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Year in Review 2020: Culture and Race


This year heralded a renaissance of widespread public discussions about racism and justice. 

A major topic in news this year was race and what it means to be a minority in this country and in Alaska.

In May, the death of George Floyd sparked protests against police brutality and systemic racism around the nation, including rural communities like Dillingham.

Credit Tyler Thompson/KDLG
People at the march in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. June 6, 2020.

On June 6th, about 80 people participated in a March organized by Desi Bond and Jasmine Kritz. Kritz said she hoped marching would push people in Dillingham to fight for justice.

“I wanted to become active in showing that this is something that needs to end today. Because that’s what being an activist is. Even if no one sees it, you’re still adding to the better cause for everybody.”

The march ended in front of the Dillingham Police Station, where protesters kneeled for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time a police officer kneeled on George Floyd’s neck, killing him.

Credit Tyler Thompson/KDLG
People spoke in front of the Dillingham police station. Saturday, June 6, 2020.

People spoke about the systemic racism evident not only in government institutions but also in places closer to home, like local businesses. Other marchers reflected on personal experiences of racism and how complicit behavior is unacceptable.

June 19th, or “Juneteenth,” was a time to consider the history of racism and diversity in Bristol Bay’s fisheries and canneries.

People who worked at the Diamond J Cannery in Bristol Bay gather for a photo.

“I think Alaskans like to think that we are different than the lower 48, but the reason why Alaska studies is mandatory in schools is because of racist attacks on Alaska Native people in the late part of the 20th century,” said Katie Ringsmuth, the historian and director of the NN Cannery History project.

Ringsmuth said while fishermen were often white or Alaska Native, the cannery crews like Diamond J and others would often experience discrimination.

“Alaska canneries were places of discrimination, racism, and then later when women come onto the scene, sexism, they’re also sites where you see change occur too,” she said.

More information about the project can be found on the NN Cannery History Project website.

Black history was the focus of most of the protests, but Indigenous struggles and culture were acknowledged and celebrated as well.

Through July and August, Bristol Bay’s rivers gave plenty of opportunity for people to celebrate fishing and traditions.

Credit Brian Venua/KDLG
Salmon strips seen up close.

Credit Courtesy of Dennis Wilson

In August and September, there were efforts to look into the causes of the disproportionate number of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Credit Amber Webb
The kuspuk, made from recycled cotton sheets, is seven feet tall. The portraits are drawn in permanent marker.

Amber Webb is one artist and activist who has been working towards raising awareness of and addressing the problem for three years. In 2018, she hand-stitched a qaspeq and drew the faces of victims of systems that failed them.

“Originally, that project started because I couldn’t even find data that reflected accurate numbers for Alaska," Webb said. "And just kind of realizing how little was being done — it’s the kind of problem where you try to do anything you can when you realize how grave the situation is.”

In the face of hardship, Bristol Bay’s Indigenous cultures showed their resilience; despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bristol Bay Native Corporation started hosting virtual yuraq sessions. The Corporation founded the Facebook group, Bristol Bay-am Qasgia/Na qenq'a, creating a place to engage with Bristol Bay cultures.

Atkiq Ilutsik-Snyder, BBNC’s culture camp director, said the yuraq celebrations are a way to connect with Native culture.

Atkiq Ilutsik-Snyder finishes Ellamta Nunanirqutii, one of the first dances and songs she taught in her virtual yuraq session. May 1, 2020.

“Yuraq has a way of grounding us, it’s a way of prayer, it’s a connection with our ancestors and our heritage. And it’s really amazing how refreshed and rejuvenated I feel after yuraq, and it certainly helps for me to relieve stress.”

The Yup’ik name for November is Cauyarvik. It is a time for celebrating, and Ilutsik-Snyder organized another online event to bring people together.

“This pandemic has been really hard on everyone and our songs and dances really are healing.”

The November celebration featured dances from  the three Indigenous cultures in Bristol Bay, Alutiiq, Yup’ik, and Dena’ina.

Looking to 2021, we hope to continue talks about justice and to roister culture in Bristol Bay.