Salmon in all their varieties are a great resource for humanity. But for the Peoples of the North Pacific the iconic fish also represent a critical heritage that goes back thousands of years. Plagued by overfishing, industrial pollution, and contamination of rivers, salmon are in trouble across their ancient habitat.
In this video interview, Victoria Petrasheva, senior scholar at Pacific Ocean Geographical Institute, Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, Russia, tells of efforts to inculcate appreciation for salmon among the children of indigenous people of the Pacific North. It begins with finding the names of the fish and their anotomical parts in a variety of indigenous languages. And it involves getting the children to compose their own stories and pictures of why the fish is so important to them.
Victoria Petrasheva was interviewed at the Seventh International Congress of Arctic Social Sciences (ICASS VII), held recently in Iceland.
Organized by the International Arctic Social Sciences Association (IASSA), ICASS VII was attended by more than 400 delegates, who between them presented some 300 papers and joined discussions in dozens of workshops. Watch our video interview with IASSA President Joan Nymand Larsen, discussing the highlights of ICASS VII. Read our entire coverage of ICASS VII.
Interview with Victoria Petrasheva
(Intepreter: David Koester, University of Alaska, Fairbanks)
Akureyri, Iceland — Itelmen people of Kamchatka are one of the most ancient peoples of the world, in the sense that they have been in Kamchatka, it is thought, for 10,000 years, Petrasheva said. “In an earlier life, the Itelmen were called the Children of the Raven Spirit Kutkh.”
Petrasheva wants to talk about a new book for children. It is called Kamchatka: Land of Salmon.
“Salmon is very important for the Peoples of the North, from Kamchatka across the North Pacific to Alaska and Canada,” she said. The book follows two earlier titles: Legends About Salmon and We Draw and We Think About Salmon.
It’s not just interesting for children, but it is also important to collect the ethno-ecological knowledge and linguistic information about salmon for the Koryak, Yupik, Chukchi, Tlingit and other Northern people, Petrasheva explains.
“It’s important first to get the names of the different types of salmon, which have different names even in English, and to find out the names given to the salmon by the different peoples who use this resource. And then there are the different parts of the anatomy of the fish. In this book the anatomical names are in Russian. The next part of the project is give all those body parts their Itelmen names, and then find the names for all the other languages across the North Pacific.”
Why do this? Why put so much effort into salmon?
“The primary thing to understand is that the salmon of the North Pacific is wild salmon,” Petrasheva says. “It’s born in the rivers of Kamchatka, and from there it goes out into the Bering Sea … the Pacific. And then after wandering around it comes back to the rivers in Kamchatka. And then there is huge pressure from industrial fishing of salmon and other sources. They are coming into the rivers sick.”
Are you concerned about pollution in the Arctic destroying your way of life?
“Not only pollution, but the overfishing and problems in the rivers themselves are all having an influence on the fish,” Petrasheva said.
Salmon are also very important for others, like the bears and birds, Petrasheva pointed out. “But the greatest danger is to people.”
Northern people never overfish the salmon, Petrasheva said. “Northerners took only as much as they needed for themselves. And they never would have fished near the spawning grounds. Nor would they have removed the salmon roe.
“There is concern about not only those who drill for oil and gas, but especially also for those who mine for gold and platinum. Those who dirty the land when they create huge piles of tailings … then those go into the rivers and the rivers begin to die.
“I think that if it is understood from childhood that salmon is the most fundamental source of life, then they would change their worldview and would not act carelessly, like now, for example, companies do. This thinking would help them connect to the long tradition where people live in harmony with their environment for thousands of years.
“Simply, peoples of the North have lived this way for thousands of years. They didn’t face these extremes. They didn’t have such complex issues as we face today.”
Are you hopeful about the future of endangered languages and cultures?
“I worry very much about it. I think about it in terms described by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who said that language is an important part of culture. So I am really worried because there are so few Itelmen left, fewer than three thousand, and of them there are less than thirty speakers of the language.”
For Itelmen, salmon is clearly the primary food resource, Petrasheva said. “Yet there are hardly any recorded myths, tales or songs” about the importance of salmon to Itelmen. “I know lots of legends. I heard and studied them when I was growing up. I thought about, and the only one I could think of was the story of the Raven Spirit Kutkh and the pink (humpback) salmon.
“We thought that if there aren’t any legends, it’s an opportunity to create some. That’s how we got the idea to do the children’s book, where the children would write the stories and draw pictures about how important [salmon are].”
“The rivers, the streams, the lakes are the most important places for the environment’s last stand. This is your homeland and you need to keep it very clean. I want to say that salmon is not only the wealth of the Northern People, but the wealth of all of humanity.”
Coverage of the Seventh International Congress of Arctic Social Sciences was sponsored by the International Arctic Social Sciences Association (IASSA) and The Christensen Fund. The video was made by Blue Lagoon Productions for National Geographic News.
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.