Alaska Tribal youth learn traditional fishing methods

By Tony Cella
Kenai, Alaska (AP) July 2010

The Kenaitze Tribe started a five-day camp during mid-July to teach youth traditional fishing practices.

Yaghanen, or Youth Services, Coordinator Michael Bernard taught predominantly Kenaitze youth how to build fish-catching baskets, prepare the salmon and hang the fish for smoking. Bernard said that the camp focuses on preserving not only traditional fishing means and techniques, but also the values behind tribal harvesting practices. The camp teaches students to treat fish and natural resources with respect, he said.

“Some people see the fish limit as a goal,” said Tribal Youth Advocate Doug Gates. “You don't need to hit the limit. You just take what you need.”

Bernard said that the fish basket frames are traditionally built with 10-foot-long alder branches. Dena'ina in the past used sinew or spruce roots to hold the branches together, he said. To prepare spruce roots, camper Brendan Coltun said, the tribe cut and split the spruce, then soaked the roots in water to add flexibility.

At this camp, for the sake of time, youngsters wrapped string around a dish to measure out foot-long strands to wrap around the traps.

The branches stand three to four inches apart once the basket is put together, he said. Birch branches hold the basket in the river bed.

Bernard said that gaps in the basket allow smaller fish to swim through, but capture the larger salmon and rainbow trout. The coordinator said that the baskets catch fish swimming close to the gravel, their traditional breeding area. The baskets have a trap door on the top to release excess fish and keep bears from ripping apart the wood frames.

Bernard said that the camp hasn't caught fish using a basket trap to date, but he hopes to change that next year. The coordinator said that the camp will make three baskets: one for the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, another for camp presentations at school and a third full-size trap for next summer's campers to use.

Using regular, modern-day techniques, Bernard said, the campers caught nearly 300 fish at traditional Kenaitze fishing locations, 10 times their 30-fish goal. He said that the excess fish will go to the tribal food bank, elders program and the sponsors of the camp.

The remaining catches will be hung in the Kenaitze Elders' smokehouse. He taught campers how to prepare the fish for smoking by soaking them in salt and hanging them by the tail end. Bernard said that the tribe uses cottonwood to fuel the smoking flames.

“Birch has too much oil and spruce gets too hot,” he said.

The wood is laid over a bed of coals.

“You can smell it all over town,” he said with a grin.

Depending on taste, he said, they could use brown sugar or molasses to smoke the fish as well, something ancient Dena'ina didn't have.

The camp also teaches kids how to gut a fish and keep the majority of the meat. Coltun said that he learned that digestive acid eats away the meat and now he's careful not to cut open the stomach. He said that the skin can be used for clothing. Bernard said that he caught the campers how to make a soup out of the fish's head, fins, back and tail, along with potato and parsley. For the less adventurous, camper Coltun recommended using the head and intestines as bait.

Bernard said he made a fish basket a while ago with modern trappings – chicken wire and twine – but the 10-foot-long basket broke on the way to river because it bounced around in the bed of his truck.

“Traditions change with time,” he said.