Monday, August 1, 2011

Flotsam and Fishbones: The Alaskan Waters

Last summer, 2010, I was one of the luckiest people in the world. I got to go see Alaska and British Columbia’s Inside Passage, not on a cruise ship, but on a study tour with 23 other college professors & instructors, most expenses paid by the National Endowment for the Humanities. We started in Juneau at the University of Alaska Southeast (in nearby Auke Bay), and ended in Vancouver, being shuttled around by planes, ferries, and busses. We were studying the native cultures of the Yup’ik Eskimos and the Northwest Coast (especially Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Coast Salish). It was definitely a highlight of my life, and I got to share a lot of what I learned with my students all last year. I also presented to the Western Maryland Division of the Archaeological Society of Maryland this past March.

Anyway, as soon as I got settled in my dorm at UAS, I walked down to Auke Bay to see the water. The scenery was amazing, of course, and everything looked raw and pristine. But the first thing I saw washing up from the water was an ammunition belt, buckled, full of bullets! The next day a paperback book washed in.

This summer I read a book called Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings by Jonathan Raban, published in 1999, about a trip he took in a sailboat from Seattle to Juneau and back. I highly recommend it! He writes kind of like Bill Bryson. But anyway, he has a passage in there about the junk in the oceans—even in a supposedly untouched place like Alaska, the last frontier.

The tide ran in lazy swirls and fingerling whirlpools. I drove through a tide-meet of flotsam—a sinuous, unbroken line of stray logs, green branches, yellowed chunks of polystyrene packing, soft-drink cans, condoms, fish crates, frayed rope-ends, old boots, half-eaten apples, a broken caneback chair, a rubber ball. Wherever two tidal currents come into collision, they form a long thin floating junkyard, to which all superfluous items in the neighborhood eventually gravitate. These trailing windrows suggest to the eye the natural affinity of the unwanted: all the local orphans collect here, jostling together in a buoyant democracy of abuse and neglect. I passed through every tide-meet with care, always hoping to rescue an abandoned fender, a Japanese glass float, or any of the other useful and decorative things that sometimes showed up in these anfractuous garbage dumps. Nothing this morning. The gulls were having a good time of it, though, picking over such delicacies as the triple-decker club sandwich that most likely had been tossed by a sated cruise-ship passenger. (333-4)

That last image reminds me of an incident this summer. I was in Wal-mart’s parking lot, directly in front of the store, with cars and pedestrians milling around. A two-seater pickup turned right in front of me, and as it was turning, the back window opened and a teenaged girl threw a half-eaten sandwich on the pavement, right at my feet! I tried to catch her eye and yelled Hey!—but they were gone. I was stunned and angry. Now, admittedly, half-eaten sandwiches are biodegradable, but who wants to see them or step on them?

So you might wonder if we have anything to learn from the Native Americans on this issue. You know, there you are out in a vast natural landscape. All your food scraps and raw materials are from the earth and will return to the earth. So what do you do with your fish bones and seal bones, etc. Toss them, right?

Wrong. First of all, most people know that Natives are notorious for using the entire animal. Every body part has a use. But what about fish bones? Fish bones are discarded, but not just tossed. In both the Yup’ik and Northwest Coast cultures, every part of the universe is alive and sentient. Every rock, every piece of driftwood, every fish bone, and even the dirt and garbage on the ground is alive and aware. If you treat those fish bones with disrespect, leaving them around for people to step on, you won’t have any luck fishing next year. You have to carefully collect them and place them in a thankful manner back in the water near where they were found to ensure those fish will want to return to you the next year. Whenever I pass a squished animal in the road, I think how horrified the Yup’ik people would be to see how we treat animals.

Related to this, driftwood was what made travel into the Western Hemisphere possible. The original people came along the coast, not inland, using driftwood for fuel. The Yup’ik and Northwest Coast people believe you shouldn’t pull driftwood out of the water but only use driftwood that’s washed up and dried out of its own accord. Otherwise, you may have trouble finding more driftwood in the future. Then, when it’s beached and dry, it has offered itself to you for your use. But you should also turn driftwood over now and then, so it doesn’t get tired of being in the same position.

Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be surprised if that ammo belt and book had fallen off of a boat owned and operated by Tlingits. The Natives quickly acquired and put to use any modern tools that would help them, and attempts were made by both the American and Canadian governments and missionaries to wipe out the Native languages and cultures. Many Yup’iit still have a subsistence culture, though using some modern tools, and many still speak their language. Along the Northwest Coast, very few survive who grew up speaking their native languages and living in the old ways, though their values have often been passed down. And there is a huge revival, and attempts are being made to resurrect the old customs and arts all up and down the Inside Passage.


  1. How good to see some inspiration surging out of you again!


  2. An ammo belt, yikes! Great post, loved reading it. Every time I read a new post of yours I learn something cool.