Salmon Harvesting With My Son Connects Us With The Land And Our Ancestors
Our connection is fortified every time my son and I bring the fish from the water to our table.
I’m sitting on a piece of driftwood, watching my son splash in the frigid Alaskan water when the seal pops up. It’s quite a ways out, but the familiar shape is instantly recognizable, a curious little head bobbing up and down. The seals always show up when my son takes his skimboard out in the ocean waves. They hang around for as long as he’s in the water, watching the strange visitor to their underwater world. We are used to the seals by now and it seems they are used to us.
My son waves to get my attention and points at a small silver salmon jumping a few feet from shore. The little fish jumps again and again, shimmering in the evening sun. It travels an impressive distance with each leap from the water, instinctually traveling along some predetermined path.
We love it here. The glacial water, the arctic wind, and the rocky shores are in our bones. We are members of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe. Our Athabascan ancestors spoke the Dena’ina language and made their home on the bluffs bordering this beach. My grandfather grew up in a small Russian village on those same bluffs; my father was born and raised here.
I grew up here, too, commercial fishing for salmon with my family. I have fond memories of long summer days playing cards, agate hunting, and sitting around campfires with my aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. We’d set our nets and watch as they disappeared under a rising tide, hoping they would reveal themselves full of fish when the water ebbed back down the beach.
Our Indigenous ancestors were sustained on salmon. My son is connecting to his roots every time he eats it.
Tonight it’s time to go. My son would like to stay, but I took a couple of salmon filets out of the freezer for dinner and they should be thawed by the time we get home. I’ll slice fresh lemons and onions into rings to lay atop the salt-and-pepper-seasoned fish. Then I’ll wrap the filets in foil and bake them, a tried-and-true method I’ve been eating cooked over open fires, in ovens, and on barbecue grills since childhood.
After we eat, I’ll flake any leftover fish into a bowl and put it in the fridge for salmon salad sandwiches tomorrow. I’ll need more lemons to juice and raw onions to dice. Both get mixed into the cooked salmon along with mayonnaise, lots of chopped pickles, plenty of fresh ground pepper, and dill. I might add a boiled egg or two. Similar to the recipe my grandma served on thick slices of fresh-baked bread.
When I tell my son we’re having salmon for the second day in a row, he won’t complain or say, “Salmon again?” He’ll be excited because he loves salmon. He doesn’t care if it’s chowder, patties fried in a pan, or some other concoction. He would eat it every day.
I’m happy to oblige because these meals are so much more than just food. Our Indigenous ancestors were sustained on salmon. It was an indispensable resource that nurtured their bodies, their culture, and their way of life. My son is connecting to his roots every time he eats it. It’s a connection that’s fortified when he participates in the process that brings the fish from the water to our table.
Participation in a subsistence lifestyle is a simple way for him to understand a complicated story. The story of who he is. Like any good story told well, meaning is often found in the showing rather than the telling.
My son grew up in a commercial fishing family. In the spring, while his dad, uncles, and grandpa worked tirelessly, preparing for their summer of seining in Kodiak, he played with his cousins on and around the boats. He swung on buoys hung from booms and climbed mountains of nets piled high on the deck. For most of his life, he waved from the dock as the boats left the harbor, embarking on their annual trip to the fishing grounds.
Now that he’s a teenager, and his grandpa has retired to a smaller operation closer to home, he gets to go. He spends a few days every summer setting the net and reeling it back in. He picks fish and learns how to be a fisherman. The excitement in his voice when he calls to tell me about the red salmon he kept and cooked for dinner could never be inspired by a frozen pizza or pack of hot dogs from the grocery store.
He developed a similar affinity for moose after he went hunting with his dad and his uncles last fall. They ventured deep into the wilderness and lived with no modern conveniences for two weeks. During the day, they crept through the brush, in search of a bull big enough to feed their families for an entire winter. Their evenings were spent by the fire telling whiskey-fueled tales — Coca Cola-fueled, in my son’s case. They slept in wall tents erected for the trip. The experience of finding and felling a moose, butchering it, preserving it, and packing it out of the woods made an indelible impression on him.
