Monica Devine checking the wheel box for salmon.

The following is an except from Monica Devine’s memoir, Water Mask.

Blood flows in rivulets around my boots, forming pools that hover above ground, pools the powdery silt does not instantly absorb. The big metal bucket at my feet is teeming with fish flopping their silvery bodies into question marks as they mouth foreign air. 

With two hard swats, I smack the head of a fish with my wooden bonker to stun it. The flopping stops long enough for me to cut off its tail with a small hatchet and slit the length of its belly to remove the innards. I have a tubful of fish to harvest and aim to work swiftly.

Tree roots stick out from the bank and quiver madly in the foaming brown current. I look up, shading my eyes from the sun, and watch gulls throw down their shadows, the tips of their wings translucent against the wild blue. They roll and dip, squawking ownership of the fish guts I throw downriver. They know where the good food is and argue over every last scrap. 

I whisper thank you. For the gift of food and for the sunshine. For the cool blue air and noisy birds. For the smell of spruce sap and the sound of grass wind. I whisper thank you, for everything.

The moving water leaps and tumbles, and I imagine just below the surface long schools of salmon nosing their way upriver, eager to return to their natal grounds, fighting like hell to complete another cycle in the wheel of life. It’s so simple, really. What we have in common with the plant and animal worlds is we sprout at birth and decompose at death, feeding the earth with our compost, completing the endless circle of life. 

A filleted red salmon held by a fisherman
The beautiful meat of a fresh red salmon. Photo by Monica Devine.

My community is busy, checking their fish wheels hourly, making all manner of technical adjustments, like the raising and lowering of the wheel as the water level rises and falls, keeping axles on the wheel greased, predicting when the next run will hit…midnight, 6 am…Who’s to know? It’s a finicky business catching fish. You wait and you watch. You wait and you listen. It’s all about timing and, as some Athabascans say when the fish decide to come to you. Everything in their lives is connected to salmon; their potlatches and ceremonies and traditions all include the taking and harvesting of salmon. The river has nourished the Athabascan people of this region for hundreds of years. 

It is said by the people that the fish are aware of who you are, how you treat them. If you disrespect the great gift of salmon, they won’t come back to you next season. We have survived on salmon in a sustainable way, they say. It is our right and privilege to feed ourselves from the land.

This year I take pause to think about our yearly fishing activities in more detail. In Jonathon Balcombe’s recent book, “What a Fish Knows,” he overturns our assumptions about how fish perceive. Do fish have memories? Can they actually think? Can they recognize our faces as we peer down at them in the water?

Balcombe tells us fish do have feelings, as well as awareness and a social order that is in some ways, similar to those of people. Even more surprising is the scientific research that has shown that fish display tool use at the level of a ten-month old baby. 

Tool use points to the development of a growing intelligence. If a baby sees an interesting toy on a blanket and the toy is out of reach, she may crawl after it, or she may simply pull on the edge of the blanket to bring the toy nearer where she can easily grab it. She uses the blanket as a tool to secure the toy.

The same has been observed in the tuskfish as evidenced by the biologist Giacomo Bernardi. While diving he observed a tuskfish dispense water at a clam buried in the sand. When the clam became visible the fish picked it up in its mouth and carried it to a large rock, a good 30 yards away. Flicking its head, the fish smashed open the clam against the rock. This sequence of behaviors was observed over and over again until the fish was finished with its plentiful dinner. 

Birds have been observed to take tool use even a step further. Ravens will often drop nuts onto the pavement of a busy intersection and wait for car wheels to crack them open. When the light changes to red and traffic stops momentarily, the ravens swoop down and pick up their meaty remnants, just like that. 

It had never occurred to me that fish too might exercise a variety of so called “thinking” skills. They reportedly enjoy different kinds of music, display distinct personalities, and feel physical pain. I’m careful though in assigning the word “suffer” to fish as some biologists do. Sensory pain is one thing but “suffering” denotes another layer of psychological thought placed on top of the pain, creating more misery. I’m willing to bet we humans have a corner on that theory. When there is no judgement overlaying the sensations, pain is just pain. 

Can fish become depressed with the state of their lot? Studies have actually shown that salmon farms naturally have “drop out” fish, growth stunted fish that float lifelessly at the surface of the farming ponds. These fish are severely depressed. Why? Because they have given up on life. Their brain chemistry and behavior mimic those of other animals with documented depression. And they are smaller in size due to “failure to thrive” like human babies who experience stunted growth in the absence of love and affection. 

Should we abstain from eating fish because we cause them “unpleasant” deaths? Should sport fishing with lures be banned? Some suggest sport fishing be stopped because it amounts to “playing with your food.” When fish are caught for reasons other than sustenance, say, for the thrill of the catch, does this not disrespect the animal and cause unnecessary pain? If we do indeed have a moral obligation to assure a pleasant death for fish (and other animals), maybe we should prohibit the killing and not eat them at all, as some researchers propose. 

We take great measure to assure a pleasant death for humans by way of hospice and palliative care, providing relief from the symptoms of serious illnesses. How then, should we treat our fellow winged, gilled and four-legged creatures?

A round sign nailed to a tree outside Monica Devine's cabin in Tazlina is painted with a fish and reads Copper House
Arrival at the author’s cabin in Tazlina.

Those who adhere to veganism abhor the killing of animals of any kind. A healthier, more compassionate way to live is through the discontinuation of harvesting and using any type of animal products. No meat, cheese, eggs, milk, crustaceans, fish, leather, fur, or their byproducts. 

Many are confident the rest of society will eventually wake up to veganism and right their erroneous thinking on the subject by divorcing themselves from all things animal. 

