SOUTHEAST ALASKA INDIGENOUS TRANSBOUNDARY COMMISSION
Protecting Tribal Lands and Waterways for Future Generations
Interview with Mr. Louie Wagner,
"History and connection to place are important in my family."
SEITC, September 26, 2018
I was born in Ketchikan 69 years ago, and have lived in Metlakatla, Alaska my whole life. Today, I serve
as the acting mayor of Metlakatla, when the Mayor is out of town; since 2000 I have been a member of
the 12-person Metlakatla Tribal Council.
History and connection to place are important in my family. On my mother’s side, I descend from the
original Tsimshian community that moved to Annette Island in the late 19th Century with the Reverend
William Duncan. My grandfather and great-grandfather, John and Rod Davis, were on the first canoes
with William Duncan, and helped to settle Metlakatla. They were boat builders. They built fishing
boats, trawlers, seiners, and row boats, and sold them throughout Southeast Alaska. Two of their boats
are in museums in Juneau today. From the maternal side of the family, I am a member of the Tlingit people, from the Bear Clan at Cape Fox Village, near Ketchikan, Alaska.
Our people go back thousands of years fishing on the Unuk River. My family has been the hereditary caretaker of the River going back thousands of years. As caretakers, our family’s crest can be seen marked on painted pictoglyphs at the mouth of the Unuk River, as well as at points upstream. The crest has been tested and is thousands of years old. It depicts a sun with rays; the bottom edge was rubbed off by ice, with the grooves still evident.
Since my childhood, my family has exercised our traditional rights to fish ooligan on the Unuk River. I first joined the trip to the River on a trawler when I was nine; I fished with my brother Walter Wagner and later, from when he was four years old, my son.
Today the federal government has recognized our rights to subsistence harvests here, though the fishery is co-managed by the State of Alaska under the subsistence fishery permits. It is in my role as caretaker of the Unuk that I harvested ooligan and brought them back to share with the community.
The voyage from Metlakatla to the River is a dangerous one. The waters are choppy, and weather can change dramatically on a dime. Once we have made it to the River, timing is everything. The ooligan run does not last very long, and so it is important to understand when the fish will arrive. After years of sitting out on the River, watching for the ooligan, I have the experience and the knowledge to sense when the ooligan are coming up the River.
When we know they are arriving, we use seine nets and float nets to harvest them. I especially like the float nets, because they allow us to fish without interfering with the spawning. We never take more ooligan than we need, always thinking about providing for the community while leaving a healthy population in a healthy River.
Returning home with thousands of pounds of ooligan in the hold, we would stop in Ketchikan. The radio
would announce our arrival, bringing folks to the docks to pick up their ooligan and deliver it to their
families. A line would stretch from the dock past the Salvation Army blocks away. Once we finished in
Ketchikan, we returned home to Metlakatla. When the ooligan were delivered in Metlakatla the whole
town would look like it was on fire, because every smokehouses would be fired up smoking ooligan.
Our return from the River with ooligan marked the start of Spring, and was a special time for the
community. The ooligan we brought to Ketchikan and Metlakatla would be smoked, and then would
help sustain our livelihoods. It also tied communities together—not only those of Ketchikan and
Metlakatla, but also our ties with other Native communities in Southeast, with whom we could exchange gifts of smoked ooligan for their regional foods. These are ties that allow us to stay in touch and to support each other.
The federal U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior’s Federal Subsistence Board have
recognized the Unuk ooligan as a subsistence fishery, but our access to it has been interrupted recently.
In 2004, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game decided to close the Unuk to subsistence ooligan fishing
after they determined low returns to the drainage.
Until the mines above the Canadian border the ooligan returned every year. Clear and cold water is what they need to spawn. If they don't find their needs in the Unuk River they travel to another stream river creek. They are not tied to their river beds as the salmon are. That's what's been happening. They are no way gone for good. In recent years, we have seen the ooligan come back in greater numbers, and I believe that whatever was hurting the Unuk ooligan has subsided and that the returns are back.
Together with members of the community, I have been in discussions with the Department to have the fishery re-opened, though it has been a struggle — and one in which I do not believe Native interests have been given due respect. This has hurt our community.
While we work to make the reopening of the Unuk ooligan fishery, and even after it is reopened, we
remain highly protective of the River. When I first fished the Unuk in 1962, there were no other people
or planes there. The flats were full of geese, mallards, swans, and other birds.
Today, the birds and wildlife in general are not as common as they once were. King salmon returns have been lower and the salmon smaller. Now there are only sixteen to eighteen-pound king salmon. I am severely concerned
that while we continue advocating the reopening of the subsistence ooligan fishery, any additional
stresses—no matter how minor—could ruin our efforts and derail our goals to open this fishery back up
to the community.
Our community is already engaged in a struggle to preserve our traditions and our way of life. The last
thing we need is two more threats in the form of the Kerr-Sulpheretts-Mitchell and Brucejack Mines. I
fear, and my community fears, that these mines could poison the River and prevent us from ever
returning to fish on the Unuk.