When there’s a meeting on the Kuskokwim concerning fish or wildlife, Tuntutuliak elder James Charles is usually at the table. He’s been at that table for decades, kindly looking at managers over his glasses and offering a guiding voice. At the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized Charles as a “Conservation Hero.”
Greg Siekaniec, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Regional Director for Alaska, easily characterized what James Charles has meant to co-management as he took the AFN stage to present the award.
“Thank you for showing us how to be better partners, James," said Siekaniec as the crowd began applauding.
James Charles is 77 years old. He’s served on the Federal Subsistence Regional Advisory Council, the Fish and Game Advisory Council, the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, and the Kuskokwim River Intertribal Fisheries Commission. His partnership spans more than half a century, often in uncompensated positions.
The person who taught Charles the importance of partnership was his mother. He can still hear her voice.
“Keep doing the job you are given until you can’t work anymore," he said in Yup'ik before translating the memory to English.
His mother taught him this lesson after they endured one of the most traumatic events in Alaska’s history: the TB epidemic of the 1950s.
“My father, uncle, grandmother all died from tuberculosis in the same winter,” said Charles.
Charles' mother and two younger siblings survived; he was eight years old at the time. The community of Tuntatuliak took care of them, with people sharing their subsistence catches.
“Community was the community those years," said Charles. "They were helping everybody in the town.”
That long winter, it was Charles’ uncle who taught him how to weave fish nets from twine to prepare for the coming summer; each mesh a different size, for a different fish.
“Using our fingers, not numbers,” Charles remembered, holding up his hand. The tip of the thumb to the tip of the hand measured mesh for king salmon. A smaller section of the hand measured for chum.
Charles says that his community of a few dozen people didn’t have hospitals, medicine, or stores. What they had was the land and the river. They also didn’t have fishing and hunting regulations. Instead, they had elders. But as time passed and the river’s population grew, technology advanced, government strengthened, and so did the rules governing fishing and hunting.
And James Charles also grew, working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and later the Lower Kuskokwim School District, serving in the Army National Guard, and flying as a bush pilot. All the while, he helped guide the decision making behind fishing and hunting regulations.
As an example of what his guidance looks like, Charles supported restricting fishing on the Kuskokwim during the recent summers of low king salmon runs.
“I come from the mouth of Kuskokwim," said the elder, "and I have to think of people upriver too, so they can have salmon.”
As Charles is helping to guide the management of the river, he is also being guided by the lessons learned from his mother, his uncle, and his community through that terrible winter of loss and generosity.