Thomas Tilden was interviewed on December 12, 2105 by Karen Hebert in Anchorage, Alaska. In this interview, Thomas talks about fishing, mining, and other resource issues in Bristol Bay, Alaska. He talks about growing up at Portage Creek and learning to hunt, trap, and fish for subsistence purposes. He discusses getting involved in resource issues and the importance of protecting the fishery and the way of life in his region. He also talks about changes in fisheries management, the Limited Entry permit system, and the debate over the Pebble Mine and impacts from development.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Fishing and Natural Resources in Bristol Bay
Date of Interview: Dec 12, 2015
Narrator(s): Thomas Tilden
Interviewer(s): Karen Hebert
Transcriber: Landmark Associates, Inc.
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Childhood in Portage Creek and Dillingham
Learning to fish and trap from his father
Subsistence fishing, and drying and smoking fish
Learning the importance of food and respect for animals
Grandmother's commercial set net fishing in Igushik
Getting involved in resource issues in Bristol Bay
High school education, and life in Dillingham
Importance of resources and desire to protect them
Attending fish and game meetings with his father
Changes in the salmon harvest and effect of the Limited Entry program
Federal and state management of the fishery
Changes in the Limited Entry program
Role of the Curyung Tribe in fisheries issues
Debate over mining in the region
Positive and negative results in the community from mining
Future issues and importance of protecting Alaska
Effect of population growth
Importance of long-range planning
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KAREN HEBERT: My name is Karen Hébert, and I’m here with Thomas Tilden in Anchorage. It’s December 12, 2015.
So Tom, why don’t you give us first your full name, where you were born, and tell us a little bit about where you spent your earliest years.
THOMAS TILDEN: Okay. My name is Thomas Tilden. I was born on July 27, 1953 at Kanakanak hospital out there at Bristol Bay.
That’s pretty much where I grew up. I grew up down in Igushik village area. And then in Dillingham, my younger years --
Actually, I moved up to Portage Creek. Was sent back down to Dillingham as a boarding student. And I’ve lived in Dillingham ever since then.
KAREN HEBERT: And what was Portage Creek like when you were there? And how old were you when you spent time there?
THOMAS TILDEN: I was ten. I had just turned ten. And Portage Creek was just -- it used to be an old Russian outpost, post office, that they used to portage over to the Kvichak River from there. So, the Russians used it as a post.
And -- But prior to that, the Russians used to go all the way up to the Koktuli River and portage over from there into Iliamna.
But one year, they were going up the river, and they pulled into Portage because there was ice on the river and they got frozen, -- frozen there. So they ended up staying there the whole winter.
And so that’s why the Yup’iks gave it a Yup’ik name called Ohgsenakale. That’s what the post office is called now. Ohgsenakale. And it means freeze up quick.
And so, that’s where I grew up in my formative years, ten on.
KAREN HEBERT: Let’s talk a little bit more about that period of your childhood and your formative years into your teens.
What were the sort of activities that you did that you think most influenced your perspectives in life, and specifically also those that involved sort of resource issues in Bristol Bay?
THOMAS TILDEN: Well, we had just moved up from Dillingham that year, because it was a poor fishing salmon season. And my dad was actually thinking about moving down to a place called Port Heiden, or Meshik.
And there was a White Alice station down there and he was promised some sort of a job down there. And so we were actually thinking about moving down there.
And we went moose hunting up on the Nushagak River, and we had stopped at Portage and the tribal chief there was building a school.
And my dad had asked him whether or not he had a teacher lined up already. He said, "No." And Dad said, “Well, you should write to the governor and ask him for a teacher.”
And the chief couldn’t read or write, and he told my dad, he says, "You write to the governor, and get me a teacher." And he says, "You can have any land around here that you want."
And so, that’s how -- that's how we ended up in Portage Creek, was that my dad wrote that letter and got a teacher there.
Kept on thinking about that offer. And so we eventually moved up there that year.
That was the same year that -- that was my very first year of fishing that year also. Because during that salmon season, my dad’s crew member from Kodiak had a loss in their family.
And so he took off at the early part of the season, and so my dad had no partner. And so him and my mom talked, and they thought that, well, they’ll let me go.
You know, so I end up being put on a boat that year.
My dad was a very patient teacher. I mean, he really taught me how to read the compass, and a fathometer, and know all the points, where all the sand bars were, where all the channels were.
I mean, he really took time to teach me all that. And it was quite a learning experience.
And, of course, up in Portage, we lived up on a hill. I can remember packing up -- I loaded myself up with like three bags of ten pounds of flour.
I almost got all the way to the top, and one of ‘em slipped. And I’d never really been scolded by my dad before, but he really scolded me, because we lost that ten-pound bag of flour.
And he told me how important that flour was going to be to us that winter, and how little we had.
And I never realized how, you know, how important food was to us. I always thought that it just appeared magically at my parents’ house. Put it on the table, and we ate.
You know, at that point, and -- And so it made me really aware of what we ate.
And so, when I watched my dad go set snares, I went out and I learned about that, too. And so, I set my own snares. And I had my own snare line.
