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Joanne Nelson, Part 1

E. Joanne Nelson was interviewed on July 10, 2014 by Karen "Lexi" Tuddenham in Dillingham, Alaska. In this first part of a two part interview, Joanne talks about coming to Alaska, her work as an educator and marine agent, and changes in fishing regulations and bird and animal populations. Her husband, George Nelson, is present during the interview, but he does not say anything.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2016-12-02_PT.1

Project: Fishing and Natural Resources in Bristol Bay
Date of Interview: Jul 10, 2014
Narrator(s): Joanne Nelson
Interviewer(s): Karen "Lexi" Tuddenham
Transcriber: Landmark Associates, Inc.
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Science Foundation, The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, Yale University
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

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Coming to Alaska from Idaho, getting married, and coming to live in Dillingham

Changes in regulations for subsistence fishing

Work as an educator and marine agent

Bird class taught at Bristol Bay Campus of the University of Alaska

Changes observed in local bird populations

Effects of change on humans and changes in other animal populations

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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


LEXI TUDDENHAM: So, it is July 10th, 2014. And I’m Lexi Tuddenham (Karen is her official given name). And I’m here with Joanne Nelson in Dillingham, Alaska.

So, maybe, could you start off by stating your full name, the date and place you were born, and where you spent your early years?

JOANNE NELSON: My name is Ethel Joanne Nelson. I was born in Nampa, Idaho. And when I was about one-and-a-half-years old, I think, my parents moved to northern Idaho around the Moscow, Lewiston. And I grew up there in a family of -- there were eight of us children. And --

LEXI TUDDENHAM: Wow. So, how did you end up coming up here?

JOANNE NELSON: Well, when I was 17, a family moved into the small town where I lived, right between Moscow and Lewiston, called Genesee. Very small.

And they were Seventh Day Adventist people. And that was so totally new to us, we had never met Seventh Day Adventists. And we were --

Well, in school it was like, “Oh, look, she doesn’t wear any make-up. Ah, look, she doesn’t wear any jewelry. Ah, I hear they only eat vegetables.” You know, that sorta thing.

And so we just like didn’t associate with them.

But then school let out, and I was sitting in my bedroom window reading a book. And across the street there was a small pasture and there was a sheep there. And I had seen him grow up from lamb. His name was Hadacol, which was the latest health elixir of the day.

And the -- it was Saturday, their Sabbath of the Adventist group. And they were walking along the other side of the pasture there.

And Hadacol got out. And they were trying to get him back in, but I could see that they were -- didn’t know what they were doing. So, knowing Hadacol, I ran downstairs across the street and helped them get Hadacol back in.

And in the process, a young man, his name was Alex Tallekpalek. He was a native from Levelock. He was visiting them because this Adventist family had lived at Aleknagik and had a little hand pack cannery up there.

And in the process of putting Hadacol in the pen, Alex cut his finger very deeply. And they said, “We need to go back to the house and bandage this. Do you want to come along?” And I says, “Oh sure.” So I went down the road.

And one of the older sisters started showing me pictures of Alaska. And I was totally fascinated.

And it turned out that they -- what their routine was that they would -- in the spring at the end of school, they would hire young Seventh Day Adventist people from the local academies like Auburn and Washington and Spangle in Idaho, and bring them up here to spend the summer working in their cannery.

But a f -- some of ‘em that they hired had backed out, and they were gonna be shorthanded and they asked me if I would like to come along.

So I asked my mom. I asked my dad. They said, “Okay.”

And so, on a certain date we loaded up into the back on the flatbed part of an International truck, and with a little tent built on the front part. Couple of drums there to carry gas 'cause there was no gas stations in Canada in those days.

And we all piled in there. There was a couple little cots, but we didn’t sleep in them, we just rode on those. And we drove up through Canada to Anchorage.

And every night we would pull off the road somewhere and we'd haul mattresses out from the back and sleep on the ground and cook over an open fire, and then just keep going. A week, took us.

And then we -- we flew by small plane through the Lake Clark Pass to Dillingham. And here, we waited for the ship to come because those days everything came by ship.

And their summer supplies, grub and all that was gonna be on that ship. So we waited until the ship arrived with the grub.

And we -- and they loaded it into a -- one of the -- a double-ender they call it, old sailboat. And they had -- they'd put a bracket on there and it had a little nine-horse kicker, and in the night we’d go “putt, putt, putt” across to the bluff over there where you see the cross. And that’s where we spent the summer working in the cannery.

LEXI TUDDENHAM: Wow. That’s fantastic. So, did you go back year after year or it was -- it was just that one year and then -- ?

