More than Just Fish

Operation Fish Drop Provided 12,000 Pounds of Salmon to Native Families

By Jamey Bradbury, Cook Inlet Tribal Council

CIRI descendant Sam. Photo: Brian Fraley/CITC

Volunteers distributed 12,000 pounds of fish to Alaska Native families on March 25 and 26 as part of Operation Fish Drop, a grass-roots initiative to ensure Alaska Native Elders and others have access to traditional foods this spring.

“This fish right here is going to help feed my family,” said one Alaska Native Elder who picked up 25 pounds of vacuum-packed sockeye salmon at the Alaska Native Heritage Center (ANHC). “It’s been a long winter with no fish.”

Roughly 400 families or Elders received salmon at the ANHC drive-through pickup site over the course of the two-day event. Fifteen partners came together to make the project possible, including Northline Seafoods—which donated the entire supply of fish from Bristol Bay—and Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust and Alaskans Own. Fish was also distributed at Cook Inlet Housing Authority and Southcentral Foundation.

CIRI descendant Sam Schimmel (Siberian Yup’ik and Kenaitze Indian), who contracted with Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) to make Operation Fish Drop happen, said the idea for the project was inspired by U.S. Department of Agriculture shipments made to Alaska Native people when hunting or fishing seasons were poor.

“They would send us things like canned salmon—things that didn’t really have applicability to our cultural foods,” he said. “People want access to our traditional foods, like fresh fish, moose. You see a lot of stuff come through with the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) grant and other federal programs during the pandemic, but not many of them really listen to what we want.”

Originally, Schimmel collaborated with partners to raise funding for 400 pounds of fish, meant to be shared among people from his tribe in Kenai, Alaska.

“There was huge interest. I would talk to our partners every week and ask for a little more,” he said. “We grew it and grew it, and finally I said, we can address some of the food insecurities of a considerable number of Native people in Anchorage.”

Roughly 400 families or Elders received salmon at the ANHC drive-through pickup site over the course of the two-day event. Photo: Brian Fraley/CITC

Facebook posts shared throughout the community garnered instant interest; in just five hours, more than 400 people had expressed interest in being added to the list of salmon recipients. With more 1,000 individuals requesting fish, Schimmel said, it’s clear that projects like Operation Fish Drop are necessary, especially in the wake of COVID-19.

Based on interest, Schimmel hopes to find additional funding to hold another Fish Drop later this spring.

“Food insecurity among Native people was really laid bare by the pandemic,” he said. “Huge numbers of Native people were not able to go and practice subsistence this past summer and fall because they were sick, or they could not travel, or they were caring for loved ones. This effort puts traditional foods back on the table.”

“It’s more than just fish,” added Emily Edenshaw, ANHC president and CEO. “We’re bringing healing to our community through fish. This has been one of those soul-filling moments where people are able to live our way of life because of the partnerships we have.”

“Us Native people have been eating fish all our lives,” commented an 83-year-old Elder from Hooper Bay who received fish at ANHC. “We are very thankful for this distribution.”

Schimmel has served on CITC’s Youth Advisory Council and received CIRI’s 2018 Youth Recognition Award. In 2020, he received the Alaska Federation of Natives’ Roger Lang Youth Leadership award. For more information about future Fish Drop opportunities, follow CITC’s Facebook page.