And then I taught my brother -- younger brother, Richard. And so we’d compete with how many -- who got the most rabbits, you know, because that’s all we were snaring around our house, was rabbits.
And there was rabbits galore that year. And -- and -- so we felt pretty important that we contributed a lot to our dinner table, because the rabbits that we ate. You know, we had rabbit stew, rabbit roasts, rabbit soup.
Any way you could cook a rabbit, we found out how to cook a rabbit, you know. That’s what saved us, though.
KAREN HEBERT: It sounds like even before you started commercial fishing, you’d done a lot of subsistence fishing. And do you wanna speak a little bit about that and how you came to do that?
THOMAS TILDEN: Yeah, that -- yeah -- Oh, yeah, subsistence fishing was always really, really important to us.
And my mom had a -- when my dad -- I can remember my dad building the rack, fish rack for her. And my dad was walking it, and he thought this was, "Okay, this looks like a good size." My mom said, "No, bigger."
And so my mom made a -- or my dad walked a little bit bigger around the perimeters of what he thought the fish rack would be. No, no, bigger.
And so, by the time he got done, I mean, we had a pretty big fish rack.
And so we had the tin, and we found the driftwood to make that fish rack. And -- and we closed it in and then it came time to make the smokehouse.
And my mom had told my dad that all of the fish that were under the fish rack had to go into that smokehouse, probably at the same time. So it had to be a big smokehouse, too.
And so instead of a really broad smokehouse, he made a really high one with lots of layers in it, so salmon could be layered inside of it.
And my mom looked way up at the top of that high smokehouse, and she said, "Now how am I gonna get the fish all the way up there?" And so my dad had to make a ladder for her, so she could climb up and hang her fish, you know. But that's -- that -- but -- but I can remember how -- how that fish --
Of course, it was my grandma that really taught me about the food and --
because I remember one time when I was -- we were real small, and we were walking down at the beach, and there was a dead seal on the -- that had washed up on the beach. And it was all -- it was very, very old. Almost totally decayed and really smelled.
And I could remember as a little kid going up to it. I was probably only about two years old. And I was gonna kick it.
I said, "This stinky seal." And I was about ready to kick it, and my grandma comes over to me and says, "No, no, no, no."
She said, "No, no. Don’t kick our food. The seal lived its life, and died somehow, and rolled up here, but it fed other -- other things, even when it died. And it’s still doing that. So you’ve gotta just leave it alone." "Oh, okay."
And she said, "We always gotta respect our food, wherever our food comes from. Regardless of whether it’s usable to us or not, it’s feeding something or somebody."
And so after that, I had a lot of respect for animals that I found washed up on the beach, you know. And never forgot that. That was so clear to me.
She really paid a lot of time and attention to me during that -- during that time, you know.
KAREN HEBERT: And did you say you -- did she fish down in Igushik, did you say? THOMAS TILDEN: Hm, mm. KAREN HEBERT: Yeah.
THOMAS TILDEN: Yeah. Yeah. She had a set net site down there. She had a commercial site. And, of course, fish rack and smokehouse.
Everybody had a fish rack and smokehouse, because that was the time to put up the fish. So we put up a lot of fish for us to eat during the wintertime.
And then, of course, we had dog teams. And you had to figure a fish -- a fish a day for every dog team that you had.
Then you had to pad it with about three -- or about 30 days more of fish, because when people come to visit you, you had to feed their dogs, you know.
So we put up thousands of fish. And usually it was only after -- only after we put up the fish that we saved for ourself.
You know, it was the late run. The late run of salmon, which happened to be chums. And so we called it dog fish, you know. And so, that’s how the people call ‘em "dogs" now, you know. But that was the fish that we put up for our -- for our dog teams.
KAREN HEBERT: And your -- your grandmother sold some of those fish, too, to the canneries or -- ?
THOMAS TILDEN: Mm-hm, yeah. There was a set net. And every period, the cannery had a truck on the beach there. They’d come to every site and pew every fish on board.
Throw every fish on board their truck and -- and then give you a slip of paper telling you how much -- how much fish they took from you.
Back then, of course, we were paid per fish. It wasn’t until the ‘70s that we were finally paid by the pound.
KAREN HEBERT: And so maybe I -- you can tell us a bit more about how you first sorta came to be involved in work on resource issues in Bristol Bay?
THOMAS TILDEN: I think by accident. (Chuckles) I really think by accident, because I had -- I was a proofreader for the Bristol Bay Native Corporation. And -- and so, I was proofreading about all of this offshore oil, and Bristol Bay Area Plan, resource plan.
And back then, of course, there was -- in order to duplicate something, you had to put little sheets of ink, paper in between sheets. And so the secretaries, before they pulled those ink sheets out, they -- they wanted to make sure that everything -- all the spelling was right and the lines were all perfect.
So I had a desk close to them. They always used to use me all the time. So I was sitting there proofreading.
KAREN HEBERT: What year about is this that you were doing this work?
THOMAS TILDEN: That was ’72 that I did that.
But parts of that though, you know, in the village, our -- our village council was very traditional. It had a tribal chief, and second chief, third chief.
