By MARY CATHARINE MARTIN, SALMON BEYOND BORDERS
Almost a century ago , a 14-year-old Tahltan girl traveled down the Stikine River to marry the Tlingit Chief Shakes VII of Wrangell. At the time, arranged marriages were common practice: the Stikine has long served as a corridor for the different peoples who live along it.
Colonization and the resulting border between the U.S. and Canada, however, changed the way the Indigenous peoples traveled up and down the river.
Decades later, the great-granddaughter of that arranged marriage, Tis Peterman, has been connecting with long-lost family in Canada. Once more, the Stikine River — which brought her great-grandparents together so many years ago — are sparking relationships.
Tis is the executive director of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC), which represents 15 of the 19 federally recognized tribes in Southeast Alaska, and works to defend the salmon-rich transboundary rivers of the Salmon Coast: the Taku, Stikine and Unuk, all threatened by British Columbia’s recklessly regulated large-scale open-pit mines and their toxic mining waste dumps.
British Columbia mining along the transboundary rivers of the Salmon Coast is a concern many of her newfound Tahltan relatives and friends in B.C. share, and which has brought them together. It’s even helped her learn more about her great-grandmother.
Before any of that, for Tis, though, came a love of the river and the region she has called home her entire life.
Growing up on the Stikine
“My earliest memory is being on a beach at 5:30 in the morning digging cockles,” Tis told us. “We didn’t know we were poor growing up, because we always had jarred deer.”
Tis’ mother, Mae Dailey, was a Raven and a member of the Kaach.adi clan. Her father, Marc Dailey, was a Kik.sadi Eagle.
She and her family foraged for beach asparagus. Her father went up the Stikine and hunted ducks. They harvested herring eggs in the spring. They ate hooligan, and salmon. Her father ran a seine boat, and was also a gillnetter and a pile driver, doing whatever he could to feed the family.
“We were always out in the woods doing something,” she said. “We grew up in a small house on Main Street, and the woods were our playground, basically.”
They also traded for food: the Wrangell sawmill was across from them, and her father traded Japanese sailors on the boats collecting the cut trees fish for gallon jugs of soy sauce and 25 pound bags of rice.
In spite of their time outdoors, Tis and her siblings weren’t brought up traditionally. Her mother was one of those known as the Lost Generation, forbidden to speak Tlingit from a very young age.
“When I was younger, there was one neighbor lady that they’d speak Tlingit together,” she said of her mother. At the kitchen table they’d talk English until they wanted to talk about something and they didn’t want me to hear it, and then they would switch to Tlingit. Later on, she didn’t have anyone to speak it with.”
To her great grandfather, Chief Shakes, a Western education was the ticket into the future.
“He saw education as the way out — a way of survival for us,” she said.
Later in life, Tis got involved with the Tribe — the Wrangell Cooperative Association — and helped renovate the Shakes House, the clan house on Shakes Island. One thing led to another, and she soon found herself representing the Tribe at transboundary meetings. She didn’t yet know it would change her whole outlook.
Changing a way of thinking
Tis was attending the Prince of Wales Mining Symposium in 2014 when she was taken aback by the attitude of the mining company presenting, Seabridge Gold, she said.
Seabridge Gold is proposing to build what would be the largest open-pit mine in North America just miles from the American border in the Unuk/Nass watershed, which flows into Alaska near Ketchikan.
“The attitude was that they’re going to educate us on how wonderful they’re going to be,” she said.
As Seabridge representatives continued to speak, the dissent in the room began to grow.
“Several Native people were basically calling these people liars,” she said. “You could hear people starting to say ‘No. No. No. And it was getting louder in the crowd.”
That moment was a game-changer for her, she said.
“It’s really strange, because — I’ve thought about this a lot — over the years, I learned to be one of ‘the good Indians.’ You do things right. You’re on time. You’re not appearing to be slacking. That’s how I was raised. So sitting in that room full of Natives, and then responding to these corporate, non-Indigenous people, I was sort of surprised. I thought ‘We’re not being good Indians.’ Refusing to believe what the corporate world was telling us. It’s changed me from a nontraditional way of thinking to a more Indigenous way of thinking over the years… in six years, my whole mentality has changed. And I appreciate and embrace the Indigenous part of me. It made me be a little bit more introspective on what’s important, and how important it is to save our land now, for the generations out. Because I knew this was there. I knew the mines were there. But before, it was distant — very distant.”
Tis also organizes summits of Indigenous leaders and representatives from all up and down the Salmon Coast. The last time the Tribes and First Nations met, in October of last year, they declared a salmon emergency, due in large part to threats from British Columbia mines, as well as declining salmon populations across the coast. Different nations and different Tribes have different priorities, but “everybody on both sides of the border can agree: Clean water is everything,” she said.
When the Salmon Spoke
Now, Tis is working with Salmon Beyond Borders, First Nation leaders in B.C. and the theatre company Ping Chong + Co. on a storytelling project connecting peoples along the Stikine, on both sides of the border.
As part of that project, last year she was in B.C. speaking with Tahltan artist, elder and leader Allen Edzerza about her great-grandmother.
“I was telling him the story about my great-grandmother being brought down the river when she was 14,” Tis said. “And her arranged marriage to Chief Shakes. We always called her Grandma Suzy. I was telling him how she couldn’t speak Tlingit, and we never knew her last name. He turned around, and looked at me, and said ‘Her last name was Quock.’”
Though her travels up the Stikine are paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she knows the journey will continue.
“When we get through this craziness,” she said, “I’m going to travel up to Telegraph Creek, tell my story, and see who I’m related to. We have stories to tell and stories I don’t know what they are yet. There’s so much to tell that nobody knows.”
To learn more about Tis, and her most recent project,When the Salmon Spoke, click here.
Tis Peterman is retiring from her position as Executive Director at Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission at the end of June 2020. It has been an honor for those of us at Salmon Beyond Borders to work alongside Tis, in the efforts to defend and sustain our shared, transboundary salmon rivers.
SALMON BEYOND BORDERS is a campaign driven by sport and commercial fishermen, community leaders, tourism and recreation business owners and concerned citizens, in collaboration with Tribes and First Nations, united across the Alaska/British Columbia border to defend and sustain our transboundary rivers, jobs and way of life.
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