Mike Williams meets me at the airstrip on a drizzly June evening, his vast girth squeezed behind the wheel of a Toyota pickup. He wears blue sweatpants, running sneakers, and a triple-XL Columbia rain jacket. “Welcome to Akiak,” he says, tossing my backpack into the bed of his truck as if it weighs nothing. Then we go to the river.
Akiak, Alaska, hugs the bank of the Kuskokwim, the longest undammed river in the United States. The Kuskokwim rises from the Alaska Range and parallels its better-known cousin, the Yukon, through hundreds of miles of boreal forest and tundra. Just before the two rivers dissolve into the Bering Sea, they fan out like tree roots over a wilderness the size of Maine, an unfenced expanse speckled with ponds and spider-webbed with game trails. Most of the area falls inside the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, but here and there tiny islands of civilization appear — Yup’ik villages on tribally owned land. Their residents live a largely subsistence lifestyle, picking berries in August, hunting moose in the fall, netting whitefish from beneath the winter ice. Each month is its own season.
June, Williams tells me as we rumble down the dirt road, is fish-camp season. The smokehouses should be bustling, the town nearly empty as families scatter to their traditional camps to catch, dry and smoke the chinook salmon just beginning to surge past.
But the smokehouses are empty. People mill impatiently on the roads, waiting for the government to allow them to set nets. They mutter about distant bureaucrats managing a fishery they don’t understand. Old women speak of cutting salmon like it’s a physical longing, an ache in their muscles that can only be eased by the repetitive motion of slicing through piles of bloody fish. “We’ve always lived here,” Williams says, gesturing at the delta. “The land was always here and it was always ours. No matter when, how or where, it was available to us.”
Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in charge of the land outside the village, and the migratory salmon that pass through are governed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, with some federal oversight. Tribal governments like Akiak’s have fought to be involved in decision-making, with little success until recently.
For years, it didn’t matter: There were enough salmon to go around. But since 2010, the number of chinook, or king salmon, returning to the Kuskokwim River has fallen by half, from an average of 260,000 each year to 123,000. Scientists don’t fully understand the reasons for the drop, but for subsistence fishermen, one factor stands out: commercial bycatch. In 2007, fishermen in the Bering Sea tossed out 130,000 dead chinooks they accidentally caught in their nets.
Not all of those would have returned to the Kuskokwim, and biologists emphasize that bycatch represents a fraction of the total fish mortality. But the numbers still chafe: In 2015, when commercial fishermen threw 125,000 chinooks overboard, fishermen on the Kuskokwim were allotted 15,000. That’s roughly four fish per household; families say they need 50 to get through the winter.
Mike Williams has five children, 11 grandchildren, one great-grandchild and 50 sled dogs. He finds it unfathomable that commercial operations waste salmon while he scrambles to put food on the table. The closest real grocery store is 400 miles away in Anchorage. Lately, the Williamses have had to supplement their diet with species they usually feed to their dogs.
But the balance of power may be shifting for Alaska Natives. In 2013, a federal district judge set in motion the biggest change to Alaska land management in decades by granting Alaska tribes the right to put land into a trust overseen by the federal government — a right already granted to all tribes in the Lower 48. Ceding land to the feds might sound like a cession of authority, but for the people of Akiak, it’s the opposite. It means that this summer, as the rule stemming from the decision goes into effect, they could gain the power to manage their own fish and wildlife, as tribes in the rest of the country can.
For the Williamses and other families, that can’t come soon enough. Across Alaska, a changing climate and other pressures are stressing migrations of caribou, salmon, walrus and other wildlife. And many Alaska Natives believe that their own knowledge –– honed over generations –– can sustain these animals and protect Indigenous interests better than state or federal managers alone. “We want the fish to survive,” says Ivan Martin Ivan, chief of Akiak. “Just like the trees, the grass, the people. We’ve managed these resources for many thousands of years, and we want to do so again.”
Mike Williams was 7 in 1959, when the Territory of Alaska became a state. The federal government required that Alaska Natives get a formal education, but Akiak had no high school. So, like many Yup’ik, Williams attended Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools hundreds of miles south. Teachers confiscated his traditional clothes, cut his hair and forced him to speak English. “I felt violated,” he says.