And their meetings basically involved everybody, because we’d have a big potluck. And that’s how they met. That’s how they’d meet, was that we’d have this potluck. And then they’d talk about some issues that came up.
And we had people from Dillingham come up to our village one time. And they were talking about a land claim settlement act, and protecting our resources, you know.
And, of course, in our village, we saw hardly anybody going any -- there was hardly anybody that came to our village, except pilots that were going through, or people that were motoring up the river.
KAREN HEBERT: So this is in Portage Creek now? THOMAS TILDEN: Mm-hm.
KAREN HEBERT: Yeah. THOMAS TILDEN: Yeah. And so -- so, we really didn’t see what they were talking about. You know, the influence of people coming in and affecting the resources.
Except that -- except that during moose season, all these people from Dillingham would come up, and all these sport hunters would come up. And then we would see that -- -- That, wow, we’ve gotta get our moose before these guys come up, you know.
And -- and that’s the way our village was. We knew when they were gonna come up. And -- and so we really didn’t have to scramble for moose.
Because those guys were run by seasons. And we weren’t. We were just -- we ran by need. You know, we were different. We were totally different than them.
Of course, they told us that we were illegal. (Laughter) But to us, it wasn’t. It was just, you know, tiny. You know, we were gonna get our moose anyway.
And -- but I can remember that one meeting that they came up, and they were talking about the need for a land claims settlement act. And I remember, we all asked questions. And we were all kind of sitting there confused, because we didn’t see any resource issues, or we didn’t see any conflict between user groups.
And the chief, when he spoke, you know, he said, "Why are you guys muddying the waters? You know, we don’t have no problems up here." And -- and he really meant that, because we really didn’t see any problems with that.
But I can remember the people from Dillingham being kind of upset, because they said that was happening all around us, you know. But we didn’t see the population. And we were a small village. We didn’t see no population issues out there. Except during moose season.
KAREN HEBERT: Hm mm. And then how did -- it sounds like you must have moved from Portage to Anch -- or eventually to Dillingham if you were in Dillingham in the early ‘70s. How did land claims then change the Bristol Bay region?
THOMAS TILDEN: In -- well, we moved to -- I was actually -- I had to go to high school, because our school only went to eighth grade.
And then I had an option of going to Oregon. Chemawa, Chemawa Indian School down there, or Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma. Or Dillingham, which was a -- had a boarding home student -- as a boarding home student. Stay and live in someone’s home.
And so, that’s what I chose. I decided to do that. And so I went back down to Dillingham.
Dillingham was a small little town then, 600 people. And that’s how I got down there.
And people lived differently in Dillingham. To me, of course, it was a big city. But they lived differently. They act differently. And they didn’t really depend on the resource like we did out in the village.
They bought stuff from the store, you know. It was a totally different concept to me. And it was kind of like a different world.
And it was also wishful, you know. I can remember thinking, boy, these guys, they don’t eat hoofs. They don’t eat these pateq (bone marrow) in the bones. And they don’t eat this and that. It was different.
They didn’t eat the food that we ate, you know. But it was interesting, anyway, to -- to notice that difference.
KAREN HEBERT: And so, you mentioned before that you first started hearing about potential oil and gas development when you were working for the -- was it the BBNC (Bristol Bay Native Corporation), or the BBNA (Bristol Bay Native Association)? THOMAS TILDEN: BBNC.
KAREN HEBERT: BBNC. And so, how did that influence your perspectives and the way that you eventually were to get involved in a lot of local -- local issues and organizations?
THOMAS TILDEN: I think when I was proofreading those letters, and -- and a lot of them were actually explaining our dependence on the fish and game. And -- and I thought that’s absolutely right. That’s very important.
All these resources to us, because we -- at that time, we were at a low end of salmon coming into Bristol Bay. There was years that we barely met escapement. And that’s why we were kinda poor back in the ‘60s.
But, of course, I didn’t know, really think about that as us as being poor, but the salmon runs were real small.
And -- and so we hardly had any take home pay. Of course, there was enough for subsistence, and for our dogs, but there wasn’t enough for buying new things like clothes, and food, and stuff like that.
And so, most of the families at that time were in the hole with canneries or stores. Back then, they used to let you charge.
And that -- and, of course, I realized that, I think, when I dropped that bag of flour. And then my dad had explained to me about, you know, how much he was in debt, and how he couldn’t really get any more. Add any more to that debt.
And so I knew that -- that the resources that we got off the land up there in Portage and down there in Igushik were very important to us, was what we ate.
And, so, yeah, I wanted to protect them. And I saw that’s the intent of the letters that was going out to these public officials, that -- that how important these resources were to us.
And so I -- so I since that, I -- I felt that I -- so the people from the state government and the oil companies came to our area, and I listened to them. I watched those people, because I didn’t know them, you know, but I watched them.
And, of course, the first thing that really stuck out to me was their clothing. Their clothing was different, you know. It wasn’t -- it wasn't rough and tough jeans that we had. You know, they had -- they had different kind of pants on. They had different kind of shirts on, you know.
