Hundreds of cars lined the road to the Alaska Native Heritage Center on Thursday and Friday, as Alaska Native elders and their families gathered to receive wild salmon through a grassroots initiative coined Operation Fish Drop.
In the end, more than 12,000 pounds of Bristol Bay sock-eye salmon were delivered to around 400 families. Tribal councils, local fisheries, and volunteers came together to run the initiative, which aimed to address food insecurities brought about by COVID-19.
In a typical year, most Alaska Natives would have been able to subsistence fish themselves, carrying on an age-old tradition and ensuring they had substantial food supplies for the winter. But many families were unable to do so this past fishing season due to constraints from COVID-19 -- making the prevention of a key Alaska Native cultural practice another unintended consequence of the pandemic.
“One strength of the Alaska Native community is that we always come together and are at our best during a time of need,” said Emily Edenshaw, Yup’ik and Inupiaq, president and CEO of the Alaska Native Heritage Center. “Operation Fish Drop embodies the spirit of our community strength while at the same time getting salmon (aka soul food) out to community members.”
Sam Schimmel, St. Lawrence Island Siberian Yupik and Kenaitze Indian, a community advocate currently in college, spent the past few months organizing the effort. The donated salmon was made possible by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, the Alaska Native Heritage Center, and Alaskans Own, a community fishery. It was partly funded by the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, Catch Together, Multiplier, Alaska Community Foundation, Sitka Legacy Fund, and First Bank.
The program started out small — local organizations pledged a total of 1,200 pounds of fish for the initiative. But Schimmel kept meeting with people until the number reached the full 12,000 pounds.
“It was a response to the pandemic, to the realities that were inflicted on Native peoples. A lot of people weren't able to go home and collect subsistence foods,” he explained. “The freezers were empty. And that meant that not only was there a nutritional deficit, but there was also a cultural one.”
The sign up sheet to receive salmon was filled within the first few hours it was live. Noticing the communities’ strong reaction to the program, organizers released an interest form to gauge how many people would participate in similar food drives in the future. More than 1,000 people have responded since the form opened last week.
“I knew that there was a disparity in the Anchorage area in terms of access to traditional foods. But I didn't know how big it was,” Schimmel said. He hopes that they can create more programs that focus on the cultural component of food security, by supplying traditional Alaskan salmon to Alaskan families, rather than just canned goods or other non-perishables typical in food drives. Federal programs that focused on the issue often inadvertently overlooked the cultural element, he explained, since they provided food and nutrients but not necessarily items related to subsistence.
Salmon is viewed as an essential part of Alaska Native culture. While it is a key part of many communities’ diets, it also goes beyond that -- the fishing process is known to bring families together. Elders pass down knowledge of traditional fishing methods to the younger generations, making it a cornerstone of the Alaska Native lifestyle. It was these elders that Schimmel and other organizers were originally thinking of when they started planning the operation. At a time when elderly people were already at risk, it seemed extra detrimental that many didn’t have access to their typical food supply.
While COVID-19 worsened existing food insecurity issues within Alaska Native communities, it’s not the only cause. Weak salmon runs, new fishing laws, expensive travel costs, and personal considerations can also prevent families from being able to subsistence fish or hunt.
Some fear that barriers to subsistence fishing and hunting will increase due to changes in the environment. This past summer, weak salmon runs on the Yukon caused the region’s fishing season to be cut short. A few hundred miles away in southwestern Alaska, five villages had to receive an emergency shipment of food due to similar low levels of salmon. If this trend continues, there could be a bigger need for programs like Operation Fish Drop.
In the interest form the organizers sent out, around 25 percent of responses indicated that non-covid factors kept participants from subsistence practices. Because of this, Schimmel aims to create similar initiatives after the pandemic is over.
Elizabeth Herendeen, a marketplace manager at Salmon State who helped coordinate the fish drop, agreed with Schimmel.
“I think [Covid] has just shone a light on this real need that is very much present, as we've seen from the response to Operation Fish Drop, and it's a need that's not going away,” she said. “So we definitely want to continue this and hopefully get more partners or funders involved to allow us to expand this and sustain it in the years to come.”
During the operation, Schimmel and Herendeen greeted participants along with a team of around 22 volunteers. The masked helpers loaded cases of salmon into recipients’ cars, keeping consistent with pandemic safety guidelines. But even with the social distancing measures in place, the type of community camaraderie often found in subsistence practices seemed to be present.
“The generosity in our community just continues to surprise and amaze me,” explained Herendeen. “And I think this program really reflects and embodies what being Alaskan is all about, which is that we set aside differences, and we come together to take care of each other.”
Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a writer for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from Anchorage. Financial assistance for this story was provided by a grant from the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism.