Marine Mammal Huntress: A Native Woman on an Epic Quest

by Sep 26, 2022Alaska Native, Magazine

Surreel Saltwaters

Entrepreneur Hope Roberts uses her history, her business, and her determination to reconnect with her culture and help others to do the same.

When times are hard I tell myself, “Where there is a will, there is a way.” I am a Tlingit-Gwich’in-Koyukon Alaska Native woman who owns a deep-sea fishing charter, Surreel Saltwaters. After twenty years in the Operating Engineers union, thanks to Local 3 in Hilo, Hawai’i, I have been built to work in an industry dominated by Caucasian males.

I have never felt accepted by many social arenas as a Native woman, and like my parents and their parents, I have been challenged.

My maternal grandfather was a child prisoner survivor who went to boarding school in Wrangell. My paternal grandfather passed from emphysema, which he contracted working as a laborer during the early pipeline days.

You can imagine how hard boarding school was on my maternal grandfather, a child under the age of 10, and the effect his experience had on my mother. Both my mother and grandfather succumbed to alcoholism, which led to cirrhosis of the liver.

Yet resilience is built in our DNA; where there is generational trauma there is also transformational grace.

I made myself accepted, I watched the people that I wanted to be like, and I have made myself into the person I wanted to be.

Divided from Culture

I was not afforded the opportunity to build a fish wheel with my grandfather or learn to smoke the fish into strips.

For years, I felt like my spirit was screaming to be on the coastal waters, and I did not know why. I had no idea that harvesting and learning to be a marine mammal huntress was embedded in my DNA memory. It is—I have never felt so at home before anywhere. Not when I harvested moose (with two little girls, one being a baby, in tow), not berry picking, not even fishing for salmon

I was alive for the first time when I harvested my first sea otter, and even more so with my first harbor seal. The meat was the sweetest meat I had ever tasted, and the blubber was the best grease I had ever tasted as it melted in my mouth. I felt like my spirit, which always seemed to be a subconscious thing, was now conscious. It was everything I had been looking for.

I knew in my heart that there were more individuals who felt like me and I was going to find them.

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The Business Transformation

girl holding up animal hide

The Marine Mammal Protection Act allows Alaska Natives like the author to take sea otters, seals, polar bears, or whales for subsistence food or for making handicrafts. Harvest and trade of marine mammal parts is otherwise severely restricted.

Surreel Saltwaters

I knew I was a businessperson when I was 8 years old. I started my first one based on hunger in a low-income apartment building in Fairbanks.

I used to play outside across the street from a grocery store called Market Basket. I saw that many people did their weekly grocery shopping on the weekends and had a tough time carrying their bags three stories up. I saw a need to help people, so I did. I carried bags of groceries for people. At first, it was just out of kindness. When I was tipped five dollars for the first time, I realized it was a needed service. I began waiting outside the apartment buildings on the weekends to help people for tips, and then I would cross the four-lane road to buy a deli burrito, which I had been privileged to try once when we had an extra $0.69.

It was very rewarding, especially since by the end of the month a lot of times we would be out of food and food stamps. This is where my love for business began.

Despite my early start in business, I was late to college. I give myself grace in the fact that I could not start my college career until I was well over 30. I look at it this way: I have to catch up at least four generations behind me for the four generations in front of me. I have to break chains, get an education, and show my friends and family that getting out of poverty and staying out is possible.

It is hard and seems hopeless at first when there is no one breaking the trail for you, but it is doable. While 84 percent of people born in poverty stay there, you can be the other 16 percent. On the other side of that statistic, I build my decolonized self through marine mammal harvesting, and I feel rich in that.

Before I started Surreel Saltwaters, I had never been on a fishing charter. Last year marked our fourth successful year in business.

 

I look at it this way: I have to catch up at least four generations behind me for the four generations in front of me. I have to break chains, get an education, and show my friends and family that getting out of poverty and staying out is possible.