And then I -- when -- when they started talking about their oil and gas, you know. And -- and kinda our needs were kinda second to them, I was kinda shocked.
How could these people feel that way about our food? Our resources? That they really don’t care? It was kinda obvious, you know, in the meetings that the only thing they were pursuing was their oil and gas.
So that’s -- that's -- I -- I noticed that. And that’s how I really got involved.
You know, because a lot of the old timers, particularly from the village at that time, couldn’t speak English, you know. They had a hard time saying what they meant and felt.
And so, I kinda filled that gap for them. You know, that’s how I really got into this, all of this, I think, was that -- that even though my speaking and knowing the Yup’ik language was very limited at the time, I could still feel what they were feeling, what they were trying to get across.
And so that’s how -- that -- that -- that's how I really think I got involved in all of this. Was listening to the elders trying to -- trying to portray what they were trying to say.
KAREN HEBERT: And so, what were the first sorta involvements in local organizations that you participated in?
THOMAS TILDEN: I really can't -- I can't remember. I just -- I just remember a meeting, you know, down -- down at the old movie theater in Dillingham, and going down there when --
because I knew the date. I knew the date because I’d read these letters. And so I went down there just as an individual, you know.
And then I saw that they had these other folks from the villages there and so I attended.
But, of course, you’ve gotta go farther, way back when I was five years old, six years old. My dad used to take me to -- Of course, he was involved in all of this stuff. And he used to take me to all these meetings.
And to me, it was just an outing with dad. And I’d go to all these meetings. And he’d always sit me in the front row, and I’d sit there, and kick, and play, and write, and draw, and this and that, but I’d always listen to what was going on in the meetings.
And my dad would always check on me. You know, "How you doing, Tom?" "Oh, I’m doing good." "You okay?" "Yeah, I’m okay." Oh, yeah, and I’d say, "Hey, how come that guy was shouting at that guy over there?" You know.
And my dad would sit there. "Well, this guy thinks this. And this guy thinks that. And that’s how come they disagree." I said, "Well, why don’t they do this?" And my dad says, "Yeah, why don’t they?"
So they call the meeting back to order. And my dad would bring up what I said, "Hey, my son over there, you know, he’s six years old, and he can see the difference here. And he’s come up with a solution. This is what he said." And he says, "If he can think that, why can’t we as adults?" You know.
So, that’s -- that’s how I got involved in meetings, you know, as a young kid.
KAREN HEBERT: And what was your -- what were those meetings that your dad was involved in most?
THOMAS TILDEN: Mostly resource meetings. Fish and game.
KAREN HEBERT: Okay, so fishing and what -- ? And fish and game? What -- what kind of fishing meetings? And what was -- what were the -- what were the main issues that people were debating back then?
THOMAS TILDEN: Numbers. I mean, of course, they -- they were talking escapement numbers. They were talking about different things about -- about the fishery itself.
And, of course, back then, of course, there was a lot of meetings on prices, because there was fishing unions at that time. And so a lot of it centered on fish prices.
And, of course, boundaries and things like that, because it was -- it was a new fishery. You know, because after statehood, everything had changed. You know, so it was kind of a new fishery.
And so -- and, of course, they -- they combined game issues back then, too. And so there was a lot of hunting, and caribou. And, of course, fish and game --
Back then, I think the people were looking at those numbers, and every year they’d grow, you know.
And so I made kind of a habit when I went out there. When I was ten years old, I would sit there, and I’d count all the boats around me, around my dad’s boat when we were drifting. How many boats there were. I’d tell my dad. He’d write them down. And then --
So every year I did that. And the numbers were going up, you know. And he was concerned about -- about the fishery.
And I remember during some of those fishing union meetings, they were talking about that they have to limit how many people can fish, because only so many people can make money off of this fishery.
And my dad being a former sailboat fisherman, you know, he could remember putting in 30, 40 thousand fish a season, you know. And, of course, nowadays, with all our modern technology, modern boats and everything, when we got a high number of fishermen out there, we think we catch a lot of fish when we get 20,000 fish, you know.
But back then, they used to get 30, 40 thousand. And so they saw the decline, too, you know, from 30, 40 thousand. Of course, some of the high years were 50,000. But they saw the numbers come down to 20, you know. And so --
KAREN HEBERT: You’re saying as more boats entered the fleet? THOMAS TILDEN: Hm mm. Yeah.
KAREN HEBERT: And so was that before or after Limited Entry? THOMAS TILDEN: Huh? KAREN HEBERT: Was that before or after Limited Entry you’re talking? THOMAS TILDEN: Before Limited Entry. KAREN HEBERT: Before?
THOMAS TILDEN: Before Limited Entry. In fact, one of the things that had happened that really woke up a lot of people’s eyes I think was -- What year was that? I’m thinking ‘67 or ‘68 that --
We fished for Queen Cannery. And when we went down there that spring -- I think it was in ’68.
We went down that spring, and back then the canneries used to buy the boats for the fishermen. And there was all these new boats, you know. And we were looking at these new boats. And some of them were really good, Bryant boats, 32-foot. And some of them were plywood boats.