He came home with enough meat to fill our freezer, respect for the hard work of harvesting his own food, and a desire to eat his bounty every day. Moose steaks, moose burgers, moose chili, you name it. As long as it’s moose, he’s happy to have it for dinner.
Participation in a subsistence lifestyle is a simple way for him to understand a complicated story. The story of who he is. Like any good story told well, meaning is often found in the showing rather than the telling. “Your family has lived here for generations” goes deeper when it’s experienced living off the land and the resources that have supported our family for centuries.
When I do try to communicate the intricacies of my son’s lineage to him, I imagine sorting through a jumbled pile of quilt pieces. When organized, they fit together to make a unique and perfect pattern. It comes together one piece at a time and some are easier to place than others. I start at the center, the piece around which all of the other pieces build out from: his great-grandmother.
Sometimes, I feel frustrated by the missed opportunities to know this part of myself. Especially now that I want to share it with my son.
My grandma played a big role in my life and my son got to know her well. Born to an Indigenous Alaskan mother and a Norwegian father, she spent her childhood in an Indian boarding school at the St. Mark’s Episcopal Mission on the Tanana River. I knew she was Native, but it was peripheral. The religion she learned at school and traditions from my grandpa’s Russian upbringing were more primary. Grandma celebrated Russian Christmas. She baked kulich and peroq. She brought me to church, where a small Episcopalian congregation sang songs from hymnals and kneeled on the backs of padded pews for prayer and communion.
She made stacks of pancakes for her family in the little beach cabin where we fished every summer. She took her grandchildren for long walks at low tide.
From here, the pieces start to fit together and the story unfolds.
Growing up, I felt reluctant to identify, or be identified, as “Native” and tried desperately to distance myself from the internalized stigma. It was common to hear derogatory comments about Natives peppered into conversation — from the stereotype of the “drunk Native” and jokes about beer bottles being Native artifacts to snide remarks about “cashing those Native checks” in reference to the dividends Native shareholders sometimes get from their corporations.
The implication that being Native was something to be ashamed of settled deep within my psyche. I avoided anything overtly Alaskan. It was easy to blend in. Like many modern people, I am of mixed descent. I have light hair, blue eyes, and fair skin.
Sometimes, I feel frustrated by the missed opportunities to know this part of myself. Especially now that I want to share it with my son, who looks like me and seems hesitant to embrace his own Indigenous identity.
Watching my son wading into the waves, I feel an unshakeable connection to the ones who came before me, the ones who made their home here and stood on these same shores.
Fortunately, we live in the community where our tribe thrives. Traditional practices mingle with everyday life in a subtle yet powerful way: The Lord’s Prayer recited in Dena’ina and English before a holiday meal at the senior center. The sound of drumming and singing emanating from a tribal building. An educational fishery, located at one of our favorite beach accesses, always busy with families working the tribal net and cleaning fish. With consistent interaction and exposure to tribal culture, the pattern emerges from that jumbled pile. Piece by piece, it weaves together with a common thread.
Looking back, the salmon running down the river, into my family’s nets, and through our daily lives was that thread. It provided a connection to my heritage even when I didn’t recognize it. It gives me something to draw on and pass down to my son.
So we go to the beach. The place that feels like home for both of us.
When I face the bluff rising up from the inland side of the beach, it’s dotted with apartment buildings, RV parks, and restaurant, reminders of modernity speckled along the landscape. If I turn around and look out into the horizon, I can imagine I’m any place in time. Where earth meets water and water meets sky. The unknowable expanse where seals come to play with children and salmon make their journey home.
Watching my son wading into the waves, I feel an unshakeable connection to the ones who came before me, the ones who made their home here and stood on these same shores. I hope my son feels the connection, too.