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Jòonax̱, The Unuk River

The Unuk River, and the watershed it supports, is small by national standards but mighty in all the ways that matter. The English name of the river comes from the Tlingit Jòonax̱, translating as “revealed through a dream.” This is in reference to an ancient time prior to the Great Flood and the dreams of a Nèix̱.adi man who had visions of the river and urged his clan to seek it out.  By following his dream, they eventually reached Jòonax̱ (Unuk River). 

The Tèiḵwèidi Tlingit Clan of the Sàanyàa Ḵwáan are the people of the Unuk River and their descendants now comprise at least seven sovereign Tribal governments and communities in southeast Alaska’s temporal rainforest. The name also speaks to the true owners of the Unuk.

The Unuk River flows about 80 miles from the interior of British Columbia to the saltwater in Burroughs Bay, Alaska. The lower 24 miles of the river on the Alaska side comprise much of Misty Fjords National Monument.


The Unuk is one of the three great undeveloped wild salmon rivers that feed the Tongass National Forest. The watershed provides spawning, nurturing and over-winter habitat for all five species of Pacific Salmon. 

The Unuk River provides a corridor between the coast and the interior of British Columbia for a tremendous variety of wildlife and migratory birds transecting a dozen ecological niches from the marine estuary to the alpine. 

The Unuk River is known for its rich run of hooligan (echelon), a small oily fish that is prized among the people of Southeast Alaska. Hooligan and hooligan oil were traded widely throughout the region and the Unuk River valley was known historically as the Grease Trail, a trade route between the coast and interior.

The globally significant biodiversity of the Unuk River is completely dependent on salmon returning the nutrients otherwise washed out from the rainforest into the ocean. These nutrients return to the forest in the form of large adult salmon.  The salmon feed the forest and in turn, the forest provides the salmon with the genetic diversity born out of the dozens of freshwater natal salmon streams connected by the Unuk. This genetic diversity is necessary for salmon to survive as a species.

The Unuk is a refuge. It is the place the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people found shelter during the end of the last ice age and provided the corridor leading the people over and under the glaciers back home again. The river and the people of the land carry the text of those memories in their bodies, currents, and history. 

The first-hand experience of adapting to climate change in living oral history is embodied in one of the last temporal rainforests left in the world. As with any one species in an ecosystem, no matter how small, it carries the solution to protect the health of the whole.

The Unuk River connects our people.  It flows through our history of origin and migration as the place names reflect our ancestors and events critical to our history. The fish that spawn here are the basis for an entire regional ecosystem and is why people have thrived here since time immemorial. The Unuk reflects the need to consider the small, the necessity to walk softly on the land, the power of the individual, the power of dreams.



Ts’msyen and Łingít of the Wolf/Eagle moiety, Teikweidí (Brown bear clan),
Xóots Koowu Hít (Brown bear’s den house) of Sanyaa Kwáan (Cape Fox)
Elder, knowledge Holder, Fisherman

Metlakatla Indian Community
Metlakatla, 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 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."

Unuk River Mouth Petroglyph (2).jpg

Unuk River pictoglyph. Credit: Louie and Tazia Wagner

Louie Wagner's photo of Unuk River_edite

May 15, 2023 — Hooligan fishing 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. In the sixties, I started with my own boat. Back then, we were allowed to continue fishing for hooligan as we always have done, and things were good. We were managing  the river ourselves and took only what we needed.


Then they started regulating what we could take, and nobody was managing the river. By the late 90s, hooligans started disappearing. The state wanted to do a limited entry on the fishery. I argued against it and attended the Southeast Federal Subsistence Board. I said, this is the people's fish. They come once a year and there's only so much. 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, state legislator, said it would take an act of Congress to change it.

In 2001 we went up the Unuk. We brought back around 20,000 pounds of hooligans. At the dock in Ketchikan, a line stretched up to the street. Martha Johnson was there with her dance group. As soon as we arrived, she said, “Hit it!” and they sang in Tlingit. The way they sang was beautiful, it sounded great that evening. Everyone was happy.