And in ’68, we had a storm. And those plywood boats got washed up on those sandbars, and they lost all their -- they’d -- they'd lost the whole crew. Everybody -- everybody died in those boats.
Three of those plywood boats ended up hitting those sandbars and lost all of those people. And people were looking for them.
But -- but the thing that -- that had -- that I think that was in everybody’s mind was that that fishery was growing very rapidly, and that people from the Lower 48 were bringing up any kinda boat that they could to catch fish.
And in Queen, we saw that. And the other people saw that, too. And I think that’s when --
And, of course, my dad, with actual numbers, which I used to count, you know, saw the increase, too. And so, that’s when they actually started talking about Limited Entry back then. Back in those days, about that time.
KAREN HEBERT: So, I’d be curious to hear your reflections on, you know, what the -- the sort of main issues have been that people in Bristol Bay are most concerned about involving natural resources, and how those have changed over time? What you see as the sorta biggest concerns in the past, and how that relates to those of more recent years?
THOMAS TILDEN: Well, I -- I think we were -- You know, when I look back at that time -- back in the ‘50s, the federal government ran everything until ’60, 1960. And then the state government came in.
And the federal government does what the federal government did. The decisions were made in Washington, D.C. and Seattle. Seattle companies would tell Washington, D.C. how many fish they wanted. And so then Washington, D.C. would just say, "Okay."
But we saw a steep decline in number of salmon during that year. The ‘60s were terrible for fish because we had to rebuild those stocks.
So when the State of Alaska took over and started using science to decide how much numbers, and predictions and things like that, that they finally applied those.
And so, we sat on the beach a few seasons, you know, with absolutely very minimum fishing. Maybe king salmon season, and that was it.
And -- and so, we didn’t make any money. The federal government sent us food. They sent us crackers and cheese and butter.
And so, we had to live off the land. But they were rebuilding the -- rebuilding the salmon system back then. In the ‘60s. And it was quite a -- quite a struggle.
And, of course, once they kicked in science to determine how much fish would go up the river and multiply and stuff, the other thing that --
There was two other things that kicked in. One, there was an intercept fishery down in Area M. And those guys would just load up, load up, load up, regardless of how many fish were going up. So we realized that, oh, wow, we better deal with these guys, too.
And then, washing up on our beaches was all of this tangle web and these Japanese round balls. You know, corks for them. And so we realized that, oh, wow, there’s people out there fishing. And people actually saw them, you know.
And so -- so there was a -- so that was kind of a -- driving thing was, okay, let's see what we can do with Area M, then we’ll work on these foreign people. So Area M was a big issue back then. And eventually it turned into a -- the focus turned onto the foreign fishermen.
And boy, when we closed down the -- or we limited the amount of fish that the Area M boys could catch that we saw increase, the slice jump. Things kinda smoothed out where we could actually survive off the fishery.
Then when we kicked the foreign fishermen out in ’77, boy, the numbers really leaped. You know, we really saw a big difference. So those were -- those were the issues at that time.
Of course, the other thing with that was going on was that -- was that gear -- gear was a big issue, because back then there was no limit on how many meshes you could have. People were sewing two nets together, you know. And so nets were 40 feet deep, you know.
And so those were minor issues compared to the two big things, so -- You know, but there were always issues. Fishermen always have issues, you know.
KAREN HEBERT: Right. And what about -- what about in more recent years? I mean, you also mentioned the start of Limited Entry and concern over, you know, sorta more boats and the fleet. And concerns about interception in the fishery.
How does that compare to the issues that have been most significant, you know, for example, over the past decade, or any time in between that you’ve seen them? What’s -- what's stayed the same? And what’s been the most sort of dramatic changes, would you say?
THOMAS TILDEN: Well, the -- the -- It was kind of funny that the -- that the first Limited Entry program that they had was that they said that they were going to limit each boat to 25 fathoms per person on board, you know.
And -- and so, the local folks, they just bought license for all their kids, and their wives, and the whole family was on board. And everybody was out there fishing so that they could fish 150 fathoms.
And outside fishermen came in, and they just have them and their crew member. So they only had 50 fathoms. It was kind of funny, because we had a lot more gear in the water for local fishermen at that time than the outside fishermen did.
And, of course, some of them were getting disgusted. But it was us local folks that were complaining about, "Oh, we almost lost our son! We almost lost our daughter! Grandma fell overboard!" Or something, you know.
And, "No, it’s too dangerous. We can’t have that. We gotta kick the system out." And so we threw that system out, and came in with this other Limited Entry system, you know.
And, but actually, that first Limited Entry system actually gave us more -- more permits. More -- more people fishing than what the present Limited Entry system is. (Coughs)
But the good thing about that system was that -- was that we all had to buy gear license. And that was one of the factors in -- in getting a new permit, was had you received a gear license. So we actually qualified for a lot of permits. Otherwise, we probably wouldn’t have.
Of course, but this new system that they put in, eventually we -- we lost or we are losing, you know, that we’ve become the minority in our fishery now compared to at one time we were the majority.
