A Loss for Bristol Bay

A Loss for Bristol Bay

My very first trip to Bristol Bay to do fieldwork for my “Where Water is Gold” project started in Naknek. From there, I had to catch a ride on an Ocean Beauty tender to meet up with Everett Thompson and the F/V Chulyen down in the Ugashik District to photograph commercial sockeye salmon fishing in action. While in Naknek, I stayed at A Little House Bed and Breakfast. It was there that I first met Violet Willson, who I soon came to consider my Alaskan grandma. I learned today that she passed away on January 15.

My paternal grandmother was Edna Johnson, a full-blooded German who married a Norweigian from a farm family in North Dakota. When you went to visit grandma, there was nothing she would not do for you. She reveled in the joy of cooking and telling stories, frequently insisting that even though you may have been full, there was still more food to eat. And then there were the card games. As a kid, my favorite was “Go Fish.” I eventually outgrew the simplicity of the game, but still insisted on playing it with grandma. It was part of being with her.

Being with Violet was very much the same. Calling her place a bed and breakfast was far too underwhelming for what the place really was. It was home. Once inside its walls, you were family. She told me of her family history, her early years working as a Winter Watchman at the old Bumble Bee Cannery across the river in South Naknek, raising her five children – mostly after the death of her first husband, Guy Groat. Whenever I was in the house, I was welcome at the table for every meal. If a card game was in the offering, I was invited to the table. Most often the game was Rummy, which I had not played since I was in the Navy. I’d sit with her and watch the evening news, she’d tell me about the family represented in the wall of photos behind her chair in the living room. And those photos were just scratching the surface; her family and living history were represented in countless photo albums. The last time I visited her, I brought a stack of prints I made out of photos I had taken of her family fishing their set net sites or out on drift boats – four generations of fishermen – and photos of Naknek.

In addition to being my Alaskan grandma, she was also a fighter. She appeared in several video specials or documentaries regarding Bristol Bay and the fight to defeat development of the Pebble Mine. She was also a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the State of Alaska over its permitting Pebble exploration for over 20 years without a public process. The case, called Nunamta Aulukestai v. State of Alaska, went to trial in December 2010. The plaintiffs lost, and pressed on with an appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court. Even though oral arguments were heard on that case in December 2013, the decision has not yet been released. It is expected any day.

I am so saddened for the people of Naknek and the Bristol Bay community for losing such an advocate for subsistence, a matriarch in the commercial fishing world, a part of history, and a revered elder. I cannot think of anyone I know who has spent any time in Naknek who does not know Violet. But I am also saddened that I will never see her again, that any future visits to Naknek will simply not be the same.

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