Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront

We protect our species because it’s our way of life | Mellisa Maktuayaq Johnson

November 18, 2022 Season 2 Episode 8
We protect our species because it’s our way of life | Mellisa Maktuayaq Johnson
Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront
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Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront
We protect our species because it’s our way of life | Mellisa Maktuayaq Johnson
Nov 18, 2022 Season 2 Episode 8

Join us for this season’s final episode! I speak with Mellisa Maktuayaq Johnson, who grew up with a subsistence way of life in Nome, Alaska and is now the government affairs and policy director at the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Tribal Consortium. Mellisa shares her story which includes the landscapes of the Bering Sea region, the seasonal cycles of following the fish, and her experiences incorporating traditional foods in Tribal health care. Mellisa highlights the importance of working together and involving Indigenous peoples in fishery management systems as climate change continues to impact Indigenous holistic ways of life.

Show Notes Transcript

Join us for this season’s final episode! I speak with Mellisa Maktuayaq Johnson, who grew up with a subsistence way of life in Nome, Alaska and is now the government affairs and policy director at the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Tribal Consortium. Mellisa shares her story which includes the landscapes of the Bering Sea region, the seasonal cycles of following the fish, and her experiences incorporating traditional foods in Tribal health care. Mellisa highlights the importance of working together and involving Indigenous peoples in fishery management systems as climate change continues to impact Indigenous holistic ways of life.

Alliyah Lusuegro

Welcome to Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront. This is a podcast series of recorded interviews and stories about the impacts of climate change on marine fisheries, as told by the people who spend their days catching, managing and researching fish from the ocean. In today’s episode we talk to Mellisa Maktuayaq Johnson who resides in Anchorage, Alaska and is the government affairs and policy director at the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Tribal Consortium. I'm Alliyah Lusuegro and this is a production of Ocean Conservancy.

Hello and welcome to the last episode of season two. I cannot believe we’re here, eight episodes in. We are officially tying a ribbon around the Fish & Us podcast for the moment. It’s been a wild ride and hugely successful. I am so happy.

Make sure to read my latest blog on the Ocean Conservancy website to see what I’ve taken away from two awesome seasons of Fish & Us. In short, I loved connecting with all of my guests. Thank you. And I learned a lot about fisheries from each of you. And to my audience tuning in, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your support and listening to these stories.

In this episode, I speak with Mellisa, who is amazing. Mellisa is Iñupiaq born and grew up in Nome, Alaska with family and community in subsistence fishing. She is now based in Anchorage and works with Tribes, federal agencies, and other government officials as the government affairs and policy director at the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Tribal Consortium. I loved talking about Indigenous foods with Mellisa and hearing how salmon is holistically integrated into her way of life and who she is ever since she was a baby.

Let’s dive right in.

Mellisa Maktuayaq Johnson

So my Iñupiaq name is Maktuayaq. My English name is Mellisa Johnson. I'm originally from the community of Nome, Alaska, and I have family all throughout the Bering Strait region. 

And I grew up with my grandparents. They lived a very subsistence way of life, literally the day after school got out in May, the next day my grandmother had us all packed and ready to go, spending almost the next four months going to our different fish camps and following, you know, following the fish.

And so we spent a lot of time setting out net, pulling the nets in. She did the majority of the work because I was still a little child. But yeah, she would cut the fish, hang the fish, dry the fish, watch the fish.


All about the fish.


Yeah, it's all about it is actually all about the fish. We did other, you know, gathering of other foods and she did a lot of other hunting. But it was all about the fish cycle all the way into the latter part of August. So it's May through almost September that we were following different fish at our four different campsites.

So. So, yeah, and I'm a proud mother of three. I also work on revitalizing with others the Iñupiaq language and yeah pretty much a little bit about me.


That's great. Thank you so much for that intro. So you mentioned Nome, Alaska, as where you grew up, and that’s your home. Could you tell us more about Nome, Alaska? Maybe where it is in Alaska? And also, if you could describe the landscape, the land, the characteristics of the place.


Yeah. So if you're one, if you're familiar with the state of Alaska, it Nome is on the Bering Sea coast. And it's kind of the northwest direction of the state.

So before the Typhoon Merbok came about, the landscape, you know, outside of Nome, you can pretty much travel about 15 minutes down the coast. And, you know, we have a beach and then on the other side we have tundra. So it's a combination of the two. If you travel a little bit north towards Teller, where one of our campsites were and still is, that's about a 70 mile distance, but it takes a little more than an hour and a half to drive because the road is not paved like in a regular city.

The population, you know, within Nome fluctuates definitely in the summer time it increases to about maybe eight to ten thousand people.

