For Louise Brady, herring are more than just fish that spawn in Sitka Sound each spring.
They are a way of life to the Tlingit people, who have been harvesting herring eggs since time immemorial.
“It’s not our job to make money off of herring,” she said. “It is our job to live in harmony, to live with the environment. We have to understand that we are no different, no better than the fish we are eating, the herring eggs I am eating. It’s a holistic way of looking at things.”
Brady is Kiks.adi from Sheet’ka (Sitka, Alaska). Women in her lineage are known as “Herring Women” for their relationship with the herring going back thousands of years.
“The western world, western philosophy, history, the whole paradigm, involves separating and putting everything in silos. The people are here, the salmon are over there, herring over there, forest over there. And that is a difference between the indigenous way of looking at the world,” she said. “In this world, we don’t believe we are better than, we don’t believe we are separate from, we believe we are part of.”
Whereas herring runs have historically been plentiful, today they are under serious threat and have been steadily declining for two decades.
“In less than a hundred years, much of it is now gone,” Brady said. “It’s like the buffalo of our coast.”
In response to this crisis, Brady has dedicated herself to fighting for herring stewardship that values herring for its cultural and ecological importance in Tlingit Aani.
She co-founded an activist group called Herring Rock Water Protectors, and has held Herring Koo.eex’ — a potlatch and community gathering — the last several years to honor the herring and revitalize the koo.eex’ practice.
“We must start defining success as how respectful we are to the vulnerable, to our children and grandchildren,” she said. “That is what motivates me to work on herring, to dedicate decades to working on social issues.”
Read our full interview with Louise below!
Q: So climate change can feel big and vague, but how is climate change impacting you and your family already?
Louise: I have noticed it. I was born and raised here, and some of the changes I’ve noticed looking around in Sitka Sound, there was hardly ever a time I remember that the Pyramid Mountains here were ever without snow. Same with Mount Edgecumbe, L’ux. It is so strange seeing them without snow most of the time. With the fish, even though Sheet’ka was not a part of the extreme drought, there was still a lack of rain, and there have been several times in the last decade when the salmon have not been able to run because there isn’t enough water. And that affects the people, it affects the fish, it affects the bear, and they all have ripples across each other’s communities. Just looking at the situation we’re having with the herring, take a look at other issues, practically closing down the king salmon fishery, these are connected and we are having to learn to be conservative in our relationships, in our management, in every area. This is a delicate time we are in with climate change. And that includes especially the herring because they are essential to the bounty we enjoy.
Q: Climate change isn’t something that just happened last year. It’s been ongoing, and it will continue to go on. So how is your community adapting to these changes already, and how will it continue adapting forward?
Louise: Some people might not think that herring could be so interconnected with climate change, but we know that they are. We know that their spawning is tied to the spring algae blooms, that the herring kick off the annual cycles of whales and sea lions and salmon and people, but western science doesn’t understand and doesn’t try to understand those relationships. All western science asks is “What is the maximum sustained “yield” we can extract?” They measure herring in tons instead of in their place in our communities.
We don’t know what this year will bring, what next year will bring. Extreme drought? Late freezes? We don’t know any more. So we have to acknowledge that climate change is real and we have to be conservative. It’s interesting, a few of our own elders don’t acknowledge climate change as a real threat. And I think that is partially leftover from old fights from ANCSA (Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act) between environmentalists and the village corporations. But we need to move on. That was in the past, and now we need to work together. That’s part of the adaptation. In the past, my community has been divided, Native, white, Filipino. But something we’ve been doing here, partially through the herring koo.eex, is bringing everyone together to the same table, making sure everyone has a voice, to keep our way of life alive.
Q: That is really beautiful because you are framing adaptation as something that brings people together and is stronger and better in every way than the status quo. And that stands in contrast to some of the climate austerity models that have been put forward, that this will be doom and gloom and sacrifice. It’s a much more compelling argument that not only can we do this, but we can come out stronger and more unified on the other side. So what do you think Alaskans can learn about responding to climate change from indigenous leadership?
Louise: So, a great example is the recent Just Transitions Conference where a diverse group from across the state came together in an indigenous driven context. And we’ve been here for thousands of years, and we figured out how to make it work, to have our clans and our cultures, to live with the land and the ocean that didn’t deplete “resources.” We were able to share with each other. I hear how plentiful our fisheries used to be, herring and salmon, back in the 1800s. And the records say 1,000 people would gather in Sitka to gather those herring eggs. That blows my mind! And it stayed that plentiful right up until western capitalism came in and took over. And then in less than a hundred years, much of it is now gone. It’s like the buffalo of our coast.
Q: I love what you’re doing with the concept of the Herring Koo.eex’, breathing new life into a practice that was literally outlawed for decades, and also inviting people from outside your culture to learn from the koo.eex’. The koo.eex’ deserves its own article, but how do you think the recent Herring Koo.eex’ can serve as a model for community climate change adaption?
Louise: Well, I think the western world, western philosophy, history, the whole paradigm, involves separating and putting everything in silos. The people are here, the salmon are over there, herring over there, forest over there. And that is a difference between the indigenous way of looking at the world. In this world, we don’t believe we are better than, we don’t believe we are separate from, we believe we are part of. But with society being so capitalistic, too much gets categorized into profit.
The koo.eex’, as handed down to us in our original instructions, our oldest stories, is the way that we get back to understanding that we are part of the ecosystem. It’s not our job to make money off of it. It is our job to live in harmony, to live with the environment. We have to understand that we are no different, no better than the fish we are eating, the herring eggs I am eating. It’s a holistic way of looking at things. And the Koo.eex’ helps build that. It helps building community not just between Natives and non-Natives, but with other species. And with that, it becomes more difficult to exploit the world and much easier to live in harmony with it. That is the hope.
Q: What would you say to elected leaders like Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy or U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski about addressing climate change?
Louise: I would tell them to take a good hard look at how we define success. We must stop defining success by how much money we make, how big a car or a house we own, or how big our retirement is. Although I should start working on my own! And we must define success as how we contribute to our community. And first we must understand how we are in community. I think it must be very easy to lose touch when you’re in the governor’s mansion, or in D.C., with what our communities mean. We must start defining success as how respectful we are to the vulnerable, to our children and grandchildren. That is what motivates me to work on herring, to dedicate decades to working on social issues. I really want a better life for my grandchildren. And it is heartbreaking, it’s heartbreaking, to think that my grandchildren might not have the same opportunities to understand what it means to be Tlingit in Sheet’ka, which means to celebrate the coming of the herring, to share in their bounty with your mother and sisters and cousins, and also to share something back with the herring. Our celebration of life on Tlingit Aaní.