But efforts to strip away Williams’ Yup’ik-ness only strengthened it. It was 1971, and the Red Power Movement was in full swing: Native Americans were fighting for stolen lands in court, marching on Washington, D.C., and occupying Alcatraz, California, which they saw as a symbol of their oppression. As student body president of Oregon’s Chemawa Indian School, Williams met tribal leaders from across the West. Everyone was talking about land rights.
One of the loudest voices belonged to Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually leader who staged a series of “fish-ins” in Washington state to protest regulations that kept tribes from their traditional fishing grounds. The clashes became known as the Fish Wars. Frank was a hero that Williams could relate to: a Native American fighting the cultural subjugation Williams had already experienced through the boarding school system. The two became friends, and Frank a mentor.
Meanwhile, back home, Frank’s activism would also prove important: It helped demonstrate that being corralled into federally managed reservations had stripped Lower 48 tribes of their power. As the Alaska Federation of Natives, the state and the federal government negotiated the division of Alaska’s land and natural resources, they sought an alternative. Eventually, they agreed that Alaska Natives would assume land ownership themselves, and adopt a Western business model to manage it.
The federal Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, or ANCSA, deeded 44 million acres to Alaska Natives, divided among 13 regional corporations and 229 village corporations — one for each tribe. Corporations could profit by developing the minerals, timber or oil on their land. Each tribe also formed its own government, and many would come to own land transferred to them from village corporations or through other means. Village corporation profits went to tribal governments, while those from regional corporations went to individual tribal members, under a shareholder system.
This worked well for some tribes, particularly those in regions with rich oil and natural gas deposits, like the North Slope. But many in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta felt shortchanged. Their wealth wasn’t in oil or minerals, but in fish, birds and other animals. And while ANCSA deeded land to Native corporations, that land remained under state control. Just as private businesses and property owners must adhere to rules and regulations set by their state governments, so, too, must Alaska tribes and corporations accede to state law enforcement, hunting seasons, bag limits and more. (On reservations, federal and tribal law supersede state law.)
As the 1970s unfolded, several laws and court decisions laid ANCSA’s limitations painfully bare. First was the historic 1974 Boldt Decision, spurred by Billy Frank’s activism. It gave Northwest tribes that had signed 1850s-era treaties the right to 50 percent of the region’s total salmon catch, and laid the groundwork for other tribes that wanted greater authority in managing fish and wildlife, both on- and off-reservation.
The Boldt Decision was also a “thunderbolt” that set off a new era of tribal sovereignty, says legal expert and historian Charles Wilkinson, who’s writing a book on the decision. In 1975, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which provided federal funds for tribes to run their own schools, courts and natural resource departments. Soon after, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes created the nation’s first federally designated tribal wilderness, secured in-stream flows for fish, and began negotiating for control of a nearby dam.
In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that hunting and fishing regulations set by tribes on reservation land trump those set by the state. New Mexico’s Mescalero Apache Tribe responded by creating hunting rules that differed from the state’s and charging non-Natives to hunt the reservation’s impressive elk herd, bolstering economic development. Tribes can also operate their own police forces and prosecute certain crimes on reservations, even those committed by non-Natives. Though socioeconomic problems continue to plague many reservations, Sarah Krakoff, an Indian law expert at the University of Colorado Boulder, says these changes represent undeniable progress toward self-governance.
Yet because they apply only to “Indian Country” — a legal term for the land that the federal government holds in trust for Native Americans, including all reservations in the Lower 48 — Alaska Natives have been largely excluded. Alaska tribes technically possess the same sovereignty as Lower 48 tribes, but without land on which to exercise that sovereignty, it’s of limited use. And Alaskan officials remain stubbornly opposed to recognizing tribal sovereignty, Krakoff says. “It’s kind of mysterious. In a state like Alaska that’s so far-flung, you’d think they’d embrace (tribes taking control).”
This affects more than natural resources. The state also retains authority over regulating alcohol and prosecuting and punishing perpetrators of sexual and domestic abuse, even in remote villages located hundreds of miles from the nearest court, jail or state trooper, says Troy Eid, chair of the bipartisan Indian Law and Order Commission. The commission’s 2014 report found that this has contributed to major public safety problems: Alaska Native villages have some of the nation’s highest rates of sexual violence, domestic abuse and suicide — higher than most reservations in the Lower 48.
