SOUTHEAST ALASKA INDIGENOUS TRANSBOUNDARY COMMISSION
Protecting Tribal Lands and Waterways for Future Generations
INTERVIEW OF JOHN MORRIS, SR
Douglas Indian Association
SEITC, September 26, 2018
I am an elder in the Douglas tribe of the Taku People, a member of the Douglas Indian
Association’s Tribal Council. I also serve on the board of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous
Transboundary Commission. I descend from the Yanyeidí (Wolf/Eagle Moiety) people. My family has lived near and fished along the Taku River for generations and generations. Today, I am a tribal elder and a council member of the Douglas Indian Association, the federally recognized Indian tribe for the Tlingit People who came from Douglas Island, the Taku River and Stephens Passage shorelines. I have been a member of the tribal government on and off since 1982.
I was born in the Village of Douglas, Alaska, in 1940. I grew up in Douglas and spent a great
deal of time on the Taku River. Every year, until I was 15 years old, from May to October, my
family fished salmon for both commercial and subsistence purposes on the Taku River, using gill
and set nets. In the 1940s and 50s my family had a fish camp on the Taku Inlet, across from the
Taku Glacier. There were many, many other fish camps. Others from Douglas also spent time
on the River because we went where the fish were. My uncle had a fish camp on the Taku Inlet
where he put up a platform, and he raised a tent on it. He would stay there all summer long,
putting up salmon, smoking them, preparing them for the winter. I also hunted moose, geese,
ducks, and other game birds like grouse and ptarmigan in the River’s drainage.
The Taku River, and in particular its salmon harvests, provided everything my family and our
community needed. We hardly ever needed to come to town except maybe once a month just to
get flour and sugar, or coffee—everything else was provided for by the River and its surrounding
People of the Water
Today the USDA’s consumption guidelines for salmon set consumption rates at around 6
grams per day. In my community we consume salmon at far higher levels. Like the Haida and
Tsimshians, we Tlingits consider ourselves as people of the water. There is a saying in our
community that when the tide is out, the table was set. We harvest halibut, rockfish, and trout as
well as shellfish. But salmon is our staple—all fives species. To illustrate, when the Alaska
Juneau Mine started operating, and jobs became available, the Tlingits refused to work in the
mine because it was summer time, the time when we go catch salmon. Salmon is very, very
important to us. The first salmon to return to the River are the king salmon. When we were out
on the river fishing, the very, very first king salmon we caught, we would boil in salt water. And
after we had eaten it, we would return the bones to the River, as a ritual to keep the salmon
returning to the River. During the summer we were busy fishing and putting up that salmon,
canning it, smoking it, jarring it, finding all different ways to preserve it for winter use. It is a
very, very important part of our culture as well as our diet. Many people from our community
gillnet salmon, and share the harvest with the elders. Today, at 77 years old, I too am an elder in
the community. I still go up Taku River quite often, for example, three times last year alone. I
would not know what to do without my salmon.
The River is also important for social and communal ties. Everybody got along, and helped each
other out. I remember an instance in the early 1950s when a whale was tangled in one man’s
gillnet; my father and I joined him and helped cut the gear, free the whale, and then rounded up
others to help mend the net. We also tightened bonds with our brethren inland via the harvests.
My father and grandfather also told him about the trade routes up Taku River, into British Columbia, that were used in the wintertime, using sled dogs. They would take the salmon, smoked, into the interior, to trade with the First Nations for furs, which we then used for regalia. I remember my father travelling from the Taku River to Atlin, and into other communities in British Columbia, then returning by the Skagway route. We also shared the Taku River with the inland Tlingit First Nations, who would come from Atlin to use the Taku River for subsistence fishing. We worked with them closely. Harvests on the River were not only about catching fish—they were opportunities to look out for each other, to tie our people closer together.
Traditional subsistence harvest on the Taku is a way of life. It is central to our culture. We used
the river in many different ways: fishing, to access lands to hunt moose and other game, gather
berries—blueberries, salmonberries, raspberries, and strawberries. I was taught to respect the River
because it provided so much for us. We were taught never to mistreat the River and its watershed, always to leave it the way we found it. We never took anything more than we could use—fish, game, berries—and never wasted anything.
Once I was on the River with a member of the U.S. Forest Service; he asked me to point out sacred sites on the Taku River. I told him that this whole place is sacred. I imagine that all twenty tribal governments in Southeast Alaska share that feeling.
The City of Douglas burns the Village
My community has faced significant adversity in preserving our culture. In 1962, the City of
Douglas, found a loophole in their bylaws that allowed the City to condemn any dwelling
unoccupied for more than 30 days. As I mentioned, my community would leave the Village in
May to fish on the River until October. That year, while we were on the River, the City tacked
condemnation notices onto our houses; one by one, they burned each and every house, including
my family’s to make way for new harbor infrastructure that the City wanted. When we returned
to burned houses, the people of my Village were dispersed, each and every one going their own
way. We were never compensated for what happened, and the damage to our community cannot
My own subsistence uses also have been limited by the need for permits and other
regulatory requirements. I joined the military in 1960 and served until 1964. I always thought I
would return to fishing in Southeast Alaska. However, while I was gone, a new limited-entry
commercial fishing program was put in place under which I was disqualified from a permit for
salmon fishing on the River because I had not fished on the River for five consecutive years prior
to the application. Many of our people were affected similarly. Today, many of the fish permits
are bought out by commercial interests from the lower 48 states, mostly Washington and Oregon
fishing interests. I went into construction instead. I continued to fish when I returned, though
Today, I continue to return to the River to fish for salmon (I like to catch them before they hit
freshwater, and their fat content goes down) as well as halibut, and to access lands for deer
hunting, and for gathering berries. I still do it whenever I can.
Working to protect our culture and the Taku River
My community is working to protect our traditional culture, including our salmon harvests. In
Sitka the tribal government has developed a great program to distribute salmon to its elders.
They have acquired a boat run by an elder and two other people. They have a permit, using a
small seine, to catch salmon, then dress, clean, process the fish and distribute it to their elders.
My government, the Douglas Indian Association, is looking to institute a similar program.
In 2016, together with the U.S. Forest Service, my tribal government delineated a property upriver
on the Taku where we found old fish nets, pottery, old stove, old tin cups and plates, evidence
that this site was once a Taku Tlingit fishing community that included a school for 70 students.
We are in the process of seeking to acquire that property. We plan to create a cultural center to
educate the younger generation about who they are/their culture/respect of the land, respect of
the River, a place where carvers could work, and where we could take our young people to learn
about the Taku River, catching the salmon, showing them how to clean them, strip them, prepare
them for the smokehouse and smoke them, and can them—everything from start to finish. We’d
like to use a site a Point Bishop, at the mouth of the Taku Inlet.
We already hold a culture camp in the summer to teach these practices to our young people, in addition to teaching them about our land, as well as the Tlingit language, and the history of who they are. My granddaughter, for example, was educated in our program; she told me that she wanted to know who she was. We also hold meetings of elders and discuss how to bring up our young folks, because we don’t want them to lose our way of life, to lose touch with their Tlingit identity and our cultural ties to the River.
It is in this context that we worry about the development of a mine in the Taku River drainage.
We are not against economic development in Canada; we just want it done safely. The
reputation of mining industry, including in Canada, is not good. That is where our concerns are.
The transboundary rivers provide salmon for people, not just for Southeast but also in British
Columbia and the Canadian local tribes. We share those waters. Salmon have to have good,
clean water. Our concerns are to keep those waters safe for our community today, and for future