During the winter months, it goes down to about five thousand people. So it's a diverse melting pot, you know, as far as that. And then, of course, we have because we have the tundra, we have the opportunity to go hunting for different land species like moose, caribou. Within the river systems we have beaver. And then from the sea where, you know, where, assuming that the winter months provide a lot of ice.

We have an opportunity to be blessed with beluga whale, the bearded seal, the smaller spotted seals, walrus, so you know, a little combination. And then you throw in the different bird species. So we have, you know, a good mix of everything. 


Oh, I guess follow up question, what is the weather like? And I, I guess you said, like in the winter months, the population does decrease. So do people migrate for any reason?


Yeah. So our winter months begin around this time of year. The temperature does go, you know, below the freezing of 32 degrees. Right now we're in the mid-teens high of almost 30 degrees. And it continues to get colder as we progress into November, December, January. During our winter months, especially into December, it's literally like dark outside all day long.

And, but if the skies are clear then we lately we've had an opportunity of the Northern Lights, you know, showing their presence. So, you know, it provides a spectacular, you know, essence to the sky. And then usually during that time period, maybe maybe the latter part of it or some time in September is when folks, I guess, move out of town.

There still are gold miners that come in. So they may come, you know, during the beginning of the summer months, like around June-ish and come in, you know, hopefully get their prospects of gold. But, um, yeah, and that is the end of the Iditarod. So the Iditarod happens in March and so the beginning part of March. And so that is the last checkpoint. So it's the end of the Iditarod trail. 

And then for the summer months, you know, for us it's like the lower sixties, up to maybe 72-ish is our summer. And then again, so in December we have like no light, whereas in June it's light all day long.

You go to sleep, you go to sleep, the sun is up. You wake up, the sun is still up. So before opportunity, you know, to not sleep and, you know, like to experience that it's very beautiful. So. Yeah.


That's so cool. Thank you. Yeah, I know for sure my body is definitely dependent on when light comes in and when light comes out. So I would definitely be responsive to that environment. 

Yeah, thank you for describing that. And you said that the Bering Sea in the Bering Strait is the body of water that is there. Yeah. Could you describe your relationship with it? And in general, maybe what people's relationship is with that water?


Yeah. So the Bering Sea, it provides for a lot of marine ecosystem resources to, you know, the Indigenous people throughout the region. We actually have St. Lawrence Island which the two communities that are out there are Savoonga and Gambell so they are St. Lawrence Island Yup'ik people. And then to the south so you know, the south of southwest area in the Bering Sea are the Yup'ik and Cup'ik people and then you get into the Norton Sound, which is a little, it's still part of the Bering Sea.

But where we have a diverse mix of Yup'ik, some Athabaskan and then Iñupiaq people moving up to the coast from that area and yeah it's a huge diversity. Again the sea provides different fish species from salmon to king salmon, red salmon, silver salmon, chum salmon. Trout is also another fish species during the winter months. Cod is also another fish species. Halibut as well. 

And then our marine mammals like the spotted seal, the bearded seal, otherwise known as ugruk. So if you hear people say ugruk, they're referring to the bigger bearded seal. And then walrus and beluga whale. Occasionally on St Lawrence Island, they are still a whaling community.

So when the migration of bowhead whale happens, they may find, you know, depending on what their quota is, they may land bowhead whales in their community. 

And then we have different bird species throughout the region and again, different land mammal or land animal opportunities as well as we have a very short summer period where, you know, in the lower 48, like crops can grow all year round.

You know, like if you're able to buy lettuce and tomatoes and cucumbers and those types of things, whereas because of our shortened summer period along with the fish species, we're gathering or harvesting different foliage, I guess you can say, our fruits. So we have our tundra blueberries, our blackberries, our cranberries and our salmon berries are some of the foliage or fruits and vegetables that we're able to harvest.


That's amazing. Thank you for sharing more about that. 

And then I guess to go back to your intro and you talked about like from May to August about going to those fish campsites. Yeah. What was your personal experience with that? When did you start going to those camps? And also was that the first time you ever really encountered fish because it was like all about it and all around you. What was that like?


Yeah. So I recall going to our first fish camp, maybe around, you know, the age of kindergarten. I more than likely, with my parents and my grandparents went sooner as far as being exposed to dry fish. So my parents probably used it as a preservation. We would dry our fish on a drying rack and have cottonwood like a little bit of cottonwood to deter, you know, any insects.

But more than likely, my parents used one of the dry fish species as a teething. So, you know, if I was teething as a toddler you know, as a maybe nine month old to, you know, whenever all my baby teeth came in, more than likely that was one of the food sources that was used as a teething tool.

Yeah. So the earliest memory that I can recall that, you know, being exposed to fish was about kindergarten, you know, the age like five or six years old, growing with my grandmother and my grandfather and just going to fish camp. And, you know, we had a small boat. Like it's just like a little 18 foot lund boat with a small outboard motor and just going to set out our net and, you know, waiting a few hours.

