Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
June 3, 2000-Issue 11

Fishing Gets Educational Twist
Ankorage Daily News reporter


Every Athabaskan Is Responsible To All Other Athabaskan For the Survival Of Our Cultural Spirit, and the Values and Traditions Through Which it Survives. Through Our Extended Family, We Retain, Teach, and Live Our Athabaskan Way.

With guidance and support from elders, we must teach our children Athabaskan values:
Knowledge of Language
Respect for Others
Respect for Elders
Love for Children
Hard Work
Knowledge of Family Tree
Avoid Conflict
Respect for Nature
Family Roles
Hunter Success
Domestic Skills
Responsibility to Tribe

The Dena'ina Athabaskan Indians of Eklutna practiced subsistence again this week by stringing a setnet like a volleyball net from the beach out into the cold water of Knik Arm.

But no one was really trying to catch anything. The tides weren't big enough, said Lee Stephan, the tribe's chief executive officer. So the pale green net lay flat and dry on the gray mud as Stephan showed fifth-graders from Chugiak Elementary how to tie a bowline knot.

"C'mon, pull up a chair," Stephan shouted to the kids.

"Where are the chairs?" the kids shouted back, puzzled.

"Right here," Stephan said, grinning as he patted the edge of a short grassy bluff.

Just then a cell phone rang. The Athabaskan leader pulled the phone from his pocket, fired off some quick directions to someone back at camp and then turned his attention back to the fifth-graders, now gathered and waiting eagerly on the bluff.

This is how Eklutna, a Native village of some 40 residents who live quietly along the Glenn Highway beneath Mount Eklutna, now practices subsistence - by using one of several "educational" setnet permits allowed in Cook Inlet.

Jim Fall, a regional subsistence manager with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the state grants seven Native and non-Native groups throughout Southcentral permission to set up educational fishing sites. They include the Native communities of Knik and Ninilchik plus the Boys and Girls Club in Anchorage, whose members cross the Inlet each summer to Tyonek to learn setnet fishing.

Over the past seven summers, some members of the Eklutna tribe, which totals about 130 members, have used the educational net to teach about subsistence and fill their freezers. Tribal members, many of whom live in Birchwood and Anchorage, still fish elsewhere, as they did traditionally. Fall noted that Eklutna's main fishing grounds were in Anchorage, mostly at Point Woronzof and on Fire Island. But the educational net provides cultural enrichment, he said, as well as another means of fishing.

State regulations closed subsistence net fishing in the Eklutna area and much of Knik Arm in 1960. It was opened up again, but only by use of an educational setnet, by a 1993 Anchorage Superior Court ruling that allowed Eklutna and two other Native communities to run small "educational" subsistence fisheries each summer. Now the state runs the educational permits voluntarily, Fall said.

In Eklutna, the permit allows the tribe to set out one net each summer in front of the village plus another one at Fish Creek on the opposite side of Knik Arm, beginning in May and ending in September. The total catch cannot exceed 1,000 salmon, and not more than 50 kings or 250 cohos.

Tribal members take turns using the net, keeping it for three days at a time or until they catch 10 salmon, Stephan said. As required in the permit, they also use the net for teaching. Stephan said about 300 students come each summer to Eklutna's camps, where they learn about Native cultures and how to spend a night or two camping in the woods.

"We're trying to show them what it's like in a rural area, get them away from that TV stuff," Stephan said.

Sherry Bradley, the teacher from Chugiak Elementary in charge of coordinating the camp, said the camp teaches the children about subsistence. But just as much emphasis is put on other outdoor activities, such as building a shelter to spend the night in, searching for edible plants or "hunting" a stuffed bear using a compass. The camps are called "survival camps."

"We don't get into the politics much," Bradley said. "We can't."

On Thursday afternoon, with the sun out and rain in the distance, the net was stretched out on the beach to show the fifth-graders what it looks like, and maybe to catch a fish or two for dinner. Earlier in the month, the net passed among three village residents, but no one had caught any salmon yet, Stephan said. The demand for the net increases later in the summer, he said.

Stephan and others in the village hope Eklutna will someday be designated rural by the Federal Subsistence Board, therefore making it eligible for a rural subsistence priority. Following the decision last month to make the entire Kenai Peninsula rural, Stephan has asked a lawyer to check into what it would take to file a similar petition. But in the meantime, the net fills a need.

Victor McNeil, one of the Eklutna tribal members helping with the fifth-grade camp, said he's grateful for the net because he plans to fish in the village this summer. Last year he fished commercially with Lee's brother, Lester Stephan, at a setnet site on the Kenai Peninsula.

Stephan said it's also helpful for people who don't have cars or money to get to Kenai.

Leo Stephan, Lee's father and a commercial fishermen for 35 years, spent most of Thursday at the beach teaching children how to tie knots and warning them about the danger of walking around on the mud flats.

During a break between the waves of school groups, Stephan said he's happy that the Kenai decision will allow the Kenaitze tribe to fish as they traditionally have, and added that Eklutna should be able to do the same. Still, he worries that granting a rural priority to so many people will deplete the resource. He said he's seen non-Natives waste resources and worries it will only get worse as Alaska's population grows.

"If that kind of stuff keeps up, there won't be any fish left. That's the drawback of this rural designation," he said.

If Eklutna is designated rural for subsistence purposes, it won't mean additional fishing opportunities around the village. Instead, it would give those who live in Eklutna the right to ask the board for special subsistence fishing or hunting privileges on or near federally managed land or in federally navigable waters.

The closest federal land to Eklutna is Chugach National Forest, said Bill Knauer, a subsistence policy and regulations specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It might also mean that Eklutna could argue that its residents should be allowed to participate in subsistence fishing and hunting on the Kenai Peninsula because they have traditionally used the area.

Stephan said he will continue to push for more subsistence opportunities for his village but said no matter what happens, he will probably continue to take his children rod and reel fishing at Deep Creek on the Kenai Peninsula.

"My kids love it," he said. "And it keeps them out of trouble."

His father has a more traditional view. Leo Stephan said he has gone sportfishing in the past, when he wasn't commercial fishing and needed to fill the freezer, but he never liked it much.

"I was always told, 'Don't play with your food,' " he said. "It's kind of unpleasant for me. I'm just there getting the winter supply of food."

Learn more about the Dena'ina Athabascans at these sites:

Eklutna, Inc. an Alaska Native Corporation, established Eklutna Historical Park in 1990 to preserve the heritage and traditions of the Athabascan people, and to portray the rapidly disappearing lifestyles of the Dena'ina Athabascan
Eklutna Historical Park

Athabascan Language

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