“Getting engaged starts at the kitchen table with what you’re feeding your family,” says Anthony Christianson, chairman of Alaska’s Federal Subsistence Board, discussing why participation in fish and wildlife regulatory meetings is important. “From there, engagement needs to go into our communities, and then to our schools because it’s our right to have our voices heard and to make change.”
During the first week of February, Christianson led the four-day meeting with the Federal Subsistence Board, a decision-making group that oversees the management of subsistence use of fish, wildlife and other resources on federal lands and waters. The agenda covered the last year’s proposals and other outstanding business, which ranged in topics from fisheries closures, game harvest limits and consideration of changing nonrural determination. In the basement of Anchorage’s Egan Center, the board, in collaboration with the 10 Regional Advisory Councils and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, spent the days reviewing, deliberating, deciding and perhaps most importantly, throughout the entire process, they listened to public testimony that came in person and over the phone.
“It’s super open, and anybody can get involved.” Christianson says, “It doesn’t take rocket science to make change, it takes commitment, dedication and a purpose.” Christianson, who has been the mayor of the City of Hydaburg since 2006 and, since 2012, one of three public members appointed to the federal board to represent rural users, describes his motivations for being civically engaged, “For me, it’s because it’s literally my way of life. I fish, I hunt and I provide for many households. It’s our Indigenous rights and the lifestyle we’ve had for thousands of years. It creates a purpose in me and a drive to work for something bigger than myself.”
There is nowhere else in the country that citizens can participate so openly in regulatory decisions that affect the food that they harvest. Elsewhere, the public has to wade through the state and federal legislative processes to advocate for or against regulations to hunting, fishing, and harvesting. In Alaska, through the Federal Subsistence Board and the state of Alaska’s Board of Fish and Board of Game, any resident can get involved by submitting proposals to be considered, weighing in at various stages of the decision-making process, and having their public testimony heard throughout.
In a place where so many people depend on harvested foods to provide for their families, communities, and elders throughout the year, it is critical for residents’ voices to be at the center of the regulatory process. Christianson shares with an eye to the future, “I also hope that we can create networks of younger people participating here, so that we can have a natural progression towards involving the next generation.” This last point is exactly what lies behind a growing effort rooted at University of Alaska Southeast Sitka Campus in partnership with the Sitka Conservation Society and U.S. Forest Service to bring fresh student faces into the room.
Abigail Stevenson, a high school student from Hoonah is one of seven students participating in this year’s meeting.
“I was born and raised in Hoonah, and I have hunted, fished, and foraged my whole life with my aunties, uncles, and my parents,” Stevenson says as she reflects on participating in this year’s meeting. “Taking this class opened my eyes to what’s going on at these meetings, and how I am able to be involved as a subsistence user.” Stevenson is one of three students remotely participating with the Sitka-based course from Hoonah through a partnership with the Hoonah Indian Association.
Nearly a decade ago, Heather Bauscher, sat quietly with a notebook attending one of her first Federal Subsistence board meetings. Today, as an adjunct instructor for UAS, Bauscher hops from chair to chair, quietly narrating the meeting like a play-by-play commentator sharing insight with the students that are with her.
“I want to show students that they are welcome in these spaces. That they aren’t outsiders, but vital participants,” says Bauscher, who has been honing her Policy & Procedure Practicum course offered through UAS’ Sitka Campus for the last seven years. “We’re not teaching the students to advocate in any one direction here, but we’re teaching them how to navigate the process as a whole, think critically about these issues, and consider what they might do if they were in the decision-making seats.”
The dual-enrollment course brings high school and college-aged students first into the classroom to learn about the process and then into the meeting space to actualize that learning. The class has been gaining traction as of late, and just this year, the University began enabling students to count the credits earned through the course towards their UAS Fisheries Technology Program.
In addition to support from UAS and other partners, funding from the USDA Forest Service has been bolstering this program since the outset; assisting with student tuition, travel expenses, and other operational costs associated with the course. The growing support for the program has now allowed it to expand beyond Sitka to include remote college students, and the cohort of three high schoolers based in Hoonah.
Bauscher goes on, “We’re really grateful that the Forest Service have recognized the significance of this program and continue to provide support including, this year, assigning agency staff to help co-teach the class with me.”