“Instead of respecting (tribal) sovereignty and self-government as other states routinely do, Alaska tries to police and judge Native citizens from afar using too few people and resources,” Eid wrote in a 2014 editorial for Alaska Dispatch News. He calls the system “colonialism on the cheap.” And it’s not just outdated, he says — it’s dangerous.
Mike Williams knows this from experience. He was serving in the army in Korea when ANCSA became law, and when he returned home in 1973, he fell into the same black hole that would ultimately claim his six brothers.
“They were famous drunks,” remembers one friend. Like other bush villages at the time, says Williams, Akiak had no police officers, no judicial system and no social services. In the course of a single generation, the Yup’ik had been transformed from a semi-nomadic people, traveling with the seasons and living off the land, to shareholders in a corporation and permanent residents of an impoverished village. Most had few opportunities for employment.
In 1974, the Williams brothers started dying. Sitting in his living room after a meal of whitefish, tundra greens and akutaq (lard or seal oil with berries and sugar), Mike ticks them off for me. Ted was the first: “He’d just returned from Vietnam and was not well. He had nightmares. He started drinking heavily, and one night he over-drank alcohol and didn’t wake up. So that was Ted.” Williams holds up one stubby finger. “The second one, Frankie, he went to Bethel with his snow machine and bought booze. On the way back, he drank so much that he fell into an open hole in the ice and drowned. And that’s Frankie.” He holds up two fingers. Then a third for Timmy, a fourth for Gerald, and a fifth for Bucko, who shot himself in the head after drinking homebrew.
Williams gazes at the ceiling with pouched brown eyes and raises a final finger for Walter, who passed out and died of smoke inhalation from a pot left on the stove. “That was pretty hard on me, losing all of them and being the only one standing,” he says. “That’s why I’m causing trouble like this land-into-trust issue. Because I’m trying to make life here better for people.”
Williams has been sober for 28 years and is now a substance abuse counselor. He’s mushed the Iditarod 15 times to raise awareness about sobriety. If Akiak and other dry villages were Indian Country, he says, they could go after bootleggers without waiting for state authorities, and perhaps address the problem with restorative, community-based justice rather than jail time. State troopers would be required to enforce decisions made by tribal police or courts, which they aren’t currently. Alaska tribes with Indian Country would also be able to set hunting and fishing regulations on land held in trust for them and negotiate with state and federal agencies on a government-to-government basis to manage fish and wildlife on surrounding land.
Troy Eid, of the Law and Order Commission, notes that creating Indian Country isn’t the only way for Alaskan tribes to gain such authority. The state could voluntarily work with tribes.
But it has routinely chosen not to, Eid says. Seven independent commissions have concluded that putting law enforcement in the hands of Native villages would make them safer, but the state maintains a centralized judicial system. As a result, dozens of Alaska Native communities have no law enforcement whatsoever. In all of rural Alaska, there is only one women’s shelter. And when it comes to fish and wildlife management, tribes have only an advisory role, with little actual power. Some tribal members, for instance, would like to receive hunting and fishing priority when wildlife populations are low. But although village residents have priority on federal lands, the state Constitution requires that an Anglo lawyer in Anchorage receive the same access to fish and game as a Native hunter who lives in the bush with little access to other food sources.
So in 2006, Williams and some friends coordinated with the Native American Rights Fund to sue the Department of the Interior on behalf of four Native villages — including Akiachak, just downriver from Akiak — to remove the Interior Department’s “Alaska exemption,” which prevents Alaska tribes from putting land into trust. After Alaska Natives prevailed, Interior finalized a rule striking the exemption. “We believe that deleting the Alaska exemption is consistent with law and consistent with the Obama administration’s strong intention to restore tribal homelands,” Kevin Washburn, then-assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, said in a 2014 speech in Anchorage.
The momentum toward putting land into trust stalled while the state appealed the decision, but on July 1, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Alaska Natives’ victory. Unless there’s a further appeal to the Supreme Court or a request for a second opinion from the Court of Appeals, which both seem unlikely, any of Alaska’s 229 tribal governments will soon be able to apply to have its land taken into trust.
It’s not clear how many tribes would opt in, but the impact could be sweeping: Forty-three wrote to the Interior Department in favor of the rule, and several have already begun the application process. Akiak isn’t far behind, Williams says.
