Tribe celebrates First Fish Potlatch
Under ever changing weather on the Cook Inlet beach, members of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and invited guests from other tribes in the region came together for the First Fish Potlatch during the first weekend in May.
“Today we celebrate our first fish, as we have been doing for thousands of years,” Liisia Blizzard, Tribal Council Secretary, said in her opening prayer.
Tribal Council Chairperson Wayne Wilson Jr. acknowledged the past and looked to the future in his opening comments.
“This is an opportunity to celebrate our educational fishery that we’ve had here the past 29 years,” Wilson said. “I believe in our rich and common heritage as we continue our educational fishery and move forward to attain a subsistence fishery. That is how we retain our identity, dignity, and how we will pass on our values to the spirit of our youth.”
The event was the culmination of months of planning. Joel Isaak and a team of volunteers prepared a traditional moose soup over fires on the beach using meat from a moose that came to the tribe during a ceremonial hunt last winter. Tribal employees and other volunteers worked on everything from activities for young people to blankets to give as gifts to visiting Elders.
One Elder, Dorothy E. Hermansen, of Kasilof, received special recognition when she was presented with a necklace in honor of her role as the tribe’s eldest Elder. She spoke of her love for the beach and how she continues to fish commercially.
The two-day event began with an opening ceremony and fish soup dinner on Friday night. It continued Saturday with a full day of activities. Singers and dancers from the Anchorage-based Ida’ina K’eljeshna (Friendship Dancers) group performed, as did Kenaitze’s Jabila’ina Dance Group and Del Dumi Intertribal Drum Group. A hail storm pushed the Kenaitze dancers to perform under large white tents that had been set up for the weekend.
Steven Holley, of the Ida’ina K’eljeshna group, said they were happy to be in Kenai for the potlatch.
“It’s a carrying on of the traditions since I was a kid,” he said. “It’s carrying on my traditions with Kenaitze.”
Near the closing of the potlatch, Joel Isaak led all those in attendance in a cloth ceremony. Everyone formed a circle under the tents. Then Isaak started passing a long, continuous piece of decorated cloth down the circle. Once the circle was complete and everyone was connected to the fabric, he explained the ceremony was an opportunity for the group to come together as one, to recognize those who have passed and to receive a ceremonial gift to recognize the event. Dena’ina Elder Helen Dick helped guide the preparations for the special event.
The only fresh fish at the event were buckets of hooligan Sharon Isaak brought from farther up the river. Some were cooked on sticks over the campfire; others in a deep fryer. They were shared with Elders and introduced to the youngest in attendance. And just like the salmon that started showing up a week later, they were celebrated.