provided some income to supplement our food security needs and pay household bills.

For the Lower Yukon, we have more than 600 state limited-entry commercial permits, enabling holders to fish and legally sell their salmon. Pilot Station has 54 commercial fishers. For these families, commercial sales are perhaps their only income.

But unfortunately for the Yukon River, the last commercial fishing took place in 2019 [due to unprecedented low salmon numbers]. To this day, families are still struggling.

What have been the long-term consequences of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act?

One of the major provisions of the act is the extinguishment of Alaska Native aboriginal rights to hunting and fishing. This reinforced the state of Alaska’s claim to management responsibility of all fish and wildlife for personal and commercial use, including subsistence.

In fact, the Alaska Constitution has a clause that outlines that the state will manage all fish and wildlife for sustainable harvests using the management principle of sustained yield. We can only look at our Yukon River and Kuskokwim River salmon numbers to determine whether these management efforts have worked. I think it is time to consider alternative fish and wildlife management methods, such as traditional management principles or the idea of co-management.

How have Native science and Western science historically clashed?

It is not unusual to hear claims that Alaska Natives live in harmony with nature. But the idea of traditional ecological knowledge, or Native knowledge, [is often seen as] archaic compared to the management principles administered by the state and federal agencies. The concept of non-Native science incorporates Western management doctrines and strongly influences our current harvest regulations.

Non-Native fish and game managers use quantitative and qualitative data to [tell] Natives when, where, and how to fish. To support this reasoning, they incorporate this data chronologically, where there is a beginning and an end.

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In comparison, Alaska Natives tend to think in the abstract. We are very good at observing Mother Nature. This takes time and practice. We observe all this information as to weather, climate, and fish and wildlife conditions and have discussions with other Natives. This is Native science at work. But in Western science, this is called an “ad hoc hypothesis.” All this Native information is telling us what is going to happen, but the conclusion can be difficult to accept without proof.

What’s the significance of the Katie John case as it relates to subsistence rights?

Katie John was an Alaska Native Ahtna Athabascan elder who grew up along the Copper River in a very remote fish camp. After Alaska statehood in 1959, the state became responsible for managing all fish and wildlife resources using non-Native ethics, including restrictions, closures, and harvest limits. The state basically prohibited Katie John and her family from fishing at their camp. So, in 1985, she filed a lawsuit against the state of Alaska.

In 1980, Congress had passed the Alaska National Interest Land Claims Act (ANILCA). This gave the federal government the legal authority to manage fish and wildlife harvests on all federal land and waters, including in national wildlife preserves and parks. ANILCA includes a clause that gives rural Alaska residents an opportunity to harvest fish and wildlife—in simple terms, a subsistence harvest preference.

Katie John’s court case used this clause to claim that the state of Alaska denied her subsistence harvest rights, and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. The state of Alaska had argued that the management responsibility of all navigable waters in Alaska belonged to the state, including all fish and wildlife harvests. But what many people don’t realize is that as a result of the Katie John case, we now have two regulatory agencies—federal and state—monitoring, regulating, and enforcing Native subsistence harvests.

Yukon River fish camp (photo credit: Josh Spice, National Park Service)

Yukon River fish camp (photo credit: Josh Spice, National Park Service)

You explain that many Alaska Natives in rural areas resort to “poaching.” Why is this civil disobedience necessary?

Try to imagine your way of life being managed every day by someone from far away. This is what it is like living in rural Alaska; the economic conditions can be challenging. Even if the fish and game manager will not allow us to fish, the fish and wildlife trooper is not always around when the salmon are swimming past Pilot Station.

For example, in 2009, in the Native village of Marshall, there was a full salmon fishing closure. The Native residents went out and fished as a community during the closures, and the state fish and wildlife troopers couldn’t do anything about it. When subsistence restrictions are posted, Natives tend to stick together and dare the state to take action.

How do subsistence rights directly relate to issues like education, housing, and child custody?

Alaska Natives view wildlife harvests and resource gathering as family and community activities. These practices are not only part of our social network; they also determine our physical and spiritual well-being. When fish and game managers tell us we cannot harvest salmon, it disrupts our family and community stability, leaving people struggling without a job, income, or means to feed their family.

