By Melanie Brown, SalmonState
My Great Grandmother, Anna Chukan, who I called Umma, showed her love in many ways, but the way that she shared her love through food is something that continues to unfold and reveal beauty and truths to me in my cooking and food preservation that I attempt to carry forward and pass on in my own way. Taste memories of her smoked salmon are mixed with family being together telling stories over nighttime teatime. When my sisters and I would finish pulling and biting the salmon off of the skin we would cook the skin on top of the oil stove until it curled and was crisp enough to eat like chicharrones. This early flavor influence makes me partial to anything seasoned with smoke.
My Umma suffered through the pandemic that swept through Western Alaska in 1918 and took the lives of people in their prime while leaving youth and elders to fend for themselves. When she made a life with my Great Grandpa, Paul Chukan, they became commercial fishermen and blended that existence with the traditions they were taught prior to losing their parents. I imagine that strife is partly what taught my Umma to fully utilize salmon and other bounty from the land and waters of Bristol Bay, but I also believe that honoring these gifts from the land played a role in her ways of not wasting any part of the salmon that could be used.
My Mother, Katherine Brown, who was raised by her Grandparents, recently reminisced with me about my Umma’s smoked fish. She talked about her Grandmother’s fish in a way that made it evident that she measured the taste and quality of other smoked fish against Umma’s fish. She also talked about how the belly sections that were cut away from the fish being prepared for drying and smoking were made into salunaq, the Yup’ik word for salt fish and another way of preserving salmon for the winter by layering the bellies alternately skin to skin and belly to belly while adding rock salt to each layer and rinsing the excess salt away when ready to eat. I know that my Grandmother would have also made good use of the heads by making rich soup with them. If there were too many heads to eat then my Grandpa’s dogs would have benefitted from this excess. Any eggs from females would have also been either added to the soup or made into dog food. Even the backbones were hung to dry in the wind and then, when ready to be eaten, were boiled so that the meat left close to the bones after cutting could be eaten with seal oil. Nothing was wasted if it could provide nutrition in some way.
In the midst of my Mom sharing memories of Umma’s smoked fish she told me about a time when Umma shared some of her fish with fishermen that they were acquainted with who would come to Naknek for the fishing season each year. The men really enjoyed her fish, but one man in particular wanted to buy everything in her smokehouse. She would not sell it to him and he became very angry with her for not doing so. In his view he felt that he was helping their family by giving them money for their fish, but clearly he did not understand the value of the fish he wanted so dearly to possess. This salmon that was preserved by drying and smoking for at least 24 days was intended to provide food over the course of the winter for my family. Food that did not require energy to refrigerate or freeze, food that was light and easy to carry while getting out on the land to forage or hunt for other foods, and food that was better than having money in the bank, with more nutrition than store bought foods, in case of scarcity.
Some things are worth way more than money. It is hard to see that in the world we live in because of the importance that is placed on attaining and holding wealth and conveying prestige. We have come to believe that economy only has to do with money when in fact the word broken into its root parts means home management. It can be applied to how one manages their own household at a micro level, but at a macro level includes the lands that are part of our states, countries and home planet. Just as my Umma recognized the value of her salmon, I see the worth of unbroken land. To some, it may seem that untouched land is lying dormant with minerals or other potential extractive resources being wasted because they are not being exploited, but fully functioning ecosystems hold benefits and support life in ways that we are just beginning to comprehend.
The land of Bristol Bay is a perfect example of this struggle to extract what is in the ground or to leave the tundra to quietly do what it does in supporting tens of millions of salmon returning to where they were spawned and reared. Nature’s alchemy produces treasures that support living and breathing things, including humans, while mining billions of tons of low grade ore leaves destruction in its wake that breaks fully functioning watersheds that are essentially foodsheds that provide food security not only for residents, but for our Nation. Growing up fishing Bristol Bay taught me hard work, but in many ways I took the life that the land of Bristol Bay made possible for me for granted. It took the threat of the proposed Pebble Mine to sharpen my focus and define my value system. The land and waters that supported the lives of my Great Grandparents with the food it provided for them gave me life and I am so thankful to have a taste for these foods that are native to the land. It is a privilege that, to me, represents true wealth and it is my hope that we all, as a people, can recognize the worth of lands and waters that support life and conserve them for future generations to enjoy the gifts that living land can give.
Melanie Brown was given her Yup’ik name, Taikupa, by her Great Grandmother when she visited Bristol Bay for the first time as a newborn. Her bucket list includes learning how to make smoked fish in the way that her Umma did when she retires from set-net salmon fishing. Melanie’s winter work is advocating for wild salmon and their habitat with the Alaska based organization, SalmonState. When she is not fishing Bristol Bay with her children they live on Tlingit Aani of the Auk Kwáan and Taku Kwáan.