KAREN HEBERT: Hm, mm. And in recent years, you’ve become -- or maybe not recent years. You could tell me the history of when you got involved in the leadership of the Curyung Tribe and how your tribal government has also sort of played a role in being a voice in resource concerns in recent years in Bristol Bay. Maybe you could speak a little bit more to that -- to that story.
THOMAS TILDEN: About our tribe’s involve -- ? KAREN HEBERT: Mm-hm.
THOMAS TILDEN: Well, you know, our tribe has always worked on mostly social issues. And -- and then there was a program by the North Pacific Management Council that said --
there -- there was a couple fighters on there that said, "Hey, you know, the local people are sittin' on the beach watching all the Seattle boats outside catch all this bottom fish. This crab, and this cod, and this -- all of this big fishery are going on outside of them. And they’re not participating because only Seattlers."
So they -- so they gave us a small percentage that we could fish. And, of course, first they just only gave us cod. Then eventually they gave us all the other resources.
But that’s how our tribe got involved, because our tribe was one of the few villages that was able to qualify. And we -- so we really got involved in fisheries because -- because that organization made us involved in --
So now we’re actually looking at, you know, doing our own processing plant, you know, for our fishermen to get involved in.
And so, we -- we offer our people jobs through that BBEDC, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation. And so, our people work there. And they also get some of the benefits, because the BBEDC with their profits, they allow us fishermen to get insulated fish holds, and brailers, and icing systems.
And so, that’s been very helpful for our fishermen to get top quality fish, you know. But we’re -- we do want to do our own processing eventually someday.
KAREN HEBERT: And in -- in terms of, you know, the debates over mining development that have been going on in Bristol Bay in recent years, how did you come to be involved in those? Maybe you could also tell us a bit about that.
THOMAS TILDEN: In mining, it was -- it was -- mining -- When we first heard about the Pebble Mine in -- in -- up on the Koktuli River, to some of us it was a blessing in disguise. Wow, great timing.
Because at that time, our salmon price had dropped to 50 cents a pound. The salmon farming industry had grown really big in Chile and Norway. And they dominated the markets, and our salmon prices just crashed.
And at 50 cents a pound, with all our expenses and stuff, we didn’t have -- we didn’t make very much money.
And so, when we saw the mining coming in, we thought, "Oh, year-round jobs and economic opportunity." Or at least that’s what I thought. (Laughs)
And so we were kinda neutral on -- kinda neutral on the idea. But once we started getting educated on what this all really meant, then it was like little red flags started popping up right and left.
And, of course, when we asked the -- we started doing our own research. And -- and so we asked these companies about, "Hey, what about this, ah, you gonna use this toxic stuff to get those minerals out? And what’s gonna happen with all those -- "
"Oh, we’ll get back to you." And they’d never get back to us, you know. And we realized that, wow, there’s -- there's something really big that was going to happen to us, and we didn’t really know what -- what the outcome was gonna be.
And so -- so we really had to concentrate, and kinda organized around that, and formed a group called Nunamta (Nunamta Aulukestai), and started getting the answers that the mining company wouldn’t give us, you know.
We started creating partnerships and relationships with other organizations that had experience with these companies.
It was kind of funny, though. At the beginning, we kinda were overwhelmed by all these different companies coming in, or different organizations coming in and wanting to help us.
And -- but we also watched them start, you know, putting words in our mouths and starting taking over. And we were like, "No, no. That’s not what we said. We never said nothing about that!"
But they were doing all these frustrating -- we finally had to say, "No, we’re going to choose who our partners are going to be, after this," because it just --
We felt overwhelmed by some of those big organizations outside, so --
But it -- it took a while to fine-tune to people that we could trust and listen to us and would actually fight for us, you know, because otherwise -- because we made some enemies on the way.
They would -- some of these organizations would come in and tell us that, "Oh, you gotta fight this fight over in this part of Alaska, too, or in this country." And so we were doing all these letter writings and stuff.
And then we’d go to our regional or state-wide medias, and then those people that we wrote letters against, they’d get mad at us, you know. And finally, we had meetings and said, "No, we’re not gonna do that no more. You know, we’re gonna focus just on our issue. We’re not gonna go fight other people’s battles. Or we’re not gonna do what these other people want us to do."
And finally, it took a while to fine tune who -- who was gonna help us, and who was there for their -- their agenda, you know.
We had to settle on our agenda. But it took some time. But I think we’ve got a good working relationship with the people we work with now.
KAREN HEBERT: So maybe you can reflect a bit more on what the debate over mining has meant for the region. Has it sort of changed the -- the vision that the people in Bristol Bay have for their future and what it will be like to live in the -- to live in the -- in Bristol Bay?
And sort of how has -- how has it shifted in your -- in your opinion? Like a lot of these conversations about -- and activities have been going on for a long time.
THOMAS TILDEN: Well, there’s some good and bad that I saw that happened. It really created some bad scars amongst our people, because there was some people that bought into that to the mining is the best thing in the world.