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Living the Dream

Despite success, I started getting bored, and I had to liven things up. I thought about all the people who support us: the Alaska Native people who were raised in a cultural lifestyle their whole lives but who still came and paid us to sport fish.

After five fabulous sport fishing years, I wanted to share this healing time with other Alaska Native people who want to be on the waters.

I had for years planned on helping others learn to hunt on the water, but I could not figure out how until one day it clicked: just invite them.

In April 2022, I did just that. I asked a Tlingit elder, two scientists, and a board member who serves the Prince William Sound Native villages and natural resources departments to join me.
My dear friend had asked relentlessly in meetings to be taught to hunt, and I heard what she needed.

I was honored to show an Alaska Native leader where her ancestors roamed, where her spirit would be filled, and where we could speak freely without any outside influence that would, well, influence the conversations.

The day was wonderful: I saw half smiles turn into full-blown, life-changing joyous grins.

animal hide

Surreel Saltwaters

Surreel Saltwaters is a fully Alaska Native owned company that is branching out: we are using our existing infrastructure to reintroduce the cultural art of marine mammal hunting to people like me, people who have lost the culture within the last hundred years to some tragedy—be it the boarding school era, substance abuse that probably came from the boarding school era, or natural disasters, such as the 1964 earthquake.

In the 281 years since the Russians first arrived, Alaska Native people have had to adapt to several outside influences without speaking Russian or English. Even after those years, approximately 70 percent of Alaska’s coastal living Natives are still more than one-quarter Alaska Native. This blood quantum being one of the stipulated rules for legally hunting marine mammals is a fair rule.

We should be reconnecting those who are hurting the most to their ancestors’ healing skill and art of marine mammal hunting. I am overjoyed to use my sport fishing infrastructure to do just that. To help others heal through marine mammal hunting, I continuously find ways to invite them along. I have also started researching ways to fund the harvests, as it can be costly: the hides are expensive to tan, and the meat and blubber need to be processed in a semi-protected covering when we bring them to land to teach others. Protected, you see, from bears, the dominant species in our hunting area.

Boats & Beyond

woman on a boat

Hope Roberts (top) uses infrastructure and resources from her sport fishing charter business, Surreel Saltwaters, to help other Alaska Natives experience marine mammal hunting.

Surreel Saltwaters

Young girl driving a boat

Surreel Saltwaters

Since that hunt in April, I have become a semifinalist in MIT Solve’s 2022 Indigenous Communities Fellowship [a program for social impact innovation sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. There were solvers from all over the world, 1,100 applications total. My solve is: reversing acculturation by addressing generational trauma to change cycles of addiction by introducing Native harvesting and food to foster children.

I became a foster parent in 2020. There are so many issues that kids in state custody face, but the one that stands out to me, that I was strongly drawn to, is the lack of Indigenous foods provided to the 1,991 Native children in foster care. As of publication, that is 67 percent of the population of children in foster care in Alaska. Most of those children are in the Southcentral region, where I live.

Food is life, Indigenous food is power, it is healing. My solve will create an online platform and use that, as well as modern and primitive tools, to normalize feeding children in the foster system their Indigenous “soul food.”

And I can’t stop here. I also wrote to the Na’ah Illahee Fund in Seattle about keeping marine mammal harvesting Indigenous, which helps those who need it, using the ancestral art for good and not Western ideal profit.

The American Indian women’s philanthropist group awarded my project one of five fellowships, and I’m planning to make a short documentary about the project in the future.

Many other Alaska Natives grew up with parents struggling with mental health and/or substance abuse who have no connections to and lack skill and time on cultural waters, participating in the cultural harvesting of marine mammals.

My history, my various businesses, and my business degree helps me help others in this respect. Where there is a will, there’s a way.

Hope Roberts is an Alaska Native woman and the owner and operator of Surreel Saltwaters, surreelsaltwaters.com, a sportfishing charter and sightseeing company based in Valdez.

Alaska Business December 2022 cover
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