The projector flicked from a photograph showing the turquoise fin of a salmon nosing upstream to another of a child eyeing a blood-smeared piece of plywood with a fillet knife askance at the side.
Seventy five or so people nibbled on sushi as the images flashed on a sheet suspended from the side of the Baranov Museum in Kodiak. Throughout the museum, visitors considered questions posed on sticky notes: What does a sustainable and equitable salmon system look like to you? How can we use arts and culture to build an inclusive and sustainable community?
Salmon Projections was my response to a challenge that the Alaska Humanities Forum posed to Alaska Salmon Fellows during our May gathering.
The Forum tasked us with conducting a small summertime project with radical intent. Fellows selected projects as diverse as the group: a pair teamed up to build a fish friendly fish wheel on the Yukon River, another Fellow looked at establishing an educational salmon fishery at Nome, another hosted a salmon social event to recruit students to attend and testify at a Board of Fish meeting. We were each encouraged to engage our networks and consider projects that would both enhance equity and sustainability in salmon systems (the main tenant of the fellowship) and inform the design of larger group projects, which we will be formulating this fall.
As a public historian, I determined to mine my social assets and test a project connected to crafting salmon narratives. I reached out to Kodiak artists and the Fellows, recruiting folks to submit art and photographs depicting Alaska salmon/people relationships. With Forum support, I purchased a 5000 lumen projector and lent it to my colleagues at the Baranov Museum/ Kodiak Historical Society, who did a wonderful job of hosting the event.
My intent with Salmon Projections was to depict the various ways that Alaskans interacted with salmon, to engage artists and those in the arts/ cultural sector in salmon conversations, and to experiment with ways that public art can prompt conversations and shift our salmon rhetoric.
By most accounts, Salmon Projections was successful as an unorthodox public art opportunity in Kodiak that prompted conversations and invited artists to shape dialogue. Interest in Salmon Projections was enough for the show to go on the road. It first went up the street to Peterson Elementary in Kodiak, where it was included in a museum night for families. Next it is headed across the Shelikof Strait to Igiugig.
Although Salmon Projections was a success based on attendance and audience feedback, I’m pondering misgivings about my own project. I’m becoming concerned about mass complacency in Alaskan’s perception of salmon. We excel at selling a pristine image of a pristine species to the world and at lauding ourselves as being the last, best stewards of wild salmon. But as we share photos of gleaning chinook, subsistence and commercial harvest of the species has been curtailed across the state.
As we pat ourselves on the back for our wild resource, we collectively refuse to have meaningful conversations about the impact of hatcheries on actual wild salmon. And while we celebrate our salmon as being a treasure equal to world heritage proportions, we don’t face the fact that the right to a commercial harvest has superseded the rights of Alaska Natives and other subsistence users to feed themselves from a run with which they share a generational relationship.
Perhaps these issues were brought up in the conversations that people had while mulling in the grass in front of the Baranov Museum. But in Kodiak, where commercial fishing is sacrosanct, most people correlate the words “salmon” with “industry,” using them interchangeably. This was captured in the very nice radio story that was produced about the event.
Salmon Projections succeeded in presenting differing relationships to salmon. And from scarlet strips of chinook drying in a hut made of blue tarps on the Kuskokwim to commercial set net fishermen yanking a humpy from a net in Kodiak, just as the images depicted differing relationships to salmon, so too did those who came out for the event encompass the spectrum of “salmon lives.” A member of the Alaska State Board of Fish mingled with the daughter of immigrant seafood processing workers. Kids accustomed to wrangling reds from the Buskin River with a pole turn the projector into a medium for hand shadow puppets. These are all reasons to celebrate.
Yet, I want to be more conscientious in my role as a shaper of salmon narratives. As part of this, I am beginning to move away from lauding Alaska’s salmon system, which implicitly feeds into complacency. Alaskans will likely not face the shadow sides of our salmon systems as long as we continue to project only that which is good.
Anjuli Grantham is a writer, historian, producer, and museum professional who specializes in the history of Alaska’s seafood industry. She balances positions as Project Director of the Alaska Historic Canneries Initiative and Legislative Aide to Representative Gabrielle LeDoux with research, writing, and presenting at conferences across the state and country. From curating exhibits about maritime history, to directing the Alaska Historic Canneries Initiative, producing radio stories about fishing industry culture, and writing a monthly column in Pacific Fishing about Alaska's fisheries history, nearly all of Grantham’s work is directed to documenting, preserving, and educating about the history of Alaska's seafood industry and salmon-dependent communities.
Learn more about Anjuli and the other Alaska Salmon Fellows.