Ashley Bolwerk, USFS fish biologist on the Tongass National Forest and the assigned co-teacher for the course, further explains the vision behind the program, “We want the students to see that it is critical to have local voices in order to make really great regulations regarding their way of life.” She continues, “By bringing youth to these meetings and allowing them to learn the process in a low stakes way, we’re hoping that this breaks the ice for them where they realize they might be interested in the meetings, and that they are easy to get involved in.”
On a lunch break during the second day of the proceedings, the class crowds into a small deli one block away from the convention center. As they eat, they review what’s going on with the various proposals, exchange ideas, and share their perspectives on how things are playing out. Before they wrap up to head back to the meeting, Bauscher reminds the students of why they are doing this, “Remember everyone, for me, the most important thing is that you come away from this understanding the process, and understanding the power you have — understanding how important your voice is.”
Back in the meeting room, Christianson hits the gavel to bring the board back into session. The afternoon opens with the opportunity for the students of the class to introduce themselves on the record in a testimony style approach.
“Hello, my name is Savanna Koutchak, I am full-blooded Iñupiaq, I was originally born in Nome, but I currently live in Sitka. This is my first Federal Subsistence Board meeting, and I am here to learn more about the process of how regulations are passed.” Savanna is the first student to introduce herself. She continues with a clear delivery that is buoyed by the practice rounds that were held in the classroom the week prior, speaking steadily into the microphone on the table at the center of the meeting room.
“Additionally I am also wanting to get more involved in the biological process of research projects and data collection in hopes of pursuing a career and a profession, and finally I would like to see a youth program be put in place.” Savanna continues by describing the value of expanding this class across Alaska.
She finishes, “I appreciate the opportunity to be here, to gain knowledge, to have the opportunity to speak, and I appreciate the amount of work that you guys put into this.” Applause from the crowd rings through the room, and Christianson leans into his microphone with a grin, “I knew one of you smelled like a future board chair out there. I could sense it this morning.” Laughter rings throughout the board and audience.
Christianson has a way of balancing humor and sincerity while leading the meeting. Here lightness fills the room as the students continue their introductions. Christianson emphasizes, “We don’t want there to be this scary misconception of the board. We want it to be approachable.”
During breaks in the meeting, Bauscher bustles about gently nudging the students along to introduce themselves to the regional directors of the federal agencies, or pulling aside biologists and analysts to strike up a chat with the students. She emphasizes the importance of meeting people, “So much of these processes are about making connections and building relationships too, so another big focus of the class is on networking.”
An assignment Bauscher gives to the class is for each student to make ten contacts during the meeting. At first the students are apprehensive, but as the meeting wears on, they ease into taking the initiative of enthusiastically striking up conversations, requesting business cards, and potentially making connections for future job opportunities.
Bauscher reflects on past students who have taken the course and had job opportunities as direct results of their participation. One student who met with an ADF&G representative at a meeting went on to work with the department as a fish technician that summer. There were also two other students who, at a board meeting, were invited by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services to join on a monitoring trip up the Stikine River.
Why does this all matter? Christianson sums it up, “All of this is about generational wealth, and wealth in my mind is to be educated in the affairs that affect your people.” He continues, “We have to switch the outsourcing mindset that you need to go somewhere else and be something else. You can be hunters and fishermen, you can live where you are and work on the land. It’s important that we’re getting locals and youth involved and trained up so they can start assuming leadership and job opportunities in their own communities.”
Christianson ties it back to generational reciprocity and proudly shares, “You know, I have a grandchild that is growing just beautifully because I fed her all of the food that I fish and hunt — I mean she just glows because of it! And that’s a validation of the love that I have for who I am and where I come from.”
• Living in Sheet’ká Ḵwáan Sitka, Lee House works to creatively communicate stories that embody respect, collaboration, stewardship, and positive change throughout the region. Lee is currently working at Sitka Conservation Society in collaboration with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership and the U.S. Forest Service. The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a dynamic collective uniting diverse skills and perspectives to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska. It envisions self-determined and connected communities where Southeast Indigenous values continue to inspire society, shape our relationships, and ensure that each generation thrives on healthy lands and waters. SSP shares stories that inspire and better connect our unique, isolated communities. SSP can be found online at sustainablesoutheast.net. Resilient Peoples & Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly.