Published on November 12, 2021
The largest red salmon run in the world can be found on the Kvichak River, a 50-mile-long waterway in southwest Alaska that connects the pristine freshwaters of Lake Iliamna to the coast at Bristol Bay. At the mouth of the Kvichak on Lake Iliamna sits the Native Alaskan village of Igiugig, which appropriately enough means “Like a throat that swallows water” in the Yup'ik language. The river and lake are the village’s lifeblood, sustaining Igiugig’s culture and traditions.
“Our place and our people have a shared history,” narrates AlexAnna Salmon, the Igiugig Tribal Village Council President, in Story of Igiugig: Native Sovereignty in Alaska. This short film was produced through a unique collaboration between the village and filmmakers connected through Dev-502, Native Americans in the 21st Century: Nation Building II, an experiential learning course at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). The film documents how the people of Igiugig are working to regain stewardship over their traditional lands to provide for their community and protect its future.
Salmon goes on to share how most of Igiugig’s traditional lands extend beyond the village’s formal boundaries, encompassing a patchwork of land managed by federal and state authorities. “De facto sovereignty and true self-determination can be an ongoing struggle in Native Alaskan villages,” explains Eric Henson, a research affiliate with the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development (“Harvard Project”). Henson also teaches HKS’ Nation Building II course, which provides in-depth, hands-on exposure to Native development issues. “Socio-economic outcomes are better for tribal communities when they have real agency and get to call their own shots,” he adds.
Henson has partnered with numerous tribes as part of his work with the Harvard Project and helps facilitate fieldwork opportunities for students enrolled in Nation Building II during the spring semester. For students, the opportunity to directly engage with tribal leaders on the ground has traditionally been a highlight of the course. Igiugig’s tribal village council offered to serve as a client for Henson’s Nation Building II students last spring, where they ultimately worked on a mapping project for the village to better visualize and outline areas for Igiugig’s land management and stewardship plans.
Henson thought Igiugig’s story of self-determination could make the basis for a film about Native sovereignty and land stewardship, so he reached out to Patrick Lynch, a 2019 mid-career MPA graduate and former student of Henson’s Nation Building II course who was interested in using film as a medium for telling stories about environmental conservation. “Eric knew I was interested in continuing to do environmental policy work with Native nations, building off the project I did as a student of his helping the National Congress of American Indians establish its Climate Action Task Force.”
As a student at HKS, Lynch had taken an independent study course overseen by Jorrit de Jong, a senior lecturer at HKS and faculty affiliate of the Ash Center who had partnered with filmmaker Cecily Tyler MC/MPA '16 to help students use videomaking skills to tell place-based stories. After graduating from HKS, Lynch joined the Ipswich River Watershed Association as its director of policy and planning. There, he continued to build on his work with de Jong and Tyler by filming and directing a short film on coastal resiliency in Massachusetts.
“My co-director [Erica Wood] and I had to find filmmakers who felt comfortable shooting the footage themselves, sending it to us, and then working with us to review the cuts and make recommendations,” recalls Lynch. Fortunately, it happened that Jon Salmon, the brother of Igiugig Tribal Village Council President AlexAnna Salmon, was an avid drone photographer. He had seemingly endless amounts of footage on hand of Igiugig and the surrounding countryside. AlexAnna, her brother Jon, and other community members shot most of the footage in the film on their phones.
At the time, Wood was managing communications for an environmental nonprofit in the greater Boston area called the Mystic River Watershed Association. In that role, she had worked on a number of video projects to tell stories about the organization’s mission to protect and restore the Mystic River. A Native Alaskan herself, Wood will begin a master’s program as a Sloan Indigenous Graduate Fellow at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York in January.
“For this project, I wanted to bring my perspective and my lens as a Native person,” recalls Wood. “It was important to tell an authentic story that respected our partners in Igiugig. Working with AlexAnna was meaningful for me because of our shared cultural traditions. Alaska Natives, like other Native peoples, have a deep respect and connection to the environment, and understand the rights our communities have to steward their traditional lands.”
Lynch and Wood didn’t set out to direct AlexAnna and her fellow community members in Igiugig but to provide them with resources and guidance to help them make a film to tell their own story. “We spent a lot of time dialoguing with AlexAnna and Jon to learn about their priorities, what they hoped to see out of the film, and how we could support their efforts to tell their own story,” Lynch affirms.
The challenges of directing a film from across the country during a pandemic were compounded by Igiugig’s remoteness. With no roads into the village and a spotty internet service provider that made uploading large amounts of film footage all but impossible, the filmmakers took an unconventional approach to collecting footage. “It was way cheaper to be able to put them on flash drives and send them across the country than to try to upload them,” recalls Lynch.
"There is no better way to learn about what on-the-ground sovereignty means for Native people than by engaging with those who are living it every day."
Flash drive by flash drive, Lynch and Wood were able to work with AlexAnna, Jon, and other community members to help piece the film together. “We realized the fact that the people of the Village have been on the land for 8,000 years, and remain stewards of that land, would work well for video,” says Wood. “I went through my notes after speaking with AlexAnna and researching the various projects she had mentioned. We realized this was an ideal narrative for capturing the significance of the Village, the stewardship of the land, and the opportunity that they have in the future.”
After watching the film, Lynch, Wood, and Henson hope viewers will take away the lesson that tribal communities need to have a real stake in land management decisions. “Igiugig is showing how continual effort must be put forth to ensure that even the smallest communities can secure that seat at the table and then have a role in decisions that will inevitably be made regarding use of the lands that are not technically under the village’s control,” says Henson. “There is no better way to learn about what on-the-ground sovereignty means for Native people than by engaging with those who are living it every day.”