Oral history project preserves experience of Alaska Native women who set net

Aug 1, 2018

As social and environmental changes increasingly threaten those who practice subsistence in Bristol Bay, a new project seeks to preserve the knowledge and voices of Alaska Native women.

Researchers present their findings from an oral history project Tuesday at the Bristol Bay Native Association in Dillingham.
Credit Austin Fast / KDLG

The world could go to hell, but Alaska Natives would survive, 70-year-old Connie Timmerman said. She wants her grandkids, whether male or female, to know how their ancestors subsisted from Bristol Bay’s land and sea.

"Us women we could do anything. It's a tough life, but you could do it if you set mind to it. And I truly believe that," Timmerman told interviewers last summer. "We're capable just as much as our men are. And it's a good companionship, that way I think it's healthier. You work together."

Timmerman was one of a dozen Alaska Native women from Dillingham, Naknek and Togiak interviewed by researchers working with the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center and the Bristol Bay Native Association (BBNA) . They returned in July to interview another handful of women and preserve their oral histories for future generations.

The researchers presented their results and four videos Tuesday at the BBNA in Dillingham.

Researcher Anna Lavoie presents findings from her team's oral history project on Tuesday. The project was a collaboration from NOAA Fisheries, the Alaska Fisheries Science Center and the Bristol Bay Native Association.
Credit Austin Fast / KDLG

Anna Lavoie researched small-scale fisheries in Brazil before coming to Alaska. She said Bristol Bay stands out because, compared to other places, more set net permit holders here are women – almost one-third altogether.

"We've seen that they play really important roles in family and community well-being in passing on knowledge to generations and maintaining that within communities," Lavoie said.

The research team allowed the women being interviewed to direct the conversation and share their personal experiences. They noticed the interviews they’ve gathered all seem to touch on several common themes: women’s knowledge and leadership, social cohesion, environmental change, and identity and a sense of place.

This last one – a sense that fishing is just who they are as Alaska Native women – pervades many of the interviews. Gayla Hoseth, BBNA director of natural resources, summed it up well at the end of her interview with the researchers.

"You know, it’s who we are," she said, laughing. I don’t know how to really say it because growing up with it, it’s not something that I just learned. It’s something that’s always been with me. So it’s a part of who I am."

Bristol Bay may be enjoying an exceptionally strong salmon run this year, but many of the women interviewed expressed concern for the future. Climate change is bringing warmer winters, which makes travel between native villages a lot harder without frozen tundra to snow machine over. Additionally, coastal erosion threatens set net operations.

Plus, the number of Bristol Bay locals holding limited entry salmon permits is slipping, according to official tallies from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

With all these threats in mind, researcher Kim Sparks said she’s honored to help preserve knowledge of this traditional way of life.

"It just hits me every time the deep connection these women have to their resources and to their families and how this isn't just something they talk about," Sparks said. "This is their livelihood. This is their life, and it's just such a privilege to hear these stories.

Funding for both years of the project has come from the NOAA Preserve America Initiative, but the team hopes BBNA can carry on the project in future years should funding dry up. That way they can continue to preserve more oral histories from Alaska Native women in Bristol Bay.

You can listen to the interviews at the "Voices from the Fisheries" website here.

Contact the author at austin@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.