One late-summer day, a day so hot the mosquitoes weren’t flying, my brother and his wife and I traveled nine miles up the Unalakleet River to seine for humpies, or pink salmon. We laughed and hollered while pulling the net to a flat, wide bar made of perfect skipping and throwing stones at the inside of a meander. Hundreds of humpies danced in the shallow, cold river, their flapping tails and heads splashing us, the sound of gallons of muscle and slime slapping against the water filling the air.
“Holllly cooow!” I can hear my brother Fred Jay saying.
His wife, Yanni, and I stood in the ankle-deep water and pulled all the fish we could onto shore, grabbing them by the gills to throw them into our gray plastic fishing tubs. Tubs big enough to hold hundreds of fish, but just wide and deep enough for one person to carry empty, two people to carry full. Fred Jay, on the beach, started throwing some back.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“There’s too many!” he called, laughing.
Yanni and I ignored what he was doing and grabbed all the fish we could, to cut, to dry, to eat throughout the year, dipped in seal oil sprinkled with salt. Our family’s staple food. Our family’s bread and butter.
MERRIAM WEBSTER’S online dictionary has two definitions of subsistence:
a: the minimum (as of food and shelter) necessary to support life b: a source or means of obtaining the necessities of life
The Inuit way of life — I am Inuit — is often described as a subsistence way of life. Depending on your definition of the word, we’re either just getting by, harvesting for food and shelter what we need to keep our physical bodies alive and moving, or we’re living in a way that allows us to obtain the necessities. Which, I would argue, along with food, water, shelter and clothing, include community and belonging. The lifestyle nurtures a connection with the Earth and a soul-level respect and gratefulness for Her providence. Our lifestyle gives wellness.
AT THE EDGE of the water, still at the beach, we stood at our family cutting table, made of two-by-fours and plywood covered with a burlap sack, stained dark brown from the season’s fish blood. Yanni and I started cutting the fish, one by one, the slime making them slippery as we grasped their backs to keep their bodies steady. We sliced into their bellies and down their backs, carving two fillets attached at the tail, then made tirraqs, or angled slices, up each fillet to help the meat dry. Fred Jay got to making five temporary drying racks out of poles from cottonwood trees he cut down on the riverbank. The racks would allow the fish to drip and begin to dry before we brought them home. When he finished, he came to the cutting table with an ulu.
AFTER A FEW HOURS of slicing, my lower back ached and my right hand was tired from gripping my ulu. Seeing 150 fish waving in the wind and knowing we still had 100 more to cut, we were relieved to see a boat approach. It was our brother-in-law, Karl, arriving to hang out and help.
“You guys must be hungry,” he said, looking at the fish already on the racks and the fish still in the tubs. “I’ll make you dinner.” Karl got busy at the fire, cooking the burgers he’d brought. As soon as they were done, we ate them, enjoying the momentary rest, enjoying the sunlight drying our hands and the bits of slime on our T-shirts, and enjoying the company.
Then all four of us grabbed our ulus and continued cutting, late into the night.
THE DAY BEFORE I was born, my mom was waiting in Anchorage with a swollen belly, missing my brother, who was 4 years old and had stayed behind in Unalakleet with my dad. On that day, Oct. 10, 1978, an Alaska statute prioritizing subsistence use of fish and wildlife over “other uses of any harvestable surplus of a fish or game population” went into effect. Gov. Jay Hammond, whom Fred Jay is named after, had signed the subsistence bill into law three months earlier.
Later, when I was 2, Jimmy Carter signed the federal Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act on my sister’s 9th birthday. It included language that gave subsistence harvesting of the salmon spawning in Alaska’s rivers and the moose, caribou and other game roaming Alaska’s lands priority over commercial or sport fishing and hunting.
AFTER A FULL DAY of cutting fish, Fred Jay drove us home, our tubs now filled with semi-dried fillets that we’d hang on the fish rack outside of his house. Every time we drive home, whether it’s after harvesting ugruk, cutting fish, or moose hunting, the lightness of being hits me. I feel it in my belly first. Soft. From there it branches out and touches every part of my body until each cell seems to shine with joy. From honest work. From thankfulness for each person in the boat. And from gratitude for the waters that have given for generations.
JUST 90 MILES EAST of us is the community of Kaltag. My friend Erica lives there. A few years ago, I would travel there every March as a reporter, to interview Iditarod dog mushers. While bundled up and waiting for the mushers to arrive, I’d stand around with Erica and some of her family members. During one visit, one of her relatives ran home and returned to the dog lot with a jar of Yukon River smoked king salmon strips. He handed it to me. And I felt that lightness of being. Knowing how much his family worked to make this tidy jar. Knowing that Yukon salmon were richer than our salmon on the Unalakleet, because of how big and long that river is and how far those fish had to travel upriver to spawn. Knowing that if humpies were our bread and butter, smoked king salmon was better than even wagyu beef, the best you can get.
This year, as we’re putting salmon away, I’ve thought about Erica’s family. In 2021, 2022 and again this year, subsistence salmon fishing was closed on the Yukon River due to low returns. People living along the river are left standing at the banks and cannot keep a single king, chum or coho salmon.
Yet millions of salmon are harvested in the ocean, before they return to our rivers. In 2021 and 2022, 24,238 king salmon and 795,967 chum were caught as bycatch in Alaska’s federal ocean waters, meaning they ended up in nets intended for other species of fish, primarily in the commercial pollock fishery. In those same years, the state of Alaska’s Area M commercial fishery, which intercepts salmon bound for the Arctic, Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, harvested 394.5 million salmon.
Commercial salmon overharvest in federal and state fisheries is cultural genocide masked as management, yet it’s my friend Erica who would be prosecuted if she harvests just one king, chum or coho salmon for her family. In breaking away from the spirit of state and federal laws, fisheries managers are taking away so much more than food.
This essay originally appeared in High Country News. Photo by Western Arctic National Parklands: “Drying fish: Pike and trout hang from a wooden rack”.