So during the few hour wait is when we would go harvest greens or berries or roots, and then we'd come back to the net. And I recall being in the boat where my, where my grandparents were there and in my either my aunts or uncles also in the boat. So there's like, I don't know, 4 to 6 of us in the boat and we're just hauling in the net and get all these fish and then we go back to shore.

And my grandmother would just spend, you know, a few hours just cutting the fish and then hanging them to dry on her fish rack. So we would do that at our different campsites. Again following the fish because we didn't jar our fish like some people do or otherwise known as canning.

We just dried them naturally, you know, and yeah, and that was our, our food source throughout the winter months. It was kind of awkward to hear people talk about eating, you know, on a daily basis, maybe eating ground beef or chicken or pork chops. Like I didn't start eating those types of food on a regular until maybe about eighth grade.

So yeah, having our different dried fish and dried meat, you know, dried seal meat or caribou meat that was our food source.


Wow yeah. Thank you for talking about that. I particularly love that the dry fish was used for teething. That's really cool. I really love that. 

I would love to shift our conversation to where you are now. You got a degree in the last time we talked, you said in health care services. And I think that's amazing. And health care is vast from direct medical services to administration. So I was wondering what your interests were exactly in health care services and also what your involvement was?


Yeah. So I was blessed to serve the Alaska Native and American Indian population for 16 years in Tribal health care. Throughout that duration, I was working, as I previously mentioned, I'm a proud mother of three. So as a mother, I was also working full time and going to school full time to attain my Bachelors degree in Health Services Administration with a minor in Human Services.

And I graduated about 11 years ago from Alaska Pacific University with that degree and being in the healthcare field, I still found ways in communicating with our elders. So we don't call our older population, we don't call them seniors or older people, we call them elders. So throughout that timeframe, I was able to continue communicating with our elders and incorporating our Indigenous foods, whether it be bearded seal, salmon, halibut, berries into long term care settings. 

I reside here in Anchorage, the land of the Dena'ina people, I would work with one of the long term care facilities and provide a traditional Native food lunch. And one of the favorites was fish head soup, you know, so you would use the fish heads and the eggs and we would just make a simple soup and provide that to our elders to give them a taste of home. And we would also have it's called akutaq is the Iñupiaq word, but it's like a mixture of berries.

And if we have access to caribou fat, it is kind of grated like you see shredded cheese or grated cheese, and it’s whipped to the consistency of almost like frost, like a thinner version of frosting, almost like cool whip. So we would whip that and then fold in the berries, add a little bit of sugar for taste, you know, make sure that the sugar was, you know, kind of melted.

And so that would be the dessert. So we would have fish head soup, akutaq and then fried bread and whatever other Indigenous foods were contributed to these monthly luncheons. So I continued to work with our elders for seven years and doing elder care advocacy. And, it shifted into marine ecosystem advocacy where I'm at now.


Awesome. First of all, that sounds delicious. I'm a foodie and I would definitely love to try the fish head soup. I love fish so much and I know in my culture we have it like fried a lot in the Philippines. 

But like I also love yeah the thought of it being with soup and broth and yeah, like the desert too, with like the caribou fat whipped and with like, berries. That sounds amazing. I would definitely try that too. 

So you indicated where you are right now. Yeah. Could you please tell me more about the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Tribal Consortium where you are right now?


Yes. So I am currently the Government Affairs Policy Director with the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Tribal Consortium. It is encompassed of Kawerak, Incorporated, the Association for Village Council Presidents, otherwise known as AVCP, Tanana Chiefs Conference, which is also known as TCC and then the Yukon and Kuskokwim Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. So those organizations, they work with a total of 118 Tribes.

So I work with those organizations where we serve on those 118 Tribes here in Alaska on salmon preservation, salmon advocacy. And how can we work with our federal agencies like NOAA, like NMFS, like the North Pacific Fishery Management Council on salmon advocacy and also working with our other government officials like our governor into, you know, further into our political chain.

So as I began my story sharing that salmon, growing up as a young girl, salmon being our way of life, the last couple of years, we've had significant salmon declines that have affected our Indigenous people and their food security. So how can we work to provide protections in the Bering Sea? You know, as I mentioned, you know, Tanana Chiefs Conference, they’re mostly interior Alaska.

But what happens in the Bering Sea also affects those interior all the way into Canada. So it's not just a coastal issue.


Yeah. And about those salmon declines, I'm wondering if you could talk about the factors or the different causes or reasons why salmon is decreasing or going away, and moreover, how it's impacting livelihood. 


So one of the easiest areas that has been shared the last few years is climate change, you know, has impacted our ecosystem. That's one area. Coastal erosion because of climate change, you know, has impacted that. In addition I think it was in 2018 was when the cold pool or blanket was lifted and that kind of protected the Southern Bering Sea.

