A young leader fights for Yukon River salmon, her community – and herself

A woman with a red head band on stands by an abandoned fish wheel.
Kenzie Englishoe stands by an idle fish wheel once used by her community in Gwichyaa Zhee on Aug. 31, 2023. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

In August, MacKenzie Englishoe returned home to a place she’s never actually lived. 

Englishoe is 20 years old, a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. As summer waned, she packed her bags and boarded a nine-passenger plane for the hour-long flight to her mother’s hometown: Gwichyaa Zhee, also known as Fort Yukon, a village of less than 500 people on the upper Yukon River. The plan is to move here permanently.

“I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life to come back here and be in my community,” Englishoe said. 

For Englishoe, this move has been a long time coming. Her mother’s family has lived in Gwichyaa Zhee for generations, but Englishoe herself grew up with her dad and brother near Chandalar Lake, in a remote stretch of the Brooks Range. She moved to Fairbanks when she was 12 to attend school. But she visited regularly. Gwichyaa Zhee is where she feels most rooted. 

Like most of the village, Englishoe is Gwich’in. She grew up deeply connected to the land up at her father’s cabin near Chandalar Lake, trapping and hunting from a young age. But she feels like she missed out on being in the village, among her people.

“I just wish I had a little bit more of a stronger connection to [Gwichyaa Zhee] when I was younger,” she said.

Now that she’s back, she’s making up for lost time.

Gwichyaa Zhee sits on a flat network of dirt roads that hug the Yukon River. The speed limit is 15 miles per hour, and most people greet each other as they pass.

“Everybody here waves to each other,” Englishoe said, driving through town the day after she arrived. “We’re pretty much all family here.”

Running errands, she runs into relatives and elders: at the local AC store, the post office and during open house at the school. 

“I’m back for good,” she told each one with pride. 

A picture of the town Fort Yukon.
The town of Gwichyaa Zhee. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

But Gwichyaa Zhee today is very different from the village she remembers visiting as a kid.

Life here used to revolve around salmon. The first kings would arrive in late June, swimming up the Yukon River from the Bering Sea to their spawning grounds. Chum salmon would follow in late summer. Both species had struggled for decades. But four years ago, the runs abruptly collapsed, with fewer fish than ever returning to the Yukon River. State and federal fishery managers have all but shut down fishing for communities like Gwichyaa Zhee ever since. 

Researchers say climate change is driving the collapse, as warmer river and ocean water temperatures wreak havoc with the salmon’s biology and prey species. Residents say it’s made life here unrecognizable. For Englishoe, it means she can’t participate in the very culture and traditions she came home to learn.

Along the bank of the Yukon River, at the edge of town, it’s quiet. That’s not what August used to feel like, Englishoe said. 

“Everyone would be hopping on boats to go to fish camp or visiting each other, or giving fish to each other, smoking fish together,” she said. 

Now, on the riverbank, half a dozen fish wheels lie idle, in what Englishoe calls the “fish wheel graveyard.”

Twenty feet across, the fish wheels look like big windmills, with nets that would scoop fish out of the river as they swim upstream. 

“You could tell they’re getting kind of old, and a little bit more fragile,” Englishoe said, picking through the tall grass growing up through the nets.

Standing on one of the toppled wheels, she imagined what it was like when fishing was allowed.

“You would probably sit right here and you would just watch the nets catch the fish,” Englishoe said. “I bet my grandpa was just smiling, watching it, knowing that he was going to be supplied for the winter.”

In Gwichyaa Zhee, salmon are more than just food — they’re culture and community. 

Englishoe’s uncle Michael Peter is second chief of Gwichyaa Zhee. He said going to fish camp is how young people build a connection to their family and their heritage. It’s an essential part of passing on traditions. 

“You take your kids out, teach them and show them what we were taught,” Peter said. “We were taught how to cut and preserve and smoke fish.” 

Peter has kids of his own who haven’t been to fish camp in years. He worries that knowledge is being lost for the next generation, including young people like Englishoe.

“She’s still learning how to cut fish. And she hasn’t really been to fish camp,” Peter said. 

“I wish I could go to fish camp,” Englishoe said.

A man and a woman stand by a tree branch in the road.
Kenzie Englishoe (right) with her uncle Michael Peter outside their home in Gwichyaa Zhee. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

As a kid, she wasