Paddles dip in and out of the water in concert, building power and propelling a canoe forward through the blue waters. A crowd gathers on the shore. Friends, neighbors, visitors; the scene is colorful and the hum of conversation fills the air. Drumming, singing and speeches greet the voyagers as they land on Sheet'ká Ḵwáan. The canoe is lifted from the water and leads a parade of hundreds, stopping traffic in downtown Sitka. The Alaska Native Brotherhood Camp #1, the home of a movement fighting for the civil rights and land rights of all Native people, stands with doors open, ready to receive the multitude. People stream in, snacks and drinks are served and a palpable feel of community settles over the room. Branches covered with glistening herring eggs pulled from the sea that day are piled high on the stage for all to admire. The people of the Point House welcome their guests.
The Honor the Herring Koo.eex’ has begun.
Koo.eex’ means “to invite.” It’s a Tlingit ceremony that honors the ancestors, the relationships and the history of the Tlingit people. It can be an occasion of both mourning and celebration. At this Koo.eex’, guests from Sitka, Kake, Juneau, Wrangell, Angoon, Hoonah, Yakutat and elsewhere took the time to connect, learn, and honor the sacred relationship the Tlingit people have with the herring and the role they play in our way of life - haa kusteeyi.
The herring nourish the whales, the salmon, the seals, and all the foods the Tlingit people have eaten since time immemorial. The return of the herring to the waters in the spring signals the change of season from the dark winter to the light of spring. It is a time of rebirth, but in recent years the joy has sometimes been subdued.
Herring spawns outside of Sitka, which once blanketed the sound from shore to shore, are now often sparse or scattered. Sitka is the final stronghold for Southeast Alaska’s herring, the epicenter for a revered and once abundant staple food from the Gulf of Alaska to the Bering Sea. Herring populations, present for thousands of years, have crashed, possibly due to some combination of overfishing, changing climate conditions and other factors we don’t understand. Even here, where the herring continue to spawn, people struggle to harvest enough herring eggs. Nevertheless, subsistence harvesters in Sitka work to provide eggs to family and friends across the state. Sitka is also home to the last remaining commercial sac-roe herring fishery in Southeast Alaska.
A Koo.eex’ centered on the relationship between people and another species is rare, but the party that took place on April 6th, 2019 was the second of its kind in Sitka in as many years.
In January 2018 more than 200 people gathered together at a Koo.eex’ hosted by the Kiks.ádi and the Herring Rock Water Protectors, a group of local activists and friends who are concerned about the wellbeing of the herring - the yaaw - in Sitka and beyond. This first gathering affirmed the importance of the herring and built energy to support the decades long effort by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and the Tlingit people to protect this keystone species. The Alaska Board of Fish (BOF), the state body that sets the rules for subsistence and commercial fisheries, was invited; four of its seven members attended.
The next day, the BOF annual meeting began, and Koo.eex’ guests showed up to testify in support of Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s herring management proposals. Traditional ecological knowledge was shared. Science from the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Natural Resource Department and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) was presented. At one point, the recorded voices of elders who have since walked into the forest rang out in the auditorium. It was deeply sad and powerful to hear the warnings from twenty years back of a herring population at risk.
All told, nearly 100 community members engaged in the public process (some for the first time!) to speak out in support of herring conservation, expanded subsistence protections, and indigenous rights. Other voices were raised, primarily from the commercial sector, that stressed the economic importance of the sac-roe fishery, supported the existing ADF&G management model, and expressed confidence in the sustainability of the herring population.
At the end of the week, all but one proposal from the Sitka Tribe of Alaska failed. The primary conservation proposal, which would have changed the commercial quota from a maximum of 20% of the herring biomass to a maximum of 10%, was rejected. However, the BOF did adopt a proposal to expand the subsistence-only area in Sitka Sound, a measure recommended by subsistence harvesters to decrease stress on the herring from the sac-roe fishery and hopefully result in better spawn deposition in areas more accessible to community members.
The BOF meeting drew to a close and Sitkans waited for spring and the return of the herring. Ultimately, it was a quiet year. Subsistence harvesters struggled to find eggs and the commercial fishery caught only 2,798 tons of the 11,128 ton quota. This was the fourth time in six years the herring fishery has shut down before meeting the guideline harvest level. ADF&G managers said the average size of the herring was inadequate for market and that the herring schooled too deep for the fleet.
Fast forward to 2019, and the movement to honor the herring continues.
Oral accounts dating back further than written records document Sheet'ká Ḵwáan as a gathering place for relatives to come share in the bounty of herring eggs. Visitors would land their canoes at Ghajáa Héen (Old Sitka) and dress in their regalia after which they would make the last leg of the journey to Aaya Aak’w (Japonski Island) for a traditional welcome from the local Sheet'ká Ḵwáan clans. This year’s Honor the Herring Koo.eex’ was meant as a renewal of these traditional travels and was timed to coincide with the hoped for return of the herring.
The Nature Conservancy brought community members from across Southeast Alaska to Sitka to participate in the symbolic canoe voyage and to exchange ecological, policy and cultural knowledge about the relationships between local communities and the herring.
The Koo.eex’ was an act of sovereignty, culture, and community building. Relationships were strengthened, connections with the natural world were reaffirmed, and power built. This spirit of collaboration and shared learning was reflected by the hosts of the event - the Kiks.ádi, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and the Herring Rock Water Protectors standing together - and in the invitations, which were made to the community at large, Tlingit and non-Tlingit people alike. Local organizations including the Alaska Native Sisterhood, Sustainable Southeast Partnership, and Sitka Conservation Society also supported the event.
The party began in the morning and continued late into the night. Neighboring clans offered regalia, masks, dances and songs to provide balance and share strength with the Kiks.ádi. Speeches were made, dinner was shared, clan objects were dedicated, names were given, and fire dishes, including gifts that had been made by community members over the course of several months, were presented to guests. At the end of the ceremony, Eagles and Ravens alike danced with bags of herring eggs held high over their heads giving thanks to each other and to the herring for sustaining this place and this way of life.
Shortly after the weekend of the Koo.eex', ADF&G announced that the commercial herring fishery would not be opened at all this year, due to the small size of the fish. We are all looking ahead to see what tidings next spring will bring.
We are deeply grateful for the opportunity to learn from one another and to build authentic relationships based on respect for our shared love of this place. Thank you to every person and every organization that made this gathering possible. It was a powerful experience, one that we hope to repeat again and again.
The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a participating member of the Nature Conservancy Emerald Edge program that facilitates community exchanges for learning between coastal communities.