Salmon unite and divide Alaskans across the state.
Gear type, purpose and region all come into play in a divisive debate over salmon allocation. Three years ago, the Salmon Project started a project to change that by asking Alaskans what salmon meant to them personally.
The project began as a series of essays published in the then-online-only Alaska Dispatch. Looking at it, the organizers thought they had the beginnings of a book, said Erin Harrington, the executive director of the Salmon Project, a nonprofit that collects and shares stories about salmon from Alaskans. The collection quickly became a portrait of Alaskans’ relationship to salmon across the state, Harrington said.
“When we looked at them all together as a body of work and looked at the interest that Alaskans had, we realized that there was something really powerful there,” Harrington said. “We said, ‘Wow, this really has the potential to be a book.” The (University of Alaska Anchorage) press was really enthused about it right off the bat — they realized there wasn’t really a book about that. There was really a space for it.”
The book, titled “Made of Salmon,” gathers narratives from commercial fishermen, lodge owners, subsistence users an sportfishermen across the state and shares their thoughts on how salmon affect their lives.
From lodges to remote villages to commercial fishing sets, the book gathers the thoughts of authors from all walks of life, Harrington said. As the book was finished and begins to gain attention, the authors noticed something else — besides being about salmon, the book is also a collection from some of the most eminent writers in the state, she said. Author Ernestine Hayes, whose memoir “Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir” contributed writing; Alaska Dispatch News columnist Charles Wohlforth wrote an essay; former Alaska first lady Bella Hammon wrote about her and her husband’s experiences with salmon; and journalist Julia O’Malley, among others.
Harrington, who was raised on Kodiak in a commercial fishing family, said the compilation shows the connections between Alaskans on a resource. Like many Alaskans. she said she has both commercial fishing and sportfishing in her “repertoire,” and the point of the book was not to highlight different gear types or attitudes, but rather to show how Alaskans connect with salmon.
“It is something that we know through our work: that salmon is omnipresent in Alaska and is so important to every Alaskan, but to be able to pick it up and pause on a page to read that truth through the voices of dozens of Alaskans, it’s been a really gratifying process and it’s a real honor,” Harrington said.
Nancy Lord, the book’s editor, said she got involved with the project three years ago as the editor for the essays. Working with the writers across the state didn’t necessarily show her anything she didn’t know but drove home how deeply embedded salmon are in culture, she said.
An author of several books and former commercial setnetter, Lord said she is changing tacks to sportfishing now near her home in Homer. That shift is an odd one, she said.
“It’s just a different approach, a totally different thing,” Lord said.
Some stories do address the current issues with declining salmon abundance. She highlighted author Kirsten Dixon, who wrote about her and her husband’s experience in their lodge of watching the king salmon runs diminish over the years as an example. Alaskans have a deep connection to king salmon in particular, she said.
One of the Salmon Project’s goals is to “take a step back” from the politicization of salmon, Harrington said. The book frames the conversation about salmon as a whole, she said.
“We’re always trying to frame it in that longer conversations,” Harrington said. “Who do we want to be as people? How do we want to treat each other? I think a question I ask myself a lot is, ‘Do we want to fight our way into the future, or do we want to figure out how to work with one another over those very long time frames?’”
“Made of Salmon” is available at Barnes and Noble in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Old Harbor Books in Sitka and Homer Bookstore in Homer. It will soon be available at Parnassus Books in Ketchikan, Gulliver’s Books in Fairbanks and Skagway News Depot in Skagway.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.