We share our Southeast Alaskan life with salmon. Salmon are the story of us. This time of year, we contemplate what we are grateful for, and salmon is high on our list of gratitudes.
Salmon Heritage: Our sister/daughter is a pink salmon. Her Lingít name is Cháas’ Koowú Tláa, Mother-of-Humpy-Tail. Traditional names connect us to clans, story, streams, rivers and place. Most of us have a salmon heritage. We were raised on fishing boats, or our families made a living fishing salmon, or we grew up respecting salmon. Plus, many of our multi-cultural heritages are linked to the history of salmon canneries and fisheries: Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Finnish and more. Heritage gratitude is being grateful for those who came before you. Toowú kaklag̱éi haa tʼaakxʼi, ḵa haa naax̱ sateeyí, ḵa haa kusteeyí. Pride in our family and our clan and our traditions.
A Salmon Home: To have salmon gratitude is to appreciate a sense of home. Scientists say that salmon have a better sense of smell than bears or even our dogs — salmon can smell their home streams and rivers. Like salmon, we return. We return home from college, or back home after being treated for cancer in the city, or perhaps we’ve come back from living in other places, sometimes bearing gifts, or carrying our broken hearts home with us. Our sacred objects return, too, to their rightful place from deep within a museum drawer or a collector’s wall. We dance and sing these returns, whether they are people, salmon, or a clan hat. Home is where the salmon are.
Artistic Salmon: Salmon are inspiring. Salmon swim through airports and splash color across school walls. They swish up totem poles and across our dance masks. On Prince of Wales Island, a recently raised totem pole, the Sakteenedi Honor Totem Pole, is a tribute to the uncles of the dog salmon clan. Salmon are tattooed on our calves and etched in silver bracelets round our wrists. Abalone buttoned salmon dance at Celebration and attend board meetings. We paddle with painted salmon. We dangle salmon earrings, fill salmon skin wallets and wear salmon on our T-shirts and hats. Our creative lives are most certainly inspired by salmon.
Elders and Salmon: The oldest salmon fossil is 50 million years old. We live with old fish. Recently an old stone fish weir, dated at 11,000 years ago was discovered in Southeast Alaska. Ancient salmon, though, had a mouthful of large sharp teeth and weighed hundreds of pounds and grew from two feet up to nine feet long—It was this big! Though our arms may not be able to stretch as far as an ancient salmon, our arms can reel in fish and gift them to elders. What we’ve learned about respecting our human elders can be applied to salmon too, and vice versa. Make sure they’re always taken care of and listen to the wisdom of both our human and salmon elders.
Salmon Connection: Mary Peltola amused national media outlets with her Pro-Fish! campaign. Those who weren’t from Alaska were amused and a bit confused. Do Alaskans really love their salmon that much. Yes, we do.
Salmon Sustenance: There are thousands of ways to prepare and eat salmon. Salmon is our soul food. We are Salmon People. Eating smoked salmon reminds us of so many people we love. We eat salmon spread (dip) for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and at every celebration in between. Also, the next time you eat fish, be thankful for the people who put their life on the line to catch the fish for you. If there’s an excuse to eat salmon, we’ll come up with it. Salmon spread on pilot bread, smoked salmon, salmon chowder, salmon casserole, salmon pie, salmon enchiladas, salmon pizza, salmon patties, grilled salmon, baked salmon, and fried salmon.
Salmon Memory: Salmon, like trees and glaciers, are recording our lives on this planet. Through the study of salmon scales, we can predict fish origin, spawning history, sea age and river age, and estimate growth. The fish recall their home streams. Thinking about the salmon’s incredible memory is sometimes melancholy. Especially in this season, reflecting all we’ve lost during the pandemic, we remember the elders who taught us to smoke salmon, the elders who helped us learn our Indigenous languages. Elders tell us stories about their lives in the villages, or lives as fishermen, or how life was lived a long time ago. Let us keep memories alive at our tables this season. Be grateful that lives were shared, and that we share our lives with salmon.
Salmon Story: Salmon are a story fish. Our salmon are not only woven on dance aprons, but they’re also woven through our stories, songs, poems, and plays. We recall the storyteller, Ishmael Angaluuk Hope, his words flowing along a current in our brains, how he allowed us to see the proper way to treat salmon. The Salmon Boy story is one of the oldest northwest coasts stories, an important story to Salmon People, like the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. Salmon legends are found in many cultures such as our Northwest Coast Indigenous peoples, the Irish, Sami, and Finnish. In our stories, humans turn into salmon and humans eat salmon to gain the world’s knowledge, and humans join the salmon people to teach us about the different species of salmon and how to respect nature. To know salmon is to know stories. To know our stories is to know ourselves.
Salmon Knowledge: Traditional ecological knowledge along with modern science helps us understand how better to live among salmon. There are big changes happening on this planet. Salmon are getting smaller, glaciers are receding, our ocean’s chemistry is changing. In Alaska, total commercial harvest of all types of salmon this year is slightly less than average and in some areas of Alaska, salmon runs were minimal or nearly non-existent. Our health and wellbeing on this planet are linked to the wellbeing of salmon. Let’s use our knowledge wisely.
Sharing Salmon: The first salmon of the season is always shared. We share our salmon head soup as medicine. We share our salmon spread at every event and dinner. We share our jars of smoked sockeye at our memorials.
We welcome people home and send them moving out of town, or off into the next life, with a plate full of salmon. Once, when we temporarily moved to Haines, Alaska, a neighbor rushed across the street holding a freshly caught salmon in her arms—a gift for our first day in the new community. What a way to be welcomed into a neighborhood! As well, we share our love for salmon with visitors to Alaska:
Tourists: These salmon stink! Oh, my god, are those ones dead? Why are there dead salmon in the river? I thought we were coming to see live salmon.
Local Tlingit guide (me):…(speechless)
We can’t count how many times someone has said to us, “I don’t like fish,” only to be given a taste of fresh salmon that changed their opinion. Sharing salmon is a value built into our lives in Southeast Alaska.
So, while we gather with family and friends this season, let’s be present with one another, enjoy one another’s company. What are we grateful for today? Is it our heritage, our homes, our art, elders, our food? Now in this season of change, consider salmon gratitudes. How can we learn more about what’s going on with our salmon? How can we help collect data, work with tribal and environmental organizations who are working to save our salmon? Saving our salmon means saving us and the traditions and identities we hold dear and one of those traditions is to offer salmon, to share salmon, to eat salmon, to become salmon. We are grateful for our salmon.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Yéilk’ Vivian Mork. It appears twice per month in the Capital City Weekly.