But there are still critics who argue that Indian Country would add additional layers of federal bureaucracy to Alaska’s already-complex land management. Tribal corporations sitting on oil or gas deposits are unlikely to transfer their land, since federal oversight could make it harder to develop those resources. And some fear that if Native villages put land into trust, it could impact development, too, because regional corporations often own the subsurface mineral rights below villages. Scholars writing in the American Indian Law Journal concluded that corporations’ mineral rights wouldn’t be impacted, but uncertainties over the rule’s implications remain.
Given that, regional corporations should be able to weigh in on, or even veto, tribes’ applications for trust land, says Aaron Schutt, president and CEO of the regional Doyon corporation — one of the largest landowners in the United States, with more than 12 million acres. “We generally support the concept of trust land in Alaska,” Schutt says. “But I think the benefits are overstated. … When you go on other reservations in the U.S., you can see that it doesn’t solve all their issues.”
Other critics, including several Alaska lawmakers, oppose the rule more sharply. Alaska officials declined to comment for this story, but the former attorney general wrote in the state’s appeal that having pockets of Indian Country scattered across Alaska’s patchwork of state, federal and private land would create “widespread uncertainty about governmental jurisdiction.” The state could lose its ability to impose “land use restrictions, natural resource management requirements, and certain environmental regulations.” And most significantly, in a place already wary of federal oversight, “trust land in Alaska would diminish the state’s authority.”
That, say many opponents, is an outcome that must be avoided.
In June 2012, Akiak fishermen were so desperate for salmon that they staged an act of civil disobedience, modeled after Billy Frank’s fish wars. Salmon runs were, at the time, the lowest ever recorded, and state and federal wildlife managers denied Yup’ik advisors’ recommendation for a brief fishing window. So Akiak elders instructed people to fish anyway. As subsistence gillnetters illegally pulled chinooks from the river, officers swarmed the river. Twenty-three fishermen were arrested and fined, and thousand-dollar nets were confiscated. At subsequent court hearings, grown men wept as they described the impact of the salmon decline on their families and culture.
Each year since then, dozens more fishermen have quietly broken the rules. Each year, officials catch some and haul them to court. And each time, the fishermen’s resolve strengthens.
Their anger was palpable at a meeting at Akiachak’s village offices last June, where uniformed U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials explained the restrictions placed on subsistence users’ 2015 salmon harvest. Subsistence fishermen crowded the table where the officers sat, spilling out of the room, craning their necks to hear. There were strict limits on everything from how many salmon each family could take to the size of the nets and the dates that fishing was allowed. Fishermen had to fish within the legal window, regardless of the weather. If they had the wrong-sized net, they’d have to travel to the town of Bethel –– an all-day trip –– to buy the right one. And because only a handful of “designated fishermen” were allowed to set nets, residents feared that skills and cultural traditions would no longer be passed down to the next generation.
Listening to the rules with wide eyes, the Akiachak fishermen grew agitated. “Seems to me this system is tough on us,” one elder said. He spoke for a few minutes in Yup’ik, his tone rising. Then, in English again, he burst out: “Next year, if you come around, don’t tell us what to do! I don’t go into your country and tell you what to do! It’s not right.”
Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix — no dam to remove that will cause the fish to come swarming home. And there are so many culprits to blame –– climate change, overfishing, changes to the marine environment, commercial bycatch. Putting land into trust might help, but it won’t give individual tribes autonomy over a fishery that stretches hundreds of miles and is already governed by a tangle of state and federal laws.
Mike Williams knows this. He’s made it his mission to learn everything he can about salmon. He reads scientific papers and government rulings and translates them into Yup’ik at village meetings. He tells the other fishermen that they have to make sacrifices now so their grandchildren will know what it’s like to haul a massive chinook from the depths of the Kuskokwim. But Williams also believes in action, so instead of waiting for resolution of the Indian Country fight, in the spring of 2015 he helped form the Kuskokwim Intertribal Fish Commission, modeled after the Washington-based Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. The Kuskokwim commission seeks to give tribes more sway in managing the fishery, and Williams serves as its chair.
