The Unuk River, Joonáx̱, runs from the coastal mountains of British Columbia into the marine waters of Alaska’s Inside Passage. Members of the Saanya Kwaan have been the hereditary caretakers of the Unuk River for thousands of years.
UNUK RIVER TESTIMONIES
LOUIE WAGNER, JR
SAANYA KWAAN, TEIKWEIDI
"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 near Wrangell, Southeast Alaska, 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 [eulachon] on the Unuk River."
— Louie Wagner, Jr
Unuk River pictoglyph. Credit: Louie and Tazia Wagner
Interview with SEITC
May 15, 2023
My name is Louie Wagner, Jr. I was born in Ketchikan and lived my 75 years in Metlakatla. I’m Teikweidi from the Saanya Kwaan, Cape Fox Brown Bear clan from my mother's side. Her grandmother was Lucy Denny from Saxman.
The Unuk River is marked with a petroglyph of the sun, down below mean low water on the bluff on the north side. I have pictures of my children up by the petroglyphs. There's a second one on Lake Creek, 15 to 20 miles upriver where we hunt moose and fish trout. It's a little bit harder to see, but is still there. They mark the river that belongs to my family.
The fishing of the hooligan has been handed down through time. I started fishing for the hooligan with my oldest brother, Bert May, who began in mid- to late forties. With my own boat I started in the sixties. Things were good back then and we were allowed to continue fishing for hooligan, as we always have done. We were managing it ourselves by taking only what we needed.
Then they started regulating what we could take, and nobody was managing the river. In the later part of the 1990s, the hooligans started disappearing. They would go into other streams, not show up, then show up again. The state wanted to do a limited entry on the fishery. I argued against it and attended the Federal Subsistence Board in the Southeast. Hooligan is the people's fish. They come once a year and there's only so much here.
We got what we put on the table approved and were allowed to continue harvesting and co-managing the fishery, as we always have done under the customary and traditional ways. Bill Thomas said it would take an act of Congress to change it.
We went up in 2001 and brought back around 20,000 pounds of hooligans. The people were happy and had lined up all the way to the street from the dock. Martha Johnson was there. When we arrived, she said, “hit it!” and her dance group sang in Tlingit. The way they sang was beautiful, it sounded really great that evening we got in. Everyone was happy.
Springtime hooligan fishing on the Unuk. Credit: Louie Wagner
Unuk River petroglyph. Credit: Louie Wagner
I go up there two to three times a year: in the spring for hooligans and in the fall to hunt moose. It's still our sovereign right to do what we've always done and the people look forward to it.
I would like to get back up there with my family. It's always been with family. I brought my son, Louie Wagner III, when he was four years old. He would keep going over to the edge to see the fish. I would tie a line on him and let him get just on the edge, so that if he fell over, I could pull him back.
My granddaughter, Tazia Wagner and I went up this spring. We got water samples, because it is important to collect them before the mines get into full operation. The river is so shallow, just four to six inches in the springtime, that it can't sustain any extra runoff. And it has made a big difference how there are virtually no glaciers up there to melt now.
My mother's grandmother has a story about when they were up there, people used to come down from Canada to trade for the hooligans and grease with what we call esh-berries in Tsimshian (soap berry).
Lucy Denny told my mother that they called them “stick indians” because they came out of the woods — the sticks. I always remember that. She had told this same story to my oldest brother. That’s why he started to go up the river and take over and bring the hooligans home. It’s been handed down and we've never, never given it up.
LOUIE WAGNER, JR
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.
HEREDITARY CARETAKERS OF THE RIVER
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.
HOOLIGAN MARKS THE START OF SPRING
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 smokehouse 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.
HIGHLY PROTECTIVE OF THE RIVER
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 more threats in the form of the Eskay Creek, KSM and Brucejack. I fear, and my community fears, that these mines could poison the river and prevent us from ever returning to fish on the Unuk.
MR. WILLARD JACKSON, SR
"I'm here on behalf of my children and grandchildren, in regards to our sacred land." Filmed at a SEITC meeting in Ketchikan in March 2023, Mr. Willard Jackson Sr talks about the Teikweidí clan's origins and deep ties with the Unuk River. Mr. Jackson is the oldest member of the Teikweidí Brown Bear clan from the Tongass Tribe.
WILLARD JACKSON, SR
TEIKWEIDI BROWN BEAR
March 15, 2023
We need to know who we are and where we came from, to understand where we're going. It’s an old traditional value that was taught to us. Life today is not the same, but let’s not forget who we are and where we came from.
My name is Willard Jackson, Sr. I am the oldest Teikweidí Brown Bear from the Tongass Tribe. I'm 75 years old. My Tlingit name is Tleiwaan and it means ‘honorable one’.
I’m here on behalf of my children and grandchildren in regard to our sacred land and the boundaries we have between Canada and Alaska Native people. Those boundaries were never in existence, but for some reason we have them today.
WE CAME OUT OF THE UNUK
Stories of our history tell us, we came out of the major rivers, and one of them was the Unuk. When we came out of the Unuk, we left petroglyphs. On the Unuk, you can feel the ancestors. They're still there.
As you look up to your left and pull up the kelp on a minus tide, you'll see the petroglyphs. One of them was the Sun. The Sun feeds us, the Sun warms us. It sustains a lot of for us. It's not a worship idol. We are just recognizing it. Everything, everything in this world has a spirit.
UNUK RIVER, A LIFELINE
The Unuk River is a lifeline, a trail we emerged from after the Great Flood. The Bible talks about 40 days and 40 nights of rain. We talk about the glaciers melting in what was then the territory of Alaska. When everything was melting, all Tribes that were living on the coast here (Southeast Alaska), whether they were Haida, Tlingit or Tsimshian, merged up back into Teslin in Canada. We were back there for generations.
