I first met Melanie Brown in April of 2018 at the Slow Fish North America gathering in San Francisco, where she delivered powerful words about honoring connections to natural resources, protecting those resources, like Bristol Bay, and what others in and outside of Alaska can do to help defeat the Pebble Mine. In July of 2019, she graciously welcomed me aboard her setnet boat to fish with her and her family. With infinite patience, she taught me to pick sockeye out of the net and not fall behind. I learned so much from her over four different sets, and in the years since. One of the highlights of the trip to the White House was connecting with Melanie and other friends and fellow collaborators. CS
By Melanie Brown
I read the invitation and knew I had to go. There had been murmurings about some event for Bristol Bay happening in Washington, D.C. and that folks should try to clear their schedules, but the details were fuzzy. Looking toward the fishing season and preparing for it left little desire for me to travel the grueling distance between Alaska and our Nation’s Capital.
Upon seeing the words, ‘The President requests the pleasure of your company…,’ my decision was made. The journey was so sudden that I had little time to think about who might be there until I was on the airplane. But when the plane arrived in Seattle, faces from past work collaborations began to emerge. I was excited to reunite with people who have invested their energy, hearts, and souls to protect the wonder that is Bristol Bay.
The people of Bristol Bay have been fighting for so long to protect the land that supports the nurseries of salmon that have returned to the people for millennia. A beautiful alliance now exists between these subsistence fishermen and commercial and sport fishermen, who also welcome the annual return of these wonderfully wild creatures.
The real flood of time and emotion washed over me when we queued up to enter the gate to the White House and I found myself face to face with many people I had not had the pleasure of seeing since my early days of volunteering and organizing. Seeing these people from my past was like receiving one special gift after another.
We filed in across the White House lawn and entered the Rose Garden for the reception and continued to visit and catch up until President Biden approached the podium with United Tribes of Bristol Bay Director Alannah Hurley. Alannah introduced the President and thanked him in the Yup’ik tongue of our people. No words can capture the feeling of true pride that Alannah summoned.
President Biden praised all of us for our efforts and spoke of the unparalleled wonder of Bristol Bay. The words that ring in my ears still are, “Pebble Mine will never be built!” Beyond the speeches and the champagne, it was wonderful to come together to celebrate something instead of game plan, figure out how to win hearts and minds, or debate Pebble Mine proponents.
What has this fight cost me, my family, and others in and around Bristol Bay? We’ve heard this question before, and it prompts reflection. On one hand, if we were not using our time and energy to fight the proposed Pebble Mine, we could have been putting our energies into making Bristol Bay a better place that is focused on a diversified and regenerative economic base that benefits all of its residents.
However, I think that is too easy of an answer. I think it is important for all of us who have been a part of this good fight to realize that if it were not for this posed threat of the mine potentially destroying what we love and cherish, we would not have found the best in us. This fight has caused us to look deep inside of ourselves and see that we all had the tools and creativity to figure out how to win an important battle for our lives. We were given the opportunity to unlock that potential and actualize it. This work has given me and others the honor of doing something that brings meaning and purpose to our lives. It is not just a job.
We should also not lose sight of the fact that Pebble is not the only mine claim that stands to degrade and destroy essential salmon habitat. The deposit is one among other claims that stand like dominos waiting to be pushed down by one big project that creates the infrastructure that will make the others possible. Fighting the Pebble fight has given us the tools that will hopefully keep these other projects from happening. Stopping the bad and building the good is a guiding principle. The next step is to secure permanent protections, which would take an act of Congress. So there is more work to do.
Protecting Bristol Bay is one of those things that make party lines blur and fall away because of their importance. The work has been rewarding and fun. It has felt good to grow our numbers and allies. Making friends along the way that live clear across the country, such as Colles, has been a positive part of the process.
As we gathered in the Rose Garden to celebrate protecting Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine, we also celebrated the community we built in the process. This community once also included several important salmon warriors who departed this world before they could see their struggles come to fruition.
As our ancestors prepared the way for us, so too have our friends and loved ones who lived and worked to change the course of our present and future for Bristol Bay.
Melanie Brown is an Indigenous Bristol Bay Fisherman, SalmonState Outreach Director, and dear friend and colleague.
Follow these links to hear One Fish Foundation interviews with Melanie and some other Bristol Bay salmon warriors.
- Melanie Brown, community organizer with SalmonState and indigenous commercial fish harvester out of Naknek, AK. Video on YouTube. Audio-only download.
- Steve Kurian, captain of the F/V Ava Jane driftnetter fishing out of Naknek and co-owner of Wild for Salmon, a retail and wholesale operation based in Pa. Video on Youtube. Audio-only download.
- Kat Carscallen, commercial fisherwoman and executive director of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay: Video on Youtube. Audio-only download.
- Nanci Morris Lyon, co-owner, Bear Trail Lodge in King Salmon. She’s been fighting Pebble since about the time her daughter, Rylie, now a lodge guide, was born. Video on Youtube. Audio-only download.
- Norm Van Vactor, CEO of Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and long time Bristol Bay resident, fisherman, and processor. Video on YouTube. Audio-only download.
- Gayla Hoseth, director of natural resources with Bristol Bay Native Association, Second Chief of the Curyung Tribal Council, and subsistence fish harvester. Video on YouTube. Audio-only download.