JOANNE NELSON: In the fall, we went back out, and I was still in high school. And the following spring when they came, my sister came along.

And we spent the second summer here, and that’s when I met my husband. He followed us to Idaho.

And we got married the day after Christmas in my senior year. And then came back up in the spring. And that was the spring of 1954. And I’ve been here ever since.

LEXI TUDDENHAM: So, with, you know, kind of going back and forth over the years and then -- and then living here for so long, can you talk about some of the -- the things that you’ve experienced or the things that you’ve seen up here that have sort of shaped your perspective on resource issues in Bristol Bay? Whether that’s fishing or other activities, you know?

JOANNE NELSON: Hm mm. Definitely. In the early days -- Well, I’ve been involved in the subsistence fishery and then I fished with George in his 32-foot gillnetter.

LEXI TUDDENHAM: Yeah, just a little bit more about your experiences of resource use. You said you had subsist -- you were involved in subsistence and commercial fishing.

JOANNE NELSON: Well, as far as the subsistence was concerned, people could just go above the legal line. They could just set their net anytime they wanted to, pick it anytime they wanted to, and there was plenty of fish in the resource.

Nobody seemed to be without their share of the fish. And then, the runs started getting less. And ADF&G (Alaska Department of Fish and Game) instigated a rule that you put your net out. like, on the morning tide of one day, pull it in the morning tide of the next, or just the tide, and then put it out the next day, bring it in the next day.

Because people were neglecting their nets, and sometimes leaving them there two or three days. The fish were wasted. And to prevent waste of fish they did that. And that was really a good deal. I was glad to see that happen.

LEXI TUDDENHAM: And so, you’re retired now, but did you -- did you ever work for any of the agencies, or for any of the organizations, besides the cannery up here?

JOANNE NELSON: Yes. I worked, for several years, at the cannery. I think I worked in every department there, except in the office. I mean, all the way from waitressing down to sliming down at the other end, and casing in between.

I worked for Southwest Region schools in their -- They had a resource center that had Special Ed materials that were mailed out to the village teachers. And I think I worked for Southwest Region schools for --

Well, and then I took the Indian Education Act directorship. And I flew to the villages. All of them in the -- It was Bristol Bay, and Lake and Penin -- Those were -- Oh, Southwest Region School and Lake and Pen District, they were all one at that time, all Bristol Bay Corporation lands.

And I was supposed to go to each village at least once a year, and twice, if possible, to meet with the parent committee members to find out --

and to tell them what their budget was for the year, and how -- what they wanted to spend that on for the children.

And then, I went -- I took a job at the University of Alaska, Bristol Bay campus. I was the assistant to the Marine Advisory Program agent. And I did that for -- I think from ’92 to 2003. And went through several agents.

And then, after I quit being an agent there, I had written a bird book and I had it published. And my daughter-in-law, who is the director of the campus, Debbie McLean Nelson, she encouraged me to do up my resume, showing all the things I had done with birds.

And I did, and she submitted it to the University at Fairbanks, and they issued me a certificate that allowed me to teach college-level birding classes for five years.

And at the end of five years, they got it renewed for an additional five, which is now on-going.

However, first -- second week in May of this year, I taught my last class. And that was my favorite class, and it was everybody’s favorite class. We had lectures and slide show identifying all the birds on like Thursday night. And then, Friday, we all got on planes -- there were three planeloads -- flew out to Cape Constantine and landed on the beach, set up our tents.

Each person was responsible for bringing whatever they needed to sustain life for that length of time. And for three days there, we had lectures and tests.

And everybody had a data sheet, one per day, to list the birds and the numbers and the habitat. And that information was compiled when we got back here, and given to the US Fish and Wildlife Service for their records, since they had not had funding to do a survey out there since 1999, so --

And I started that class in 2007, and just finished up.

LEXI TUDDENHAM: Wow, that’s pretty fantastic. So who were your students? I mean, did -- were they locals usually or -- ?

JOANNE NELSON: Well, at first it was local, but then as people heard about it -- two years ago, I had a couple from Michigan, and a professor from the University of Missoula in Montana. And I’ve had people from Washington State, and several times Anchorage.

And one time, a man was down from -- oh, no, that was a different class. A guy from Fairbanks that came down to do something at the campus, and saw the advertisement for one of my classes, and extended his visit so he could take the class.

But I tried teaching four classes a year. And, of course, you have to have at least six students to conduct a class. And I didn’t always get six.

