This photo essay is part of a series created for the American Creed “Citizen Power” documentary initiative exploring community leadership and ideals from young adult perspectives.

Schimmel, a first-year law student at Georgetown University, is one of several co-creators of an ongoing documentary media and public engagement initiative – American Creed: Citizen Power that explores American idealism and activism from a range of young adult perspectives. Schimmel plans to use what he learns in law school to help his people negotiate a healthier, more sustainable economy that aligns with his community’s values and the need to protect the environment. 

On January 19 at 4:30pm EST, join Sam Schimmel and other young adult photographers for a special, interactive photography exhibit and discussion, Connecting Our Heartlands: Toward an Inclusive American Creed.

[Register now for Connecting Our Heartlands]

Photography by Sam Schimmel.

When it comes to climate change Alaska finds itself in a unique position as an oil, gas, timber, and fish producer. 

Tribes are engaged in every one of those businesses. We are faced with this interesting reality that while we may support ourselves economically, we are also extracting resources from the place where we live. 

We must build businesses and create programs in accordance with our values. Fishing has always been essential to the spiritual and physical health of our Indigenous community. Our Tribal fishery offers a resource to my generation and the next, and that’s a start.

My cousin Julianne pulls out the gill net with some fresh salmon that will be brought back to the Tribal fishery to be cleaned. 
When I was 6 or 7, I remember fishing with a cousin for 12 hours on the east side of the Cook Inlet. After carrying the fish back to the camp, we cut and cleaned them for 3 hours before my cousin smiled at me and said, ‘we need to grab some wood and smoke these fish then go check the net that’s still out’…‘there’s always more.’  

Everything begins with eating fish. When your teeth are coming in, the first taste in your mouth is smoked fish. By the time you’re old enough, you help pick a net or hang up strips of fish. Since I was a little kid, I’ve been on this path to learn the practice of subsistence. 

My aunts and uncles taught me that the classroom was the woods around me and the sea. Thanks to them, I know how to fish in accordance with our traditional values. Unlike commercial fishing, which is built around the idea of making money and catching as many fish as you can, subsistence fishing only takes what you need, recognizing the sacredness of the fish.

Everything that comes onto the table, was caught by somebody. Everyone has a responsibility to make sure the community can eat healthy throughout the whole year. Even more than that, by preparing and eating fish together, your whole family, your whole community, is socializing and forming a bond. We live on our foods that we’ve relied on for 20,000 years. By practicing subsistence, you’re not only providing a nutritional good, you’re providing a sense of place, a sense of well-being, mental stability, continuity and community. 

Both of my aunties sit on our Tribal council. They work hard to ensure the well-being of the community, from fighting for our rights to maintaining Tribal programs that ensure the continuity of our traditional subsistence practices. They also participate in subsistence activities, like fishing and preparing salmon. 

But today you’re seeing climate change impact subsistence. 

Weather patterns change unpredictably, and we can’t rely as much on those thousands of years of accrued knowledge that allowed us to read the ocean and the woods.Three years ago, I flew in a plane across the Cook Inlet. I looked down on the water and there were thousands of dead fish floating because the water was too warm. That year we had terrible fires and heat waves that lasted weeks and killed off fish. So this year, we’re going to have a smaller fish return. Some years we cannot harvest enough fish to feed our community. Consequently, the number of kids who are brought up taught to fish for subsistence decreases. This has a downstream impact where fewer kids have a sense of identity, or are involved with their community.

My auntie MaryAnn has been advocating for decades for our tribe’s fishing and subsistence rights. In her work, she has met many other Indigenous leaders and advocates and has been given gifts like this bag in honor of her work and friendship. In the background, my uncle Bill.

We have a long history of fighting to protect our subsistence. 

In 1971, with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, 44 million acres of land were reserved for Alaska Natives, out of the more than 400 million we had claim to for our Indigenous Tribes. Though this act made sure we maintained control of some of our land it did not reserve our right to subsistence. 

My aunt MaryAnn was one of several Tribe members who started a protest to keep our subsistence rights. She set a net in the mouth of the Cook Inlet to fish without a commercial permit where we’ve been subsistence fishing for thousands of years. The state government threatened her with jail time and a $150,000 fine. She pushed for a hearing because she knew she could win. MaryAnn read up on international law. She still does, and she often understands international law better than state judges.  Under international law, she knew that “in no case may a people be deprived of their means of subsistence.”  She won her case and we won the right to our Tribal nets. Today, we face an ever greater threat of environmental degradation. MaryAnn reminds me that “because we’ve been fisherpeople from time immemorial, we are the caretakers of these waters –our responsibility as well as our right.” 

To explore more of Sam Schimmel’s story, join him or a special virtual interactive event, Connecting Our Heartlands, Towards an Inclusive American Creed , January 19th at 4:30pm. This program and the accompanying series of viewfinder posts and podcasts are supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities Building a More Perfect Union program.

Schimmel and other young adult storytellers participating in the American Creed: Citizen Power documentary initiative will show the photographs they’ve created with support from Working Assumptions, a program that supports students in making photographs and writing captions that explore the interplay of work and family in their lives. 

Click here for more information about the Center for Rural Strategies’ Connecting Our Heartlands virtual event: Sam Schimmel and other young adult co-creators of the American Creed: Citizen Power initiative will show their photographs and discuss how work, family and community organizing intersect in their own lives.  

Publication of this American Creed: Citizen Power Viewfinder is made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this event do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Citizen Power” advising and editing for Working Assumptions, Barbara Filion; for Citizen Film, Manish Khanal.

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