And they really fought hard for the mining companies, you know. And it tore families apart. I could remember going to some community meetings where elders were actually fighting amongst themselves. You know, one sister would say, "Oh, my grandson and my son are working for the mining company, and that’s the best thing around here that ever happened to us."
And then her sister or brother would say, "No, you know, we gotta think about the resources. We gotta remember our ways protecting our natural resources. We can’t let this mining company destroy that and take that away from us, because we gotta think longer than us and our families."
And it was real difficult sitting in those meetings and watching -- watching that take place, you know.
And so, on the other side, it united folks that were fightin' against each other. There used to be three groups of people out there for the resources. There was the sport -- sport hunters and fishers. And then there was the commercial fishers and hunting guides. And then there was the subsistence user.
And they all had their ideas of what they wanted, and how much they needed, and how these other people were destroying their -- their little world. And what had happened was when the mining came in, these three groups united, you know. They all became one.
They all had a common enemy. And all of a sudden, they realized that -- that really, the differences that they had between them were small, you know. That they could work together.
And so that was -- that was a good part -- good part about that, you know.
And then the other thing, I think, another positive spin off of that, was that -- that the parents were, of course, were bringing their children to these meetings. And some of these kids graduated and then became experts in some of the fields that we never dealt with before, you know.
They became engineers, and -- and knew all of this stuff. So -- so in a way, there was good and bad that came out of this, I think, struggle, you know.
KAREN HEBERT: So maybe in the last part of our conversation, we can follow along with -- with these ideas and maybe speak a bit about both what -- So, the first question would be sort of what are the main issues that you imagine that the region is going to face in the future?
And then also, for those younger folks who are starting to get involved now, what you would -- what you think is most important for them to keep in mind from your experience over the past many decades sort of working on these issues in Bristol Bay?
THOMAS TILDEN: Well, locally, it was kind of funny how ANCSA (Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act) separated the lands. Gave some to the regional corporation and some -- gave some to the village corporations.
And -- and then -- then gave all of the subsurface lands that the village corporation had selected to the regional corporations. And -- and so, there’s gonna be a big fight over that, you know, down the road.
You know, because the -- the regional corporations, they’re profitmaking corporations. And they’re going to have to make money. And they’re going to explore, because I think the State of Alaska is really an unexplored state. And there’s gonna be more Pebble Mines discovered.
We’ve got too many mountains. We’ve got too many volcanoes, you know. We’ve got too many deep river systems. And stuff like that, so --
So there’s gonna be a big battle between the people themselves on these resources use. So that’s -- that’s something that, you know, people are going to have to watch.
I think eventually someday, we’re going to look back at Pebble and think of how small Pebble is, even though it’s a huge issue, you know. But -- but there’s going to be bigger battles down the road.
So -- so the kids gotta know that, that that’s gonna happen. That they -- they’re gonna have to get educated. And they’re gonna have to make those decisions.
And then -- but I think if they look down the road -- I’ll say if you look down the road 100 years from now, you know, what is Alaska going to be like?
And -- and this is something that the whole state has to look at, you know. What does the State of Alaska want to -- want to be 100 years from now? Does it want to see a whole bunch of open pit mines, all around the state, pocketed on all the river systems, destroying the river systems, ecosystems in that area?
Because right now, the regulations that we have don’t really protect, totally protect the resources, or the land, or the water.
And so the State of Alaska has to look at that, because when they finally pull the last drop of oil out of the ground, and the last mineral out of the ground, what are we gonna have left? You know, they’re gonna have to decide that.
That the decision that you’re gonna make is gonna be -- are last 100 years from now.
And in my -- my vision of what Alaska may be like 100 years from now, it’s gonna be that since we got so much of our land tied up in federal refuges and wildlife areas, that -- that people are gonna come to Alaska because it is the last frontier.
And they’re gonna wanna come and see fish in the streams, and birds in the air, and game on the land. They’re gonna want to come to see this last frontier for its natural beauty, its clean water, its renewable resources.
It’s what’s gonna draw people, because that -- that’s our future, you know, after everything is -- is gone.
So, our kids gotta think of not only protecting issues now, but they also have to keep their eye on the future as what do they want Alaska to be, so --
KAREN HEBERT: And for a -- a community in rural Alaska like Dillingham and the, you know, the region where you grew up, and, you know, where you have -- your ancestors are from, I mean, do you feel like what should -- what should people be keeping in mind?
What’s important about life in these places that you think they should be thinking about when they make the sorts of decisions that -- that you’re imagining that they’re going to have to face?
THOMAS TILDEN: Try that one more time.
KAREN HEBERT: (Chuckles) So I -- I was -- I was just wondering what you think are the most important things that the next generation should be keeping in mind about life in -- in a place like Dillingham when they’re facing these really complex decisions?
THOMAS TILDEN: Oh, okay. You know, one of our -- one of our biggest complaints I think about living in rural Alaska is the high cost of living, you know.
And so, as people try to address that issue, finding cheaper transportation and cheaper way of getting things in to lower that cost, and -- and to find alternative energy sources, once they accomplish that --
Alaska is a -- is a growing state. Because it’s such a small state now, but it just has allure to it. It’s an attraction.
