Meet Salmon Sisters Ambassador Cordelia Qiġñaaq Kellie. A lifelong Alaskan, Cordelia's family has lived in Alaska's Arctic for 10,000 years. She is from the Tagarook, James, Segevan and Peetook families of Wainwright and has aunties, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews across the North Slope and into the Northwest Arctic. Her father’s family is of Scottish descent, by way of Washington state.
Cordelia was raised in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley on Dena'ina Athabascan land and graduated with a bachelor's degree in English Language and Rhetoric with a Minor in Communications from the University of Alaska, Anchorage. She is also currently pursuing her MA in Rural Development through the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
For the past several years, Cordelia has worked as an Advisor of Government Affairs at Iḷisaġvik College, which is currently the only Tribal College in Alaska, and the only college located within the boundaries of the North Slope. The college provides an education based on the Iñupiaq cultural heritage with a rich foundation of a subsistence culture in harmony with the land and seas that give it sustenance.
Cordelia seeks to contribute to her region and state by interregional relationship building, finding avenues to rethink barriers, strengthening dialogue and pathways for knowledge sharing. She is invested in learning and sharing about Iñupiat and Alaska Native cultures, socio-cultural trends, history, and policy.
One of the ways Cordelia shares and strengthens her community is through Nalliq, an online collection of essays, stories, prose and poetry navigating what it currently means to be indigenous. “There are as many ways to be indigenous as there are Native people in the state of Alaska,” writes Cordelia, “and because our communities are in such a state of flux and have changed so quickly over just a few short generations, we are all still figuring it out. But we get to go through this journey of reclaiming, perpetuating and revitalizing our indigeneity together.” And that is why Cordelia’s collection has been named “Nalliq,” which in Iñupiaq, means “to travel side by side.”
When she's not traveling to rural communities or in the office, Cordelia organizes grassroots community and language gatherings, engages in advocacy about Indigenous issues, writes essays about the things that keep her up at night, is actively learning Iñupiaq, co-founded and co-manages Iḷisaqativut, an annual two-week Iñupiaq language intensive that rotates throughout Iñupiaq country, and seeks to support Alaska’s arts community through serving on the board of the Alaska State Council on the Arts.
Enjoy a look into Cordelia’s connection to salmon, which has provided an important subsistence food source for her family and cultural importance in the communities she calls home.
I grew up in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. By the measures of some, we didn’t have much. But we had a full freezer, and to us, that was everything.
Our family has a vegetable garden that is 30x30’ yielding mostly potatoes and broccoli to be enjoyed in the fall. Family would send down niqipiaq (our Iñupiaq food like maktak and tuttu, also known as caribou) from the North Slope, so we had that many times a year. Dad would get a moose most autumns, but sometimes we didn’t. But salmon – that was something we could depend on, something we could freeze and have year-round.
I grew up learning to fish on the Deshka and the Little Su Rivers, southwest of Willow, from my Dad, who is an expert fisherman. I caught my first King Salmon when I was 13, and I knew it was an important moment to remember when Dad started sharing the story of catching his first King Salmon and when Mom followed suit.
My Aaka (grandma) was in a wheelchair as long as I knew her, and my Dad would subsistence fish for her by proxy, spending long mornings continuing to fish for our family after her catch had been secured. We’d bleed the salmon there on the river and when we arrived to our home 5 miles from Hatcher Pass, we’d stand by as Dad cleaned the fish to collect the heads in a black Hefty bag so my Aaka so she could make Fish Head Soup. Her favorite part of the fish were the eyes.
We would eat salmon any way you could eat salmon: baked, fried, salmon dip, in chowder, smoked, and with any combination of sides. We always knew we could pull out a package of fish from the freezer and with rice or potatoes and vegetables, have a dependable meal. It was something nutritious and manageable for my parents, who had three spirited kids.
To me, fishing means getting up at 3 in the morning, the smell of the river, the jiggle of lures, laughing as Dad rode another boat’s wake for our enjoyment, learning how to read the river to know where to and where not to drive the boat, hours of time spent in silence with my parents, turkey sandwiches, and sometimes having time with just my Dad when Mom napped in the back of our boat.
The Alaska I experienced as an adolescent, was through searching for salmon. It was the about the only thing growing up that got us to leave beyond a 50 mile radius of our house. If we went anywhere, it was for fish. We watching the cooler as Dad dipnetted on the Kenai Peninsula, or learned to fish from river banks therein. I had retraced those same routes as an adult to see what those places were like in ways unrelated to fish – the local cafes and bakeries and sightseeing vistas – because growing up, we were always focused on catching the food that would feed ourselves year-round.
The first time I got on a plane as an adult, I was 21. In these last 8 years, I’ve had the opportunity to either travel or connect with people across Alaska and listen to their stories about their family’s livelihoods, from Juneau to Unalaska to Homer to the North Slope. Our state is more complex than any one person could ever conceive, though I have dedicated my life to trying to understand it. There are several whole Alaskas within our state borders; our regions, economies, cultures, and geographic relationships with each other can be so entirely different but something that connects us all are our rivers and fish, including on the North Slope where people are catching more salmon than we’ve ever seen before.
If you are what you eat, the spirits and bodies of Alaskans are comprised of salmon and fish.
Read more of Cordelia's writing at Nalliq, her online collection of essays, stories, prose and poetry navigating what it currently means to be indigenous. You can also follow her work and adventures in Alaska on Instagram @cordeliaalaska.