Remembering a Bristol Bay Hero

 Photo by Carl Johnson

Photo by Carl Johnson

By: Lindsey Bloom
I’m writing this on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday so obviously I don’t use the term hero lightly. When I think of Violet Wilson from Naknek I think of a community leader, a matriarch who was a grandmother to so many of us even those who weren’t one of her 20+ grandchildren by blood but were still privileged to receive Violet’s guidance, advice and warm hearted hospitality.  Violet was self made and salt of the earth woman who had earned a great deal of success through hard work and business savvy – she commercial fished for 52 years! Despite a commercial fisherwoman kind of toughness that was palpable, Violet was a kind and welcoming person. Francis Lam coined it well in her Salon.com article stating, “Violet is the kind of person you want to hug immediately.”
My path crossed with Violet’s in our mutual pursuit of protecting the Bristol Bay fishery and fighting the proposed Pebble Mine.  From her cozy living room overlooking the Naknek river, surrounded by a lifetimes worth of treasures, family pictures, animal furs (her late husband was a trapper) and an entire arctic entry filled with cases of Bristol Bay’s red gold: smoked sockeye salmon, we would discuss the challenges our coalition faced in working to protect the Bristol Bay watershed from large-scale open pit mining.

In 2010, despite being an elder well into her 80’s, Violet traveled with her grandson Everett to my hometown of Juneau, Alaska’s Capitol city, to meet with legislators and the governor and ask them to help secure protection for the Bristol Bay watershed.  With a twinkle in her eye Violet spoke to one lawmaker after another about the fundamental importance of salmon in her community and culture.  She told of growing up on lake Iliamna and making her living settnetting at the mouth of the Naknek River.  Of building her house season by season on hard earned fishing dollars.  "Even though we had hard times in the family ... we had a good life because of fish," "And I wouldn't want to see that destroyed by anything. And what I know about the contamination from mines, you know, it's a very dangerous thing to mess around with. [...] I just hope and pray that this would not happen." Violet was quoted as saying in an associated press article covering her Juneau visit.
Over the years her advocacy in the Bristol Bay protection campaign grew.  Violet joined other tribal leaders, elders and Bristol Bay residents in a law suit against the Alaska Department of Natural Resources challenging exploration permits that were being issued to the Pebble Partnership and often hosted media, journalists and filmmakers covering the pebble issue at her home in Naknek.  

I’m glad I got to introduce my young son to grandma Violet in recent years and that he will grow up as an Alaskan fisherman alongside Violets great grandchildren.  Her legacy of hard work, leadership and speaking up for what is right will be carried on for generations to come. 
Last Friday I got a Christmas card in the mail from Violet, as I have for all of the years I’ve known her.  That same day I got the news that she had died peacefully in her sleep at an Anchorage Hospital.  I am so lucky to have known Violet and to have been touched by her values of a subsistence lifestyle, of family, hospitality, self-reliance and generosity.  Alaska is a better place because Violet was here and passed these values down to my generation and those that we are now raising up.  Thank you Violet for all that you shared and for being a real hero for Bristol Bay, we will continue to carry the torch until we win protection for our fish and can ensure that Colden, Viktor, William and all the other great grandchildren have the opportunity to live off the mighty salmon one day. 
Violet's obituary can be read here.