I mean, I can remember going to Japan. And when I went to school over there. And they were, "Alaska? You’re from Alaska!?" And they’d sit there, and they’d wanna talk to me. And -- and, oh, they’d wanna go to Alaska. Everybody wanted to come to Alaska.
When we went to Hawaii, people wanted to come to Alaska. When we went to Washington, D.C., or Florida, or California, Alaska has that sense of -- of wildness to it. It has that attractiveness to it.
People always talk about that Binky the polar bear, you know. We gotta save that polar bear, you know. And -- and so they look at Alaska as mystic. It's -- It has its own attraction.
Eventually, they’re gonna come. And they’re gonna -- they're gonna stay. A lot of those folks are gonna stay. Because they -- wow, this is a great country. Who -- what other state gives you $1,000 to live in the state, you know?
And -- and so they’re gonna come, and they’re gonna stay. And the population is growing. Just look at Anchorage.
You know, I mean, back when I came -- came here, when I -- first time I came here, I think it was less than 100,000 people here. Now there’s 300,000 people, you know. Maybe more. I don’t know what the latest count is.
And in our region, when I -- in Dillingham, when I moved out of there in ’63 to Ohgsenakale there was less than 600 people. There was 500 some people, you know. And now there’s 2,100 people.
And I think the only thing that really kept them from growing was the land claims, because there wasn’t any really open land.
But now that the land has been settled, people know where federal land is, state land is, private land is, corporation land is. That land is gonna -- some of that corporation, village, state land is all gonna go for sale, and people are gonna start settling on those lands. So that’s population growth.
And so that -- that -- that’s something that the people are gonna have to -- because more people, that means more damage to the ecosystems around those communities. More runoff. More de-icing.
More -- more different ideas tried on some of these things. Sometimes you look at how fragile this ecosystem is.
When did this lake -- you know, used to have all these little fish in there, and somebody put pike in there, and all the little fish were gone. All the pike were, you know -- there’s gonna be a lot of invasive species.
There’s -- there's a lot of issues that people are -- don’t realize that with population growth is going to happen, because they forget that -- that sometimes they try to cure a problem --
Like out there in Bristol Bay, we tried to cut down the cost of living. And so we start looking at the airlines and the shipping companies. We invite ‘em to come in earlier. Invite them to come in late as they can in November.
And then, of course, we’re inviting airlines to come directly from Seattle, and stuff, you know. And with that, there’s, of course, going to be more tourism and Princess Tours is gonna be up here. And they’re gonna be running the state pretty soon, you know, if we don’t gear up and start to saying "Okay, let’s do something else."
But -- but there are big businesses out there just waiting, just waiting to come into the state because of its newness, its small population, and -- But subtracting this they know its gonna draw people.
And -- and -- But if we’re not careful, if we don’t do our long-range planning, we’re going to become overwhelmed.
KAREN HEBERT: And so, any -- any last thoughts that you might have on in terms of that long-range planning based on your sort of perspective, looking back on what you’ve seen over the course of your life. You know, what people now, and in the future, should be -- should be thinking about most?
And what’s, you know, the -- the most important things that -- the aspects of life in Bristol Bay that you’ve seen that you care about? What should --
Any last thoughts you have on -- on how people should be thinking about this long-range planning that you described?
THOMAS TILDEN: Yeah. I -- You know, I think like -- I think when we do long-range planning, we gotta really lay out on the table -- table of everything that -- that we think that -- we really gotta study some of the issues.
I mean, I think about using the spruce bark beetle as an example that came in and devastated all our trees, you know. And supposedly, it’s a natural occurrence that happens. And so, it leaves all these dry, dry trees sitting in the forest.
And -- and you think that they’re totally harmless. You know, they’re just gonna -- they're gonna die, and they’re gonna fall over, and a new tree’s gonna sprout up.
But you put that -- that spruce bark tree on fire by lightning or by an accidental fire, and that thing is gonna go. It’s just -- it's just something that’s just gonna burn up.
And this last summer, we saw the results of that all across the state and all across the United States. The spruce bark beetle that had killed all these trees and all these forests. And, of course, we let -- the wildlife service said, "Oh, keep everything natural." But they never saw one, that -- that -- that spruce bark beetle tree was gonna create havoc with fires and stuff.
So whenever we do our planning, we gotta look at all aspects of what might happen to changing the environment just a little bit, you know. And so, then you tack on global warming, and climate change, and stuff like that.
All of those have reactions, somewhere down the line. It’s either gonna hurt you or make life better for you, you know, but you really gotta --
People really gotta not rush over or bypass it, but take a look at all the -- all the things that are happening on this.
KAREN HEBERT: Okay, good. Well, thank you for all these perspectives. I wanna just let you have the -- the last word in terms of anything you feel like you haven’t mentioned that you feel like might be important thoughts on these topics for now and for people who might listen to this recording in the future.
THOMAS TILDEN: No. Just go out there and enjoy it. Be careful and have fun. That’s what I say.
KAREN HEBERT: Sounds like a -- a very good way to finish off. Thank you so much, Tom. THOMAS TILDEN: Yep.