By Emma Teal Laukitis of Salmon Sisters
Before we were born, our mom and dad bought a homestead on Western Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. The place was remote—across the bay from a small native Aleut village—but alone on the tundra and surrounded by sea. Stonewall Place, and its proximity to fishing grounds seemed a siren’s call to our young parents on their first married adventure. Salmon were swimming through the pass and into fishermen’s nets. Our parents set out to catch their first fish.
With the influx of money from their first salmon seasons, raising children became feasible. My sister was born before the first Area M season opener in 1990, and I joined her a year later.
Stonewall Place taught us about survival. Survival was possible with subsistence and self-sustainability. The four of us depended on water to power our waterwheel, driftwood for warmth, and the ocean for food. Our home was isolated, our family insular. We grew strong as an entity—by enduring together and fishing together.
We learned very young that salmon were to be respected. Our mom taught my sister and me to weave mats out of long beach grass. These mats became beds for two sides of a salmon, filleted with a beach-found mussel shell. We honored the first fish we caught each summer with a prayer and eagle down in our dandelion-blonde hair. We treat the salmon with respect. My dad taught us that when we send the salmon’s remains back to the sea, they tell the others to swim to our nets.
The smell of salmon became our own. When we skiffed across the pass to the village for groceries and mail, the postmistress sniffed at us from across the counter. My mom set down a bag of her smoked salmon, the source of our smell, on a book of stamps. We sent packages of smoked strips in the mail to our relative in the Lower-48, a gesture of the most-sincere love from the sea.
Salmon fishing was our first paying job and early source of entertainment. Too young to be of real use, my sister and I were put to work sliming with butter knives the king salmon our dad brought home for our mom’s smokehouse. While she filleted and brined the fish, we dissected and tasted and squealed. Not many years later, we were Grundens-clad crew on the back deck of our dad’s boat, the Lucky Dove.
Our family moved to the more populated and less remote town of Homer, for the winters when my sister and I were old enough to require real schooling. We were timid and uncertain away from the wild Aleutians. But there was already a common language forming between us and a freckled girl from a fish camp in Ugashik, a brother and sister from an Area M drifter, the spirited daughter of a Dillingham setnetting family. Together we were children of a seasonal tradition, returning with our families each summer in search of salmon, the fish that sustained us and defined our collective lives.
We saved our crew shares through high school. Our mom helped us open bank accounts, and our dad emphasized the importance of financial independence. They encouraged my sister and me to put the money we saved toward college tuition.
We were excited about college, but uncertain. Our family didn’t come from prestige. We had gaps in our education from homeschooling in bush Alaska. We read about colleges in a hand-me-down catalog and dog-eared pages with scores for social life and selectivity, and imagined brick buildings and falling leaves on crisp fall days. It all seemed a world away. When it came time to write the application essays, though, we realized that we did, at least, have a story. And where did this story come from? The life that salmon had given us, that we would return to each summer throughout our time at college.
When we arrived on the East coast, we found ourselves a curiosity, and soon grew to feel proud to be from Alaska. We were proud of our fishing community back home, who we knew to be hard-working and humble stewards of the wild places where we worked. We developed a new admiration for the life we’d left behind, specifically the fishing culture that seemed obsolete or old-fashioned on this other coast.“We were proud of our fishing community back home, who we knew to be hard-working and humble stewards of the wild places where we worked.” “It was hard to explain our love for salmon.”
It was hard to explain our love for salmon. We were surrounded by people who regarded commercial fishing as an antiquated, borderline, barbaric occupation. “How can you say you love salmon when you kill so many of them?”
We swore that it was a ridiculous question, but we didn’t know how to answer it yet. I watched how salmon and our lifestyle commercial fishing gave purpose to my studies. In the art studio I witnessed my hands roll a whole thawed salmon from my freezer in ink and print it onto butcher’s paper. I felt the way my writing always turned back to some reference to the sea. I couldn’t deny the relief my body felt when I ate a jar of smoked salmon my mom had sent, on the worst day of finals, with a fork in the library. The other jars were saved as incentive for completing the hardest rowing practices and the latest nights loading the boat trailer. Salmon gave strength to my body, contributing to four of my team’s consecutive NCAA rowing championships.
I felt an intense urge to defend the smell and taste of real salmon when I found something called salmon in the college dining hall. That meal of farmed fish baked in refried beans and coffee grounds lacked the familiar sensations of healing and strength, the immediate transfer of energy from fish to human, to which I was accustomed.
Through college my sister and I returned to the Aleutians in the summers to fish. One slow day on the back deck we dreamed up a business based on our love for the ocean and our fishing lifestyle called Salmon Sisters. While in Italy studying at art school, I learned how to screen print and started creating the designs that would become our business’s first products. Five years later, we are still proud to see people around our state and country wearing our apparel and proudly supporting Alaska’s sustainable fisheries.
The truth is, we are enchanted with salmon, and with the community that fishes for them. We celebrate the number of strong women who run their own boats and working on deck. They inspire us with their callused hands, their wind-blown salty hair, and the passion they hold in their hearts for the work they do on the water.
Salmon have given all Alaskans a common language, a set of values, something to believe in and hope for (at the very least, a strong salmon run). Salmon have kept our family close, physically on our forty-eight foot boat, but also bonded by a fierce connection to the ocean. Salmon have provided us with an education, have given direction to our work, have offered us physical strength, and have been the single thread woven through our friends and our community. Salmon have given us something to work for, to hope for, and to defend.
How do we repay salmon for all they have given us? We catch her and we eat her with gratitude. We acknowledge the fragility of the balance we keep with our marine ecosystem and natural abundance it provides.
When summer comes each year, we will continue honoring the fish we catch. Our family, in the tradition of Alaskan fishermen, will remain resourceful, humble, and cognizant of our responsibilities. We believe in salmon with our spirits, hearts, and health. You have provided us, Swimmer, with the tools for a rich and rewarding life.
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