Maybe there is something to learn from the lifeways of indigenous people; people who may not view the taking of animals as exploitation or cruelty. This worldview points to the animal as being in a symbiotic and spiritual relationship with the human; that one dies for the express purpose of giving life to another. We humans don’t walk outside the circle of life and peer at the specimens contained within. We are an essential spoke in the wheel, beginning with the rather violent act of birth. As we progress through our lives, we learn to co-exist with all of life’s inevitable pain and suffering. At the end death is not an outrage, no matter how peaceful or terrifying the experience turns out to be. It is simply the last cycle in the great wheel of life.

Many unique cultures around the world inhabit a way of life that is crucially defined by the landforms they inhabit. The food sources of many Alaska Natives are inherently tied to the mountains, oceans, valleys and rivers on which they live and depend. Hunting and gathering and eating traditional food connects people to the animals, to the land, and to each other. 

Children learn important lessons growing up in a family that encourages a subsistence way of life. They learn patience and humility by listening to their grandparents tell stories of the past. Reverence and responsibility are learned when children work side by side with family members. From an early age, they are encouraged to share, and are given the job of delivering the first catch of fish to the elders and people with disabilities in their village. 

Food is not just food but medicine, to the body and the soul. To paraphrase Uyuriukaraq Ulran’s words: “Eating foreign foods day after day our spirits become hungry for a relationship to the land; we depend on the land. Without it, we seem nil.”

Should the Inupiat people be prohibited from taking whale, the centerpiece of their spiritual life and the lifeblood of their people? Taking away their indigenous foods is exactly how failure to thrive and depression would show up in the people who respect and give thanks to their fellow creatures for granting them life. In all practicality, eating greens at 40 below in the vast, treeless landscape of northern Alaska will not sustain you. Though the skin and the blubber of the bowhead will. 

Athabascan man wearing ceremonial clothing.
An Athabascan man at Katie John’s funeral. Photo by Monica Devine.

If you were wearing a white scarf, a white ribbon, or a white bandana at Katie John’s celebration of life, you were one of her grandchildren, great grandchildren, or great-great grandchildren. 

I drove from our cabin in Tazlina to the village of Mentasta to take part in Katie’s memorial. In June there was still a thin layer of ice skirting Mentasta Lake. A line of cars bending east at the Tok Cutoff preceded me on the otherwise lonely highway. Ahtna people from dozens of neighboring villages, as well as people from around the world came to celebrate her remarkable life.

Born in Slana, Alaska in 1915, Katie married Mentasta Traditional Athabascan Chief, Fred John, with whom she had fourteen children. Katie and her husband taught their children the traditional ways of living off the land, and emphasized the value of respecting elders, and honoring the ways of their family’s ancestors. Remarkably, Katie and her husband cared for their family without ever accepting a penny of welfare.

 Katie John’s legacy could be traced all the way back to 1964, when the state of Alaska closed down the taking of salmon from her traditional fish camp. A series of lawsuits were put into play with Katie gaining fame as the lead plaintiff. Her legal actions polarized public opinion between those who believed she was entitled to take salmon from her traditional land, and those who argued the taking of salmon amounted to special treatment. Demonstrators in Anchorage proudly marched for her, with signs saying “Don’t mess with Katie,” during those heated times. 

For decades, Katie fought the subsistence ruling. Suits bounced back and forth, new laws were brought to the table. Katie never stopped working for her people, and she had absolutely no fear of conflict with bureaucrats. In time, a ruling from the Ninth District Court of Appeals was brought forth. Alaska Native fishing and hunting rights would be protected. The long and harrowing fight was over. Katie’s stubbornness had paid off.

For her tireless energy and determination, Katie was awarded an honorary doctorate of law degree from the University of Alaska. No one before her had stood up to the federal government and the state of Alaska like she did; all because she believed in the right to feed her people. News of her legal battle spread, inspiring indigenous Native peoples from all corners of the globe who vowed to walk in her footsteps in proclamation of their own subsistence rights. Katie passed away at the age of 97, ten years after the ruling that made her famous.

Without a doubt, the consumption of traditional foods is key to a culture’s preservation and affects the mental, physical and spiritual health of its people. Should those who harvest natural food from the land and water eat artificial instead, like shrink-wrapped meat substitutes? Imitation crabmeat made of fillers, fake flavoring and dyes? 

I only skim the surface of this subject. Like the gulls wheeling over my fish table, I’m suspended in this literal world above water, unable to dive deep enough to fully understand the life-giving secrets of how we are so deeply connected to the food we eat. 

But I think I understand what is true for many. Red salmon harvested from the breathing waters of the Copper River is a great gift, representing so much more than a “commodity” or a “resource.” It comes with a vitality that inexplicably ties me to the natural world. An aliveness that is absent in modern, over-processed food products found in our grocery store aisles.

What I do know is life and death spring forth from this land, simultaneously. It is the hunters and fishermen who have taught me through example, how deeply a people can believe in the sacredness of life and death. When you take away venerated foods, you potentially destroy a vivid and unique culture. You destroy worldviews in which people do not dictate “right” living to others but live their lives as people who clearly see and appreciate their rightful place not only in the world, but born of it, as interconnecting links to the rest of the world and all things in it.

What do we do when considering the inner lives of plants as described in Daniel Chamovitz’s book, “What a Plant Knows.” He reports that plants too, have feelings and the act of uprooting them causes pain. Plants prefer listening to the melodies of Bach over the rock guitar riffs of Led Zeppelin. The failure to thrive in plants can be deterred by talking to them lovingly, every day. They too, he says, are well aware of their surroundings. 

As we develop a more enlightened view on the fish, plants and animals of our world I wonder: When all is said and done, what then, shall we eat?

Note: This excerpt from Water Mask, a memoir by Monica Devine, is used with permission from the publisher, UA Press and Alaska Literary Series (www.uapress.alaska.edu). 


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