Two Kenai Peninsula College anthropology professors concluded that a degradation of the water in Bristol Bay could have devestating nutritional, cultural and religious impacts on the villages in the region.
Their study, part of a larger impact assessment carried out by the Environmental Protection Agency, was in response to a request by nine villages in the region who are concerned about the impacts of mining on one of the largest sockeye salmon fisheries in the world.
More than 50 people sat in the Kenai Peninsula College Commons for the KPC Showcase lecture series where Alan Boraas summarized his research with Catherine Knott and the EPA on the signficance of salmon to the people of Bristol Bay.
Boraas said he was approached by the EPA in 2010 after the agency was approached by the villages with a request for a section 404(c) or “Veto Authority” ruling under the Clean Water Act which would keep places like the Pebble Mine from operating in the area.
The veto would allow the EPA to “restrict, prohibit, deny, or withdraw the use of an area as a disposal site for dredged or fill material if the discharge would have unacceptable adverse effects on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fisheries areas, wildlife, or recreational area,” according to EPA code.
The EPA has used this type of veto 13 times since 1972, according to its records.
Boraas said the final results of the EPA’s assessment had the potential to curtail heavy mining in the area.
“I want to say its potential because it was and still is an assessment, but it’s the most restrictive application of the Clean Water Act that the federal government has,” he said. “EPA undertook this massive study; it may be one of the biggest things that the Environmental Protection Agency has ever done, if not the biggest.”
The project was big enough that Knott, an anthropologist from KPC’s campus in Homer, joined the team. Together they interviewed 53 people in seven villages, often letting subjects speak in their Native languages.
Throughout the course of his presentation, Boraas played several audio clips of people speaking in English and their Native languages. Some were able to communicate more effectively through a translator, he said.
“The reason the villagers made the request was the presence, the potential presence of large mines that have been proposed for the area,” Boraas said.
In addition to the Pebble Mine, Boraas said the Big Chunk Mine, Humble Mine and at least four others had the potential to be developed.
“People made their request because of their concern for the salmon and clean water,” he said.
Boraas said the villages he visited defied stereotypes about subsistence living in Alaska.
“These are villages that have made successful, I believe, transitions from prehistory to now and are villages that work,” he said. “Part of the reason they work is their heavy subsistence on wild food and a traditional lifestyle and because their belief systems are intact.”
In each of the interviews, the team asked a series of open-ended questions about salmon and clean water. Boraas focused on three during his presentation: “How is wealth defined in this community?” “If you couldn’t have wild salmon, what would you do?” and “Do you pray when you catch salmon?”
Boraas played a clip of a man speaking Yup’ik, talking about the importance of salmon in his subsistence diet. His translator says, “It’s our main food. He said, ‘We’ll starve.’”
“People did not say, well, we’d live with it. Well, we’d eat something different. Well, we’d change,” Boraas said.
“Moving away, eating something different was not an option. We’d starve … I believe many of the folks would rather starve than not eat salmon. The depth and reliance and the importance of salmon in their lives is reflected well, I think, in their response to that question.”
When asked about the definition of wealth, Boraas said people would answer in one of three ways: A freezer full of salmon, family, and freedom.
“No one said money, no one said a big bank account. No one said any of the materialist things that we normally attribute to wealth in our community or in other communities in Alaska or in the United States,” he said.
The heavy reliance on salmon in a subsistence diet permeated the culture at every level, Boraas said, as he showed photos of multigenerational fish-processing camps and subsistence netting.
“That’s what people are concerned about. If you take away the keystone of it, this lifestyle, this long cultural tradition — 4,000 years in this particular area — will die out,” Boraas said.
“It’s within this context that values are passed on. How to handle fish, how to act around nature, how to be Yup’ik or Dena’ina in this particular area. How to live as an adult. How to conduct yourself right. This is all done in this multigenerational system where meaningful work occurs.”
The religious ritual surrounding clean water implied its importance to the people living in the region as well, Boraas said as he showed photographs of the “Great Blessing of the Water,” a ritual held every year in which an orthodox cross is carved into the ice over the river and a priest baptizes the water.
“At the moment the priest dips the cross in for the third time, the water is perceived to be sanctified,” Boraas said.
The baptism is meant to remove human-caused contamination.
“The symbolism cannot escape anyone,” Boraas said.
“People raise to the sacred that which is most important in their lives, and clean water, pure water, uncontaminated water, baptized water, sacred water is what’s most important. The water then is made ready for the salmon to return.”
Boraas said salmon had permeated every aspect of village life and the two were inextricably linked.
While he’s unsure if all of their suggestions will make it into the final report, Boraas said his group had come to several conclusions about the impact any degradation of the environment could have on the villages in Bristol Bay, including
■ Degradation of nutritional health due to diminishment of subsistence foods and lifestyles.
■ Loss of political power due to becoming a minority in one’s own homeland, if there’s an influx of outsiders to the region due to extractive resource development.
■ Deterioration of mental health due to the loss of culture and meaning for life.
■ Loss of language and traditional ways to express relationships to the land, one another and spiritual concepts.
■ Loss of meaningful work by extended families operating together as a cohesive unit.
■ Reduction of gender equity resulting from loss of important economic activities and social networking opportunities due to the potential diminishment of subsistence foods and harvest preparation and the replacement of this with jobs that are typically more accessible to men or to fewer women such as those who do not have small children.
■ Loss of the means to establish and maintain strong social networks through sharing.
■ Impact on belief systems that revere clean water and a clean environment.
■ Increase discord in and among villages.
“It’s a highly controversial issue because a lot is at stake, but from the standpoint of the people of the villages, no one stands to lose more if something were to happen to the salmon,” Boraas said.
Rashah McChesney is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.