The Right to Sustain Ourselves

Lately I’ve spent a lot of time trying to jumpstart my own thinking on the future of salmon in Alaska. My goal is to distill the insights and relationships I’ve built over nearly seven years of working with The Salmon Project, to glean some clues about the work of the next seven years, or perhaps the next seven generations.

At this point in my process I still feel stuck. What I’ve taken away from our work feels both insignificant and overwhelmingly large. Sometimes I feel as if we uncovered an entire universe of meaning and connections—things about the Salmon Life and the critical importance of the practice of resource harvest to the wellbeing of Alaskans. Other times I feel paralyzed by the enormity of the system that has wrapped itself around our salmon in this state. I question whether a path forward can, in fact, be discerned, let alone acted upon.

Another reason for my stuck-ness, I think, is how difficult it is to set salmon on its own platform, as if it existed independent from other things. It doesn’t, of course, and the “other things” feel like they’re reaching into all arenas in this moment in time.

There are, of course, the mega other things, like climate change and the breakdown of civil society, both in our country and beyond. Then there are the more proximate other things, like the current political climate in Alaska, and the rapid deconstruction of institutions that play roles, critical or otherwise, in the system we’ve developed around salmon.

It doesn’t feel possible to talk about salmon and its next steps without wrapping in these other things. And I think this is because, to me, salmon is about the durability of our humanity. That is, I draw a direct line between our ability as Alaskans to harvest salmon, and our ability to sustain our families. This is sustaining in a most literal sense, as in food on our tables and in our larders. But this is also sustaining as a means for remaining whole in spirit and cultures. I don’t mean the latter in a “woo-woo” way, and I am aware that that language, itself, can act as a turnoff to many a reader. I mean it as a mechanism for maintaining family bonds, family unity, community unity—all things that I think are going to be critical in whatever times are coming.

The ongoing Alaskan bond with salmon is a unique and powerful tie—one that keeps us closer to the land and closer to a value set that somehow I shorthand as “traditional.” Or perhaps “conservative” with a small “c.” When I think about the what’s next of salmon, to me it’s a sense, or lack thereof, of people being able to sustain themselves in times of lesser plenty.

Harder times will come to Alaska. These hard times can arrive in many ways—via economic and political blundering, or via the changes in our natural systems, or via breakdowns of supports external to Alaska. But no matter what, it’s a mathematical certainty that we cannot just improve and improve and improve our quality of life. (And in fact, the quality of life in Alaska has indeed already begun to slip, at least for some, particularly when it comes to personal economics.)

But hard times need not necessarily be lean times, nor need they rupture the bonds between the people living on these lands. I’ve come to believe that necessary ingredients that prevent us from these ruptures include intact wild systems that enable us to harvest wild foods, like salmon, to keep us safe and to keep us bonded and to keep us whole.

It’s this set of connections and dependencies that comes to mind for me as I try to structure ideas around salmon and its future in Alaska. And this feels much bigger to me than a set of policy recommendations or a political agenda. Thus my stuckness.

As has been a theme in recent posts, though, I have to trust in my process to guide me through the stuck-ness. More on this as it comes…