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New grant awarded to study the importance of salmon to the Kenaitze Indian Tribe

BY Ananya Sen

A community-based project, conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in collaboration with the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and Kenai Peninsula College, has been awarded a $1,017,215 grant by the National Science Foundation. The project will map the use of salmon as a cultural keystone species of Dena’ina peoples.

2000-year-old salmon bones that were found at an archeological site. The bones were found in a cache, below a house, where the salmon were processed and stored. Photo credit: Alan Boraas.
2000-year-old salmon bones that were found at an archeological site. The bones were found in a cache, below a house, where the salmon were processed and stored.

Since before written history, perhaps for thousands of years, the Kenaitze people harvested salmon from Cook Inlet, once called Tikahtnu – Big Water River, and the Kenai River – Kahtnu. The Kenai River traditional place names include many designations, each for a section of the river or place such as Qughuzdlent (current flows around its place) – for the sand bar in the mouth of the Kenai River. People lived along the beach and river, and harvested salmon, drying, smoking and preserving the fish to provide enough food for families to survive the long winters. For thousands of years, it was also a means of natural resource management – harvesting large quantities of fish in small, unobtrusive fish camps. The Kenaitze people lived by a true Leave-No-Trace sustainable economy.

The project will focus on the genomes of three salmon species: Oncorhynchus gorbuscha (Pink salmon), Oncorhynchus kisutch (Coho salmon), and Oncorhynchus nerka (Sockeye salmon) from the Kenai region in Alaska. Using DNA extracted from ancient salmon bones, found at an archaeological site, along with present-day salmon samples collected by members of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe from the same historic location, the researchers will examine salmon diversity to identify changes in the genomes over the past 2000 years, especially in the midst of the rapidly changing environment.  

“This unique data set will provide us with a great opportunity to understand how the salmon genome has evolved and changed over the past two millennia,” said Julian Catchen (GNDP), an associate professor of evolution, ecology, and behavior.

“Our first collaboration started in 2013, when the tribe got in touch with me to use paleogenomics for a project,” said Ripan Singh Malhi (GNDP/GSP/IGOH), a professor of anthropology. “As we began working together, the scope of our partnership expanded. I learned about their interests and it made sense to take an interest in salmon, not just the ones living today, but also back in time.”

The Kenaitze community has traditionally been characterized as a “salmon culture” and have been operating an educational fishery on Tribal land since 1989. The fishery still serves as a center of learning and tradition, bringing the community members together. Therefore, the second major aim of the project will use interviews, focus groups, surveys, and archival work to supplement historical and legal documents that demonstrate how salmon have been used from pre-European contact to present times.

The third aspect of the project aims at integrating the genomic information and community-based knowledge to understand Indigenous people’s stewardship practices with salmon over time. “This project is important because it can serve as an example of how to integrate scientific results with traditional knowledge,” Malhi said. “It is relevant to look at Indigenous knowledge for guidance, especially in the face of climate change.”

The research team will work closely with the Kenaitze community members throughout the project, including study design, data generation, analysis, interpretation, and dissemination of the findings. The team will also conduct workshops, as a part of the Summer Internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics (SING) program, to discuss data sovereignty and develop procedures for responsible data dissemination while safeguarding Indigenous interests.

“One of the aspects of my theme is to study whether your genomic data is being treated the way you want it to be. Although this is a unique project, it is connected to the question of what practices can be used for the management of genomic data,” said Carl Gunter (GSP leader), a professor of computer science. The other topics in the SING program will include genomic theory, techniques, analyses and perspectives on genomic research.

Additional principal investigators on the grant include Adam Dunstan at Kenai Peninsula College and Norma Johnson at the Kenaitze Indian Tribe.

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