When the major rivers, such as the Unuk, thawed, they left big holes. We emerged through them beneath the ice. We came out as the Tongass Tribe, Teikweidí Brown Bear Tribe and got our piece of land. There was no arguing or fussing or fighting over it. We just came up on the land and we built our village. The traditional land is still there.
The Unuk River is a lifeline for us. That's why we came out — to sustain life again, on the water. Tlingit people are water people. Born, bred and live on the water. We say, “when the tide is out, our table is set.” Hooligan grease was what we used for our way of life. To keep us alive. We still get it, but it's not like it used to be. It's very limited and it comes at a great cost now. There was a grease trail that went out of Southeast Alaska right into Canada. We would walk that trail for the hooligan grease.
The Unuk River is being eroded by mining and spillage now. There are no more hooligans in that river.
THE TREE PEOPLE
This is a story of the Tree People. It’s a story about the beginning of time.
The Tree People came to the Tribes when the world was first created, and were sitting around a fire with the Tribal leaders and Elders and grandmothers, discussing how to get planted on the mountains.
The mountains were all rock at the time. One of the grandmothers had a granddaughter with her. She grabbed her robe and started pulling on it and said, “grandma, I’ve got an answer, grandma!” Grandma shook her away. She told her to go away.
The first two trees went up on the mountain. They firmly put their roots out, grasped Mother Earth. But the wind brought them down, so they came back to sit by the fire. They started discussing it some more. The little girl would not give up. She pulled on her grandma’s robe, “grandma, grandma, I’ve got an answer.” Grandma said, “go away, go away.”
They sent three trees up the mountain. They firmly grasped Mother Earth and the rock on the mountain. The wind, the rain and the snow brought them down, so they came back. They started discussing it some more. The little girl would not give up. She pulled on her grandma’s robe. “grandma, grandma, I’ve got an answer.”
Grandma finally gave in. She said, “I’ll let my granddaughter say what she has on her heart”. Little girl went right up by the fire and started talking to the Elders and the clan leaders. This is what she said:
“Let’s all go up on the mountain with the Tree People. Let’s all hold hands until we can firmly grab Mother Earth.”
And that is what we are doing today. We're firmly grabbing hands with one another so we can get a better grip on what's taking place here.
This is not for me. This is not for the people that are here. This is for the ones to come: our grandchildren and children. I'm not walking this journey by myself. I'm not walking in front of you or behind you. I'm walking right beside you. We need to do this together.
Yee gu.aa yáx x'wán. Enter without fear. Continue going in a straight line.
July 31, 2023
As a little girl, my great grandmother and grandmother from my father’s side told me that I needed to talk about our people just as they taught me. "Never forget who you are," they said. My father was of the Teikweidi brown bear clan. We are the Saanya Kwaan People and the first peoples to move down to the Unuk River.
We started staying right by the upper Unuk. Most of my ancestors continued to a waterfall, where they left pictographs. Those markings give a distinction of a people that were always there. As more families arrived in the area, there wasn’t enough food and space for everyone, so started moving further south. The Taant’a Kwaan came down the Unuk as well, according to my great grandmother and grandmother.
Once the men had found an area that could be used for hunting, fishing and making homes, the women, children and elders followed. The women went out to get berries and devil's club for medicine. Hudson Bay tea was widely used as tea and medicine and was found across the Unuk River all the way down to Cape Fox. The warriors went out to get the deer and the bear and brought them back to their people to share with each of them.
Sometimes there would be a big potlatch.
The Unuk is very unique because we have people on the other side (Canada) that are our relatives. At the very top, on the back side of the river is a big waterfall where our people came through. You can still climb it and get into Canada. That territory has our relatives — our own people who are still on the other side, for they never left. My great grandmother said that they didn't want to come down any further because it was a big journey for them to take.
My great grandmother told me that when she was little, her great-grandmother sat her down and talked about the trails that would go up higher and beyond. She would talk about the cold and of how there was ice on the land and no grass; the land up there was frozen most of the year when her great grandmother was a small child. That was the reason we came down toward the Unuk River.
THE WATER PEOPLE
The Saanya Kwaan stretched from the headwaters of the Unuk to Cape Fox Village. Cape Fox Village and Cheecats were the last remaining places before Chief Kashakes decided to move all the people to Saxman. He wanted all the children to get an education.
We were called the water people. We lived on the river and would go out to catch fish, which is still very important for us. We would get hooligans, salmon, halibut, bear, moose, deer, plants, herbs, and more to smoke and preserve for the winter months. The Unuk river has always sustained us. As an elder, I don't hunt and fish anymore like I used to when I was a young kid.
My father wanted to teach me. When he went up the Unuk to hunt and get hooligans, I would go with him. We would bring everything back to share with the village. He taught me how to hunt and fish, how to take a boat up the river, how to swim and how to gather hooligans with small netting. In the days of my great grandmother and grandmother, they weaved baskets for catching fish.
When the Eskay Creek mine started, we didn’t really know what they were doing. As the years went by, the Unuk started getting worse and worse. Soon the hooligans were gone.
When the mine closed, the waters suddenly started clearing up. Some hooligans came up the river a couple of years ago. Last year, we couldn’t get there soon enough to catch them, because they went underneath the ice.
Now they want to open the mine again and make it even bigger. As far as I'm concerned, it’s going to kill the Unuk and the wildlife that live there. It’s hurting everyone, the way these mines are coming through. The mining companies say, “you’ll get all this money and all this stuff if you come to work in the mine...” It gets really hard there, because natives are the ones who live in areas where it’s very limited and there are not many jobs.
The mines don't understand what they are doing to Mother Earth. They are killing it all off. They are going to make everything become ugly. What the Canadian government is doing and has done in the past, is not good. I believe we need to fight for our rivers.