Blessed to be a witness

Nichole cutting fish.
Nichole Jelinek preparing our freshly caught salmon for lunch.

We’re nearing the end of our time in Bethel and already we are thinking of how we are going to miss the community here, the sunlight (I’m writing this at 11:30 p.m. and it’s bright daylight outside as the sun is just starting to set.) and the amazing opportunities we have to talk to the diverse people here and learn about their lives and culture. We’ve been able to see and hear first-hand about the impact of climate change.

The stories we are hearing are not just technical, science-type stories, but stories deeply rooted in these people’s connection with the land. We’ve heard the tundra — which seems vast and barren at first glance  — described as the “land’s plate” and the “people’s refrigerator” for the rich bounty of berries and greens that helps sustain people all year. Many of the people we have talked to learned about the land and respect for the land, sea and rivers and all that inhabit the environment from their elders. They talk of respect for the land and for the animals they catch, whether it’s salmon or moose or caribou.

Being from Nebraska, I know about sky and Plains stretching all around me. But here in rural southwestern Alaska, there’s more sky and more tundra. People have told us while on the tundra, they feel they can see the whole universe. It does feel that way. The respect for the land and for the elders is grounded in sharing  what you catch and harvest with the elders, widows and, we have found, with strangers. We are overwhelmed by the generosity in fish, cookies, produce and a wonderful pot luck.

It took a while to get back to this blog; now It’s time for lunch, which today is fresh salmon from the test fishery. People working to conserve and preserve the king salmon on the river do test catches to see how many fish are running, what kind and when. The goal is to get enough king salmon to escape to spawn upriver. Part of today’s catch — which is often distributed to elders and others — will end up on our lunch plates. Our story comes full circle.

Carol Zuegner

About Carol Zuegner

I am a journalism professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. I teach writing, social media, media entrepreneurship, international mass communication and I am lucky enough to be a part of Backpack Journalism. I focus on interviewing, writing and being Mama Zoogs.

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