You know, it's like a barrier or an opportunity for different marine species to, you know, stay protected. So supposedly that shifted or lifted. And another huge area of concern has been bottom trawling. You know, the trawlers that are out in the Bering Sea, they're able to, you know, harvest whatever species they're going after. But in that mix is salmon and some of the salmon or a lot of the salmon species, for instance, the Chinook.

Chinook, or otherwise known as King Salmon, have not come back to our communities, have not come back to our rivers. And it's impacted, as I mentioned, our food security, but our Indigenous, holistic way of life. We utilize the whole salmon, you know, whether it be for soup or dried strips or dried fish or jewelry making, whether it be, you know, using the vertebrae of the king salmon or even the skin.

But it's sharing of that knowledge because we have had these significant declines. We're finding it harder to share our Indigenous knowledge to our younger generations and we've got to protect, you know, those waters that provide for our people. And because we have a holistic connection to our environment, it's hard for non-natives to understand that, you know, we don't protect our species for economic gain.

We protect our species because it's our way of life. You know, it's our connection to language, to our culture, to our dance, to our different craft making. And we also in those protections, it's also, you know, protecting other ecosystems that may rely on these different species. So it's not an economic factor that's you know, we don't look at it that way for monetary gain, I guess.


Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. I mean, I'm taking all of that in. And I wrote that down. “We protect our species because it's a way of life.” And that's very powerful. And that's just. 

Yeah, I want to go back to those two big words, climate change, and just want to ask how it shows up and its relevance in your work as a government affairs policy director and also like working with other bodies of fisheries management. How does it show up there and yeah, what are your thoughts on those threats? And also solutions and approaches?

And I know last time we talked you also brought up co-management and I'm wondering if you could talk more about that.


So we can see throughout the and not just, not just for the state of Alaska, not just for the Bering Sea, but we can see that the impacts of climate change are affecting everyone and how can we do better?

How can we make a little bit of change amidst these disarrays is to be involved in these management systems that make decisions on behalf of people, specifically for Indigenous people. Like I mentioned, it impacts our Indigenous way of life, our holistic way of life. It impacts our knowledge systems. So being involved in these management areas is a huge undertaking that, you know, we should be involved. And just working, you know, as far as co-management, you know, it's important that we continue to work together to preserve our marine ecosystem.

We've already seen examples of collapses occur, you know, in the Atlantic area. We don't want to have that same collapse happen here in the Bering Sea. And Indigenous people have always found ways to work with others, you know, and that's where co-management is. If we continue to work together and learn from each other, we can work to preserve the oceans that provide for people.

And I think if we were to shift a little away from, you know, our economic gain, it may, is not to say that it's the answer, but it may help preserve it, you know, a little bit longer. And the things that occur here within the Bering Sea, they don't just impact, you know, the Bering Sea coast into the Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers.

What happens in the Bering Sea also impacts other Indigenous people around the world. You know, it's not some people think that, oh, it's just focused in that area. No, we communicate on an international level with other Indigenous people where if we continue to, you know, go on the route that we're in, folks that are closer to the equator, other Indigenous people, their waters are rising.

So it's impacting their way of life. They're having more hurricanes or typhoons or whatever other words that are used to describe these storm systems. So we've got to work together. We've got to find remedies to again, to preserve our ecosystem and, you know, I think that's where being involved in these just being involved in these areas and being vocal, you know, you know, being vocal in in these management areas and sharing our voices, you know, it's it's important that we we continue to work together.

And, yeah, just trying to keep the preservation going, keep the knowledge base, you know, for our future.


Yeah. Protection and like caring about ourselves and people and our environment and like also moving forward into the future. I love that. 


Yeah I just want to thank you know, thank you for this opportunity to share one of many perspectives, you know, an Indigenous way of life, Indigenous way of being, and Indigenous way of doing things. You know, I am far from being an elder but it's what my elders have shared with me that have provided this space for our future and for, you know, for those who will listen to this, it's also providing an opportunity to to learn more about others.

You know, don't stay in the silo of your own little pot. Expand your pot, try the fish head soup, you know, learn how to make a craft from the salmon skin or the salmon vertebrae and, you know, continue to share with each other.


I absolutely love that. Expand your pot and try the fish head soup. I know I want to.

Thank you so much Mellisa for sharing your story with us, from your memories growing up around fish campsites all the way to your current vital work with Tribes and other partners on salmon advocacy and involving Indigenous peoples in fishery management systems. 

To our listeners, please keep on listening to Fish & Us on your favorite streaming platform and support us. Please help us get the word out on issues and stories around climate change and fisheries.  

This is Alliyah signing off, till next time.