Changing Practice, Changing Systems

The Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission met for their annual meeting in Bethel on May 7 and 8, 2018.

The qasgiq is a traditional Yup’ik men’s community house, a place where young boys and men came together to make tools and weapons, where they learned their oral history. In its prime, it was also a social, political, spiritual, and economic institution that was central to the Yup’ik culture and community.

For Alaska Salmon Fellow Mary Peltola, the qasgiq was part of her culture growing up. As part of the Salmon Fellowship, Mary joined forces with Warren Jones and Christina Salmon to intentionally restore qasgiq practices in their communities. “The qasgiq is not just the physical building,” explains Peltola. “It’s a way of coming together, of having a conversation, of sharing knowledge and ideas.”

Peltola is the Executive Director of Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (KRITFC), a body of 32 commissioners appointed by tribes along the 900 miles of the Kuskokwim, from the headwaters to the mouth of the river. While the qasgiq tradition has waned in recent years, Mary realized that the qasgiq model could be a powerful alternative to the typical “Western” style of meetings where a presenter speaks at the front of the room while attendees sit in rows listening. In fact, the commission's founding principles identify the qasgiq model for dealing with conflict and challenges. So Peltola decided to incorporate the structure of the qasgiq at the KRITFC’s annual meeting in Bethel, and called on Carrie Stevens, Assistant Professor of Tribal Management at University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Andrea Sanders of First Alaskans Institute to assist in designing the event.

When the commissioners gathered for the meeting, they were seated in a circle facing one another, each with an equal space “at the table”. They began by talking about the ways that salmon is important in their tribes, families, communities. They found connection in their shared dependence on fish and extensive knowledge of the river, and in the unspoken understanding that their work together isn’t about managing the salmon, it’s about managing people.

“It was collaborative,” Peltola reflected. “It felt really good, productive. It made me think about the way that Elders approach difficult topics through love, using gentle tones, not harsh or accusatory language.” She explained that the circle and the open communication style brought that out in people. There was a feeling of participation and connection, not a sense of being talked at.

Peltola had invited Charlie Wright, an Athabascan who lives on the Yukon River as a subsistence hunter, trapper and fisherman, to attend the meeting. Wright is another member of the Alaska Salmon Fellows and Peltola describes him as a “young elder”, a peacemaker who she has come to know and admire through their work together as Fellows. Wright has served as a Board Member of the Yukon River Fisheries Drainage Association and the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. These groups are about 10 years ahead of the Kuskokwim Commission in dealing with conservation issues and Wright was able to share his story of the Yukon, the lessons they have learned, and how they have navigated through some of the struggles and challenges.

Ultimately, the commissioners were able to reach consensus on a number of issues – not a unanimous vote, but resolutions that everyone could live with and commit to. By the end of their meeting they had defined a shared vision and principles for Tribal Stewardship of Kuskokwim River salmon fisheries, defined key goals and future action, and strengthened the rules and guiding principles that define their relationship with salmon. While Peltola says the outcomes might have been the same using another model, she noticed a difference in the feeling of participation and ownership, the ability to resolve conflict, and the engagement of the commissioners in intuitive, constructive ways.

There is an energy and urgency in her voice as Peltola talks about the way this small change in practice has started to make a larger shift. She says that the experience with Alaska Salmon Fellows has given her a chance to see the way other people see things, and it has led to new ideas and windows into different ways of thinking. Beyond this own growth on a personal level, connecting with other Fellows like Jones and Wright is giving form to a larger network across the state that has the potential to ultimately change salmon systems – the policies, processes, relationships, knowledge, power structures, values, and norms that impact salmon and its future as a critical resource for Alaska.

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