‘Back to the Future’: Sustainability Summit keynote centers traditional knowledge as a way forward

March 27, 2023

By Izzy Ross, KDLG

At the Bristol Bay Sustainability Summit, keynote speaker Igiugig Village Council President AlexAnna Salmon made it clear that she doesn’t think the region’s way forward is a mystery.

“When you are of the people and of the culture, it's like, this is not a new concept. This is what we are,” she said. “So someone actually wrote this down when I said it: ‘Everything we want to be today, our ancestors already were. What we're trying to achieve isn't impossible; it already was. We come from perfection.’”

The summit, which took place over two days last week, was organized by the United Tribes of Bristol Bay and other regional entities and aimed to bring people from around the region to talk about how to foster sustainability in different areas, like housing, fisheries and language revitalization. Salmon said strong foundations are already in place in the region’s Native communities and culture bearers.

“Let us not strive for something that we think is not achievable. They often say Igiugig is going back to the future,” she said, smiling. “Really corny.”

Salmon graduated high school in Igiugig as the only member of her class and attended Dartmouth College on the east coast, receiving a dual bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and Anthropology. Along with her many roles in Igiugig, she serves on the advisory board of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. She used to think she had to leave the village in order to succeed. But that’s changed.

“I want to be an elder. I want to be one of those elders that is wise. I want to share how to sew, where the best berry patches are, how to make all the traditional foods,” she said. “That's what I want to be, is that elder.”

Salmon keeps coming back to traditional knowledge as the most powerful way to protect and sustain Bristol Bay’s lands and peoples.

“When I look at my landscape I think, ‘Oh my god, this has sustained 8,000 years of continuous occupation,’” Salmon said. “Let's sustain for 8,000 more, leaving the littlest footprint. In Alaska we have the opportunity to do it right, to get it right.”

Salmon talked about her family history, which she called her personal time shadow. That shadow stretches back to her grandparents and the drastic changes they endured. She started with her grandmother, Mary Olympic, who was a reindeer herder on Kukaklek Lake, in what is now called Katmai National Park and Preserve.

“Her generation, the last generation to live freely on the land as they needed and wanted,” she said.

Education will be key to sustainability going forward, Salmon said. That includes speaking Yup’ik in the classroom and creating local opportunities for students to explore different professions.

Igiugig’s elders worked incredibly hard to open a school, Salmon said. Her mother was among those who still had to leave home for school, going to Dillingham, Naknek and Anchorage. Salmon said she fully realized the importance of those efforts to sustain a school as Indigenous communities and families process and grieve atrocities coming to light at former government- and church-run boarding schools.

Here is a resource list for trauma responses from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in the U.S. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline in Canada can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.

From IndigiNews: How to support Indigenous communities grieving these tragedies

“When those 215 children were unearthed [at the Kamloops Indian Residential School] and the realization that there are thousands out there at boarding school, whose tribes have no idea where they are, the world doesn't even know that they were taken and died,” she said. “Our elders somehow, without internet, without cell phone, without phone, without television, they knew the single most important thing for us was to build a school and keep our kids at home.”

Salmon said her elders had to give up living freely on the land to ensure the community’s children had a school, and focused on western-style settlements in order to keep them home.

“I had no idea that my entire community reorganized and settled so that I could have that education at home, so that I could love and live Igiugig. That is a sacrifice,” she said.

During her speech, Salmon also showed a map of Alaska with land ownership as it stands now, broken into state, federal and Native corporation ownership. Salmon said that, along with continuing traditional lifestyles, tribes have to assert their authority as nations in land stewardship. Of the United States’ 574 federally recognized tribes, 31 are in Bristol Bay — 33 when including Goodnews Bay and Platinum to the west.

“I'm here to ask you to find your voice. To speak for our nations,” she said.

As for the sustainability people are seeking, Salmon said it’s already embedded within Bristol Bay’s Indigenous peoples.

“This is our state,” Salmon said. “We're the only people with an inherent right to our lands and waters. We have a proven track record. We have never diminished our resources. We have stood the test of time.”

Through the efforts of individuals and communities across the region, Salmon said, they’re beginning to find themselves again.

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