Now, a year later, it’s making headway. As long as chinook runs remain low, tribes can petition the federal government to take over management from the state, which they did again this year, to ensure tribal members get priority for the subsistence harvest. Then, in May, the Intertribal Fish Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed a memorandum of understanding giving tribes more power during those times when management is under federal control. The memorandum mandates weekly meetings between commission members and federal officials, and requires Fish and Wildlife officials to provide a written explanation for any decision they make that goes against the commission’s recommendations. Lew Coggins, a federal fisheries biologist at Yukon Delta, says that the real-time data collected by tribal members and organized by the Intertribal Fish Commission has helped fisheries managers double the 2016 subsistence allotment over last year’s. Chinook runs are still far below historic numbers, but they’re steadily inching upward.
The state of Alaska isn’t formally part of this collaboration, but John Linderman, regional supervisor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, says he and his agency “acknowledge and respect” the Intertribal Fish Commission and are open to engaging with them. Like many officials, Linderman is genuinely concerned for both the salmon and the tribes’ survival. But when it comes to the kind of unified management that the Intertribal Fish Commission wants, his hands are somewhat tied. He and other state wildlife managers are obligated to comply with the state constitution, which gives all residents equal access to fish. “That’s something that none of us have any control over,” Linderman says. “It’s not our place to make law. It’s our place to implement law.”
Mid-June, fish camp season is underway. Mike Williams’ wife, Maggie, bustles around the house, filling a cooler with Ziploc bags of caribou and goose meat and packing a duffel with clothes. Several grandchildren toddle underfoot, chasing a miniature poodle that Maggie’s daughter ordered off the internet from Montana. Relatives stop by to grab lunch from a simmering pot of moose stew.
Eventually, we load up Williams’ fishing boat — five adults, one teenager, a 5-year-old, a 2-year-old and a dozen dead fish. We push into the current. The outboard motor churns through the river like a blender cutting through a chocolate shake. When we reach a nameless slough walled in by high grassy banks, Williams cuts the motor.
On a cold gray day after a winter of disuse, the fish camp isn’t much to look at. It consists of a plywood shack with a rusty woodstove, peeling linoleum and 30 years’ worth of accumulated mosquito corpses. Outside are cottonwood drying racks, a smokehouse and two plywood tables.
Still, our arrival feels like a homecoming. Soon after we climb ashore, Williams’ daughter, Sheila, who’s five months pregnant, hauls a 30-pound salmon onto one of the plywood tables. With an uluq, a moon-shaped knife, she slices off the head, to save for fish-head soup. She makes an incision the length of the salmon’s white underbelly and pulls out a fistful of guts. Carefully, she hands the stomach to her 15-year-old sister, Christine, who will flatten it into jerky. The rest goes into a bucket. She scrapes dark blood from inside the salmon’s ribs.
The fish then goes to Maggie, who’s ready at the second table to do the more intricate work of filleting it to dry. Depending on the fish, she’ll process it in any number of ways — into long, thin strips, perhaps, or meaty steaks. Maggie Williams has been putting up salmon for as long as she can recall. Like Christine, she began with the guts and took on greater responsibility with each passing year. “I remember when my mom first taught me to do this,” she says, deftly nicking a strip of meat. “I made such a mess! She said, ‘It’s OK. It’ll still dry.’ ”
Cutting the fish is essential to its proper drying. So is the weather: Too early, and it might be too damp. Too late, and flies will lay eggs inside the flesh. These are the kinds of decisions the people of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta want to make: when to fish, how to fish. They want to be able to carry on their traditions without armed outsiders confiscating their gear. They dream of a time when the knowledge they’ve collected over generations is considered as valid as science gathered in a few seasons.
While the women cut fish, Williams rests in a duct-taped chair, explaining the year’s fishing rules in Yup’ik for perhaps the sixth time that day on his cellphone. Hanging up, he pushes his glasses up his forehead and rubs his eyes. Juggling all these court hearings, testimonies, meetings and negotiations is exhausting. He sometimes thinks about giving up. But then he looks out the window and sees his two young granddaughters, watching seriously as their auntie and grandmother butcher the salmon, and he takes a deep breath and starts over. Akiak and other tribes will continue to advocate for a greater voice in managing their fishery, Williams tells me. And maybe someday soon, the state will have no choice but to listen.
Correspondent Krista Langlois lives in Durango, Colorado, and frequently covers Alaska.
This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.
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