But the Dillingham City School, their counselor, at one time, was very good about if he had a student who was gonna be one credit short for graduation that spring, then he would enroll them in my class so that -- or have them enroll in my class to make up their credit for --

LEXI TUDDENHAM: That’s great. So what changes, I mean, have you seen in -- in some of those resources, whether the fisheries or -- or the birds, for example, over the years that you’ve been here?

JOANNE NELSON: Well, definitely there’s a terrific shortage of swallows. They just don’t come back like they used to.

And I did not see nearly as many warblers. I think I identified three kinds this summer, and there's about five of 'em that are here. And I don't know if it’s 'cause I’m not watching.

I have one bush outside my kitchen window that the warblers love it. And usually, when I’m doing dishes, I will see them. Or, if I’m sitting at the dining room table, I’ll see them. And this year, we just didn’t have the number of warblers.

And rusty blackbirds, did not see a one this year, whereas some years we’d see five or six at the lower end of the yard. Yeah, so, I -- I think that there’s a decline in the birds. My observation is.

LEXI TUDDENHAM: Huh. Why do you think that is?

JOANNE NELSON: Well, in one of my classes, what I teach is that, many years ago, in the -- way back when. The 1920s or so. The miners were -- they would sometimes die down in the mines.

And they discovered that birds are much more sensitive to the decline in the purity of the air. And they would take canaries in their cages down there, and when the can -- 'cause they sing all the time.

And when the canaries stopped singing, they knew it was a warning sign, and they would leave the mines.

And it’s the same thing today. If we keep our eye on the birds, we’re gonna know what’s happening to our -- what would you call it? Our world, the air quality, that sort of thing.

And another thing that the birds tell us, too, is the decline in birds is the global warming, which a lot of us would like to snarf at, you know. But it’s true.

In Canada, they found out the gray jays have moved more northward. And part of that reason is because gray jays take food, whenever it’s there, and then they hide it here and there.

Well, if, when the babies hatch, it hasn’t been cold enough to preserve the food and it has rotted, then the babies starve.

And they say that’s been happening in Canada, and that the -- the southern boundary of where the gray jay is usually come to is moving northward.

LEXI TUDDENHAM: So if all these changes are happening to the birds, I mean -- You used the analogy of the canary in the mine. What does that mean for people, do you think?

JOANNE NELSON: It means that, as the birds are declining, we will start to decline because of impurities in the air, impurities in the water.

Global warming has warmed the ocean, you know like, a degree or two. And that doesn’t sound a lot. However, if the ocean is warmer --

Well, take a kittiwake. They live on the rocky crags. They fly out. They go down, and dive into the water, and get their food, and come back.

Well, if they have to fly further, they’re gonna be tireder. And if they have to fly way out there to get the sand lance, their main food, because the waters are too warm closer to the shore, and they’re deeper, so they’re in their colder habitat, sometimes it could even happen that the bird, on the way back to the nest, will digest what they got, and have nothing for the baby when they get there.

So, global warming, it’s serious. It’s serious. And as the -- I said in my class, as the birds go, so go we.

LEXI TUDDENHAM: Right. Yeah. So in terms of sort of your -- your work with the Marine Advisory Program, and also with the education, what were some of the other resource issues that came up when you were -- when you were working in these programs?

JOANNE NELSON: Oh, let me see. I don't know if it’s just because of the time of the year, or what, but we’re gonna talk big game animals? LEXI TUDDENHAM: Sure.

JOANNE NELSON: Yeah. Up the Nushagak, we have a cabin. And we go up there mid-August and do our annual moose hunt.

And I happened to look at a family video that I had taken in 1997 and in 1998, and we were up at the cabin. And while we were there, we saw a caribou at least twice. We saw moose much more often. We saw mink and land otters several times. Beavers. I mean, it was like living in Wild Kingdom.

Well, we were -- and when I watched that, I realized that we don’t see that anymore. And we were up just last weekend, spent the Fourth of July weekend, and while we were up there, we did not see one moose, not one caribou, not one land otter.

We saw a beaver. We saw a mink. (To George) That was about it, huh, honey? GEORGE NELSON: Hm mm.

JOANNE NELSON: We heard cranes. But it’s not the wild kingdom it used to be.

And we used to leave our cabin, and walk past the other cabins, and past his dad’s, and up to the bluff, we call it. It’s just something we do every time we’re up there.

And we used to scare up small -- small flocks of spruce hen, maybe just two or three at a time. Not one spruce hen on that walk this time.

So, you know, there’s a decline in the -- in the animal population. And I don't know if it’s because of just increased traffic and they stay back from the river, or if, actually, they’re being killed off too much.

LEXI TUDDENHAM: Hm. Yeah, interesting.