Salmon for days

UNALAKLEET—“We’re eating fish again?” Yanni exasperatingly asked my brother. It was my brother’s girlfriend’s first summer with our family. And every summer, we ate fresh salmon most days.

Back then the king runs were strong and our summer started off with greasy, decedent meals of grilled king salmon steaks. Later when the humpies clogged the river, we ate uuraq. Mom and aunties made the soup over the fire with humpy steaks, onions, potatoes, salt and pepper. Us kids would try our best to get more than our fair share of eggs. After meals and meals of uuraq came baked or fried silver salmon. While upriver we’d roast a silver filet with salt, pepper, lemon and onions in tinfoil over the fire. In town Mom would slather on a ketchup and mayonnaise mixture to serve with rice and green beans. I make that meal every year on her birthday.

I imagine we were in the middle of the silver salmon run when Yanni made her comment alluding to our lack of diversity in the supper menu. Twenty years later, at the tail end of our salmon season, I’ve realized Yanni has grown to somewhat of a salmon processing expert.

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Back in June, Yanni and my brother asked if I wanted to seine for humpies with them. We ended up catching 214 in a short seine and had a long night of cutting fish on the sandbar across from their campsite. While we were cutting I noticed Yanni’s fish were cut far better than mine. While I work for speed, Yanni works for precision. Her fish cut for drying are beautiful. And she knows it. She enjoys taking care with each slit. Making each cut straight and providing for a glorious bite of dried fish later in the winter. She stretches each turaqed filet, holding up the end product before moving on to the next humpy. My usual hurried pace and air of impatience relishes in her calm, gentle and solid presence. I love cutting fish with Yanni. Even when there’s still tubs full and we’re tired and ready for a supper break, I enjoy her company and the work we do together. We were cutting fish for so long that I joked with my brother and sister saying, “Next year when you ask if I want to go seining, I’m going to say no.”

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But I most definitely will not.

For the next few days after our time at the sandbar, Yanni and I took care to clean the fish after the flies made their expected visits. Even scraping larva was fun. Her daughter – my niece named after my mother – helped us a few times. I realized for years I put away dried fish without sisterly companionship. Memories of Mom cutting fish always included a tribe of aunties. Laughing. Talking. And more laughing. They knew what they were doing.

And today, Yanni knows what she’s doing and she’s teaching me a lot having lived her entire adult life in my hometown. Having lived more of her adult life alongside my mother. She may not have thoroughly enjoyed fish when she joined our family. “Now I love fish,” she says with a big smile and a laugh when we talk about her first summer in Unalakleet. I am now the lucky  girl who is a part of her tribe.

This story was previously published in the summer 2016 Qargi Zine, produced by writer and journalist Jacqui Lambert from Kotzebue. 

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