I go up there two to three times a year: in the spring for hooligans and in the fall to hunt moose. It's our sovereign right to do what we've always done. I brought my son, Louie Wagner III when he was four years old. He would keep going over to the edge of the boat 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.

The Wagners in front of the Unuk River petroglyph depicting the sun

Unuk River petroglyph. Credit: Louie Wagner

My granddaughter, Tazia Wagner and I went up the Unuk this spring. We collected water samples before the mines get into full operation. The river is just four to six inches deep in the springtime and can't sustain any extra runoff. Having virtually no glaciers up there to melt now has also made a big difference.


My mother's grandmother has a story of when people used to come down from Canada to trade what we call esh-berries in Tsimshian (soapberry) for hooligan and grease. 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 told this same story to my oldest brother. That’s why he started going up the river to take over and bring the hooligans home. It’s been handed down and we have never given it up.


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 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.


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.

Louie Wagner catching hooligan on the Unuk River
Tazia Wagner

Metlakatla, AK

Tazia W'ally Sthaathi Ta Wagner
May 15, 2023

My name is Tazia W'ally Sthaathi Ta Wagner. I’m from Metlakatla, Alaska and my crest is the Wolf Clan. I grew up with my grandparents from whom I learned our way of life and how to harvest. I am the granddaughter of Louie Wagner, who is a Saanya Kwaan Teikweidi Xoots Koowu Hit. His mother, my old nana, told him that he and his brothers were stewards of the Unuk River. Our crest of the rising sun is found from the mouth of the river all the way up into Lake Creek. The markings show us where we harvested historically. It’s beautiful to be up there and touch the crest my ancestors have touched.


Louie Wagner, my yaya, has made sure all of us have been able to have this way of life and connection with our ancestors. It has instilled a sense of advocacy within me as well. I also want to be able to steward the Unuk River for future generations, so they can take part in harvesting and processing the hooligan, the moose and the king salmon that come from the Unuk River.


To this day, I remember staying up late, waiting for them. They would sometimes call on the VHF in the middle of the night, because the tide has to be just right to leave the river. 


They were on their way and my nana bundled me up and we got in the car. We waited by the Ryas float. Martha Johnson's dance group was there in their regalia, their cedar hats. As soon as they were about to tie up the boat, Martha Johnson just yelled, “hit it!” and they started singing and banging their drums. It was the welcome song, the entrance song. It was the most beautiful thing to this day that I remember.

They welcomed who they called the Hooligan man, my yaya, because he would always do a community harvest for Ketchikan and Metlakatla. People would line up with their grocery bags and their buckets, ready for the hooligan.


In the background, I would watch them pass out the hooligan. Sometimes people would donate money as a thank you for bringing the first fresh fish of the year, to help with fuel costs and things like that. Nothing is more heartwarming than seeing how happy people are for hooligan.


Hooligan is a sacred fish. The first run, sm’algyax, translates from halimotkw, the fish that saves. And it’s true — it brings so many together. Laughter and love are on the table where we have our grease and hooligan, where we gather after a long winter and share all our favorite foods. 

I will always remember that dance group. They were so happy to see my family come in with the hooligan to distribute in Ketchikan. I knew that one day that would be me, passing out that hooligan. They closed the fishery due to low runs of hooligan in 2002. Because of that closure, my chance to harvest hooligan for our communities was taken away from me and from my cousins. With that 15 year plus pause, we lost a generation that knows how to put up hooligan, how to make the grease, how to smoke it or even how to eat or care for it. That’s cultural genocide.


I would love to see us do another community harvest on the Unuk River again and see those bright smiles on everyone's faces one more time. And to bring hooligan again to our elders, that is what I would really love to happen in the future, for generations to come.

Aerial photo of a green forest
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.


Ketchikan, AK

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.


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.


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. 



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.

Saxman, AK

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 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.

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