We tend to see more disputes, alcohol and drug abuse, and a broken family network. Families who are struggling do not like to ask for help. Believe it or not, Alaska Native harvesting supports enriched family values and community stability.

You pose the question: Can Alaska Native tribes be sovereign if they don’t own land? What’s your take on this?

In Alaska, there are more than 200 federally recognized tribes. Each addresses concerns within their own communities. Unlike the Indian reservation system in the lower 48 states, the majority of Alaska tribes do not own land. So, it is not unusual for non-Native leaders in Alaska to claim that Alaska Native tribes can never be sovereign because they do not own the land. But they do own the community.

For example, during the COVID crisis, Alaska Native tribes as sovereign governments only allowed visitors to come to the community with permission. There are no roads in rural Alaska; in my part of the state, everyone flies into the community on an airplane. Before the passengers boarded the airplane, the airline would require a confirmation letter from the tribe giving that person permission to travel to the community. The local tribes use their sovereign responsibility to support community members. If this is not sovereignty, I don’t know what is.

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In your view, what factors have contributed to the current Yukon River salmon collapse?

There has been much discussion and research on salmon conditions in Alaska, not only on the Yukon River but statewide. There are many theories—everything from climate change and increasing water temperature to predation and intercept by commercial fisheries as the salmon migrate out to the ocean—but no burning proof. In reality, it could be a combination of all these factors.

Personally, I believe the one common cause is the condition of the feeder stock sources. We have seen declines in many marine mammals, birds, and fish as a result of [declining] numbers of salmon, whitefish, herring, and lamprey eels. Therefore it’s not only salmon that we should be concerned about. We need to treat all wild resources with an ecosystem management approach. To care for our homes, we need to care for ourselves. And to care for ourselves, we need to care for our homes.

Coho salmon (Photo credit: Craig Springer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Coho salmon (Photo credit: Craig Springer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

How would you like to see fish and wildlife management responsibility in Alaska change?

We need to consider alternative management schemes, such as co-management or intertribal fish commissions. In 2014, the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission became active. The Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission was created in 2015 and is influential in addressing management and stewardship obligations, including Alaska Native harvests. Both of these are modeled after the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Is it too late for these fish commissions? We have had no Yukon River subsistence salmon harvest since 2019 for king, chum, pink, or coho. In comparison, the Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission announced several planned subsistence salmon fish openings for June and July this year. There are currently no plans for Yukon salmon harvests. Just the other day, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed all salmon fishing for the Yukon River coastal communities of Hooper Bay and Scammon Bay—all the way to Kotlik. Perhaps we need more time for these intertribal fish commissions to work.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

While ANCSA did extinguish Alaska Native aboriginal rights, it did not extinguish obligations of tradition management. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Alaska Department of Fish and Game are major decision-makers impacting our Native way of life using Western or colonial management guidelines. This book examines the different management guidelines—tradition versus Western, federal versus state, subsistence versus commercial versus sport—and asks: Who should be responsible for wildlife management? It is easy for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Alaska Department of Fish and Game to claim they have management responsibility. But are they the real stewards? The wild resources of Alaska belong to everyone.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

An Alaska Native Tlingit tribal member, Nelson is an award-winning writer and editor living in Minneapolis. She's the former editor-in-chief of Artful Living, a top U.S. boutique lifestyle magazine. She's interviewed such luminaries as Padma Lakshmi, chef Sean Sherman, and "Reservation Dogs" creator Sterlin Harjo and written for publications including ELLE, Esquire, Vanity Fair, National Geographic, the BBC, the Guardian, Teen Vogue, and more. Read more >

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  1. Dan
    Looks to me like you wanted the commercial fishery, ie. modern technology and equipment, And your subsistence way of life and
    over fished the resource. Now it is Trawlers, Area M etc to blame.
    Quit blaming everyone but your selves.
  2. Alaska Natives are part of the problem through their ownerships of huge Bering Sea trawl vessels via the federal CDQ program. The Coastal Region group, for example, has a motto "Pollock Provides." They howl about salmon bycatch leaving their smokers empty while their boats are the culprits. A conundrum, for sure.
  3. John Eyon
    I have for decades felt the rules should be
    as follows.
    1 Alaska Natives and there families
    2 Alaska Residents and there families
    3 Commercial Fishing
    4 Charter / non residents
    I am Native and a Resident . That's my 2 cents.

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