Kh’asheechtlaa, Louise Brady (Lingít), Herring Protectors

Jennifer Nu

Jennifer Nu

Southeast Alaska Regional Food Systems Catalyst

Kh’asheechtlaa, Louise Brady

Kh’asheechtlaa, Louise Brady, is a 2023 Indigenous Leadership Awardee being honored for her vision and tireless dedication to protecting yaaw (Pacific herring) and the cultural, ceremonial, and community connections to this keystone species for Lingít tribal people in Southeast Alaska.

With silver bodies and glinting blue-green scales, Pacific herring are long-lived ocean-dwelling fish who travel together in large schools. Each spring, these beautifully humble forage fish swim close to the shores of Alaska to spawn as far as Norton Sound in Northwest Alaska to Dixon Entrance in Southeast Alaska. Mounds and mats of eggs glimmer like translucent golden pearls, covering the ocean floor, rocky beaches, seaweed, and everything in their path with the precious beginnings of the next generation.

The Lingít name for Pacific herring is yaaw. A keystone species, yaaw is the foundational food for an extensive web of marine life, including salmon, birds, whales, seals, and sea lions. Since time immemorial, Indigenous harvesters in Sheetʼká Ḵwáan homelands, in what is  today known as Sitka Sound, place hemlock branches and trees in the water, inviting yaaw to feed the people. Herring roe on branches are shared with relatives in other communities of Southeast Alaska, supporting food security while also strengthening cultural connections among all those who work together to harvest, process, and distribute the abundance of the ancestors.

“There is a phrase in Lingít: Yáa at Wooné, which is respect for all things,” Kh’asheechtlaa, Louise Brady shares. “And it’s not just for what we would consider living things, but just everything and everyone we encounter.”

“We give thanks to the tree for giving its life for our life so that we can live. And we go out and set the branches and the herring will come and lay their eggs on the branches. We’re not killing any herring at all,” she explains.

As a Kiks.ádi woman from the Raven~Frog Clan and grandchild of the Kaagwaantaan wolf clan, daughter of Isabella and William Brady, Kh’asheechtlaa and the other women of her clan hold the responsibility of being Kaxhatjaashaa, a Herring Lady.

For the past seven years, Kh’asheechtlaa has been a powerful driving force behind the Herring Protectors, an Indigenous-led grassroots collective that works towards Indigenous sovereignty, stewardship, and protection of yaaw by building relationships and strengthening community. The movement carries out the original teachings of the Kiks.ádi women through ceremony and collective organizing “to stand up to unjust legacies of colonization and genocide that led to the devastation of yaaw in Southeast Alaska.”

Kh’asheechtlaa, Louise Brady (Lingít), is an honored recipient of the 2023 Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Awards for her vision and tireless dedication to protecting the herring in Sheetʼká Ḵwáan by bringing the power of culture and ceremony to build community and healing in honor of the sacred relationship the Lingít people have with yaaw, Pacific herring and haa kuysteeyí, the Lingít way of life.

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Herring roe from the 2016 subsistence Herring season. Photo by Bethany Sonsini-Goodrich 

Herring Protectors: Protecting the Yaaw

Oral history and memories of living elders recount that yaaw used to be so abundant that people in all Southeast Alaska communities were able to harvest enough eggs to meet their needs. Today, yaaw are no longer as plentiful. The strongest run takes place in Sitka Sound where tribal members share their harvest with relatives in communities that no longer have abundant herring.

For decades, Sitka Tribe of Alaska (STA) has sent people to testify at State of Alaska Board of Fish (BOF) meetings held every three years. There, community members have voiced concerns about a repeating pattern of overfishing and mismanagement associated with the commercial sac roe fishery in Sitka Sound.

Kh’asheechtlaa remembers attending the formal process in 1997 and being dismayed at witnessing disrespectful treatment of tribal community members, particularly elders being cut off due to time limits on testimony.

“It’s really discouraging to feel like you’re not heard in that system.” In 2017, the Herring Protectors organized their own gathering and invited BOF members to attend. “I wanted our elders to talk about their memories of herring, how plentiful they used to be, and say whatever they wanted to say without being shut off by a timer after three minutes.” The four Alaska state board of fisheries members who attended stayed to listen to tribal citizens who were given the time they needed to share their testimony. “We should be creating a sense of community and responsibility to each other and also to our environment,” she points out.

“It’s not our job to make money off herring. It is our job to live in harmony, to live with the environment. We have to understand that we are no different, no better than the fish we are eating, the herring eggs I am eating. It’s a holistic way of looking at things.”

—Kh’asheechtlaa, Louise Brady

Kazunoko, or herring roe in its skein, is a high-priced delicacy in Japan. This fishery began in Alaska in 1971 after Japans’ own herring fisheries collapsed. While the specialty fishery is worth up to tens of millions of dollars each year, it employs shockingly unsustainable fishing methods. Only egg sacs from mature females (usually over three years old or older) of a certain size are marketable, yet seine boats scoop up entire schools of herring. The sac roe is removed directly from the female’s body. Their carcasses, juvenile females and all males are considered bycatch and ground up for animal feed or discarded, an estimated 88 percent of what is caught. These fish have no chance to return to the ocean to spawn in future years.

Severe declines or collapses in herring population closed 11 out of 12 commercial herring fisheries in Southeast Alaska. The declines in herring abundance have also reduced availability of traditional herring eggs on hemlock branches for tribal communities. As a keystone species that feed salmon, other fish, birds, and marine mammals, declines in herring puts the entire ecosystem and associated livelihoods at risk. For this reason, the Herring Protectors have worked long and hard to protect the last healthy herring run in Sitka Sound, for people and for the wider web of life.

In contrast to the wasteful practices of the commercial fishery, traditional subsistence harvest of herring roe on hemlock branches accounts for less than 1 percent of all herring roe taken in Sitka and do not harm yaaw. “The relationship with herring is a spiritual, cultural connection that no amount of money could replace,” affirms Kh’asheechtlaa.

“It’s not our job to make money off herring. It is our job to live in harmony, to live with the environment. We have to understand that we are no different, no better than the fish we are eating, the herring eggs I am eating. It’s a holistic way of looking at things.”

And, in a system where separation can be used to elevate the status of humans over herring to justify the violence against them for profit, Kh’asheechtlaa wants to “change this perspective that sees herring as a resource to be exploited rather than a relative.” She also challenges policies and management practices and systems that elevate Western science over indigenous science: “There’s only so much we can accomplish as long as we keep separating ourselves out from each other.”

Koox.ex: The healing power of culture and ceremony

“Like so many places, in Sitka there are so many communities within a community,” observes Kh’asheechtlaa. While growing up in Sitka, systemic racism and mistreatment of Alaska Natives was widespread and continues to perpetuate harm in people’s lives and communities today. To promote healing, the Herring Protectors practice the value of inclusion and allyship.

“We invite everyone to be part of the whole. It’s not about being different or better than.”

Kh’asheechtlaa also notes how being too rigid in defining community or tradition can sometimes get in the way. “Tradition in so many ways keeps people out. We need to find traditions that invite people in,” she says firmly with compassion. If someone wants to be a part of the movement, they are not questioned or turned away. “What we do need to focus on is making it a safe place for us to be with each other. Without Roberts Rules of Order, without an agenda. The goal is that we are making people feel welcome, to be in each other’s presence and creating.”

The inclusivity of the Herring Protectors movement has made it possible to inspire widespread awareness and respect for the yaaw in a way that crosses political, economic, ethnic, and cultural boundaries. These relationships strengthen stewardship and advocacy on behalf of yaaw, the ocean, and all who depend on these beings, including other Southeast Alaska tribes, other animal relatives, and descendants of the future.

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Yeidikooká Dionne Brady-Howard, Sakeekán Isabella Jackson, and Kh’asheechtlaa Louise Brady (far right) in regalia.

“My ancestors fought for me to be here. … They made huge sacrifices and some of them lost their lives because of their connection to this place. I feel really fortunate that I am on the land of my ancestors, that I can go visit these places, that I can draw from the strength that they had.”

 

—Kh’asheechtlaa, Louise Brady

The Herring Protectors have hosted a herring gathering and four Honor the Herring Koo.eex’–sometimes referred to as a potlatch–to celebrate the sacred relationship the Lingít people have with the herring. These ceremonies are powerful spaces of healing, cultural reclamation and expression that bring hundreds of people together from across the region and the globe.

The Herring Protectors also rallied for Indigenous sovereignty and stewardship and in support of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s advocacy. The group has held trainings, submitted comments, and testified at Western public policy forums. Despite challenges and discouragement, the group has persevered under the guidance of Kh’asheechtlaa who is inspired by her love of her people and belief in a better and more just world.

And the Herring Protectors group continues to be inclusive and grassroots in its organization, dependent largely on volunteers with any available funding going towards paying for supplies and local instructors to guide the gift-making activities. The group is seeking funds for screenings of the film Yaá At Wooneé, to increase awareness and advocacy of yaaw.

A preview for the short documentary “Yáa at Wooné (Respect for All Things)”

Hopes for the future

Thinking of the responsibilities to the coming generations gives her hope despite setbacks and discouragement. “What am I leaving my children, my grandchildren and great-grandchildren? I hope they have an understanding of what it means to be Lingít, that they can look back and say yes, my grandparents left me a legacy of trying to teach people how to live on these lands, with these waters in a good way.”

In addition to her work with the Herring Protectors and her full-time day job at Sitka Tribe of Alaska, Kh’asheechtlaa plans to write a book to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Sitka Native Education program that her mother started in 1974. Knowing her history as a Lingít person and as a Kik’sadi woman is foundational to the passion that drives Kh’asheechtlaa’s commitment to protecting the herring while also promoting healing and cultural revitalization.

“My ancestors fought for me to be here. Literally fought the Russians in 1804, here in Sitka,” she shares. “They made huge sacrifices and some of them lost their lives because of their connection to this place.” She continues, “I feel really fortunate that I am on the land of my ancestors, that I can go visit these places-that I can draw from the strength that they had.”

And she is grateful for the opportunity to learn from Native elder women whose wisdom helped her see the strength and beauty inherent in her culture, acknowledging the many people in her life who were there when she most needed them. “When I started on my healing journey many decades ago, I believed that my greatest challenges were being Native and a woman,” she recalls. “Today, they are my greatest assets. I know that to be me and to be Lingít is special and that I can draw strength from the difference. I have generations of strength to draw on—that being an Indian woman I can walk in grace and dignity as I was intended to by the Creator.”

Louise Brady shares remarks and reflections during the 2023 Indigenous Leadership Award ceremony.

Links

Website

Learn more about this grassroots effort led by Indigenous women.

podcast

An episode of the podcast For the Wild featuring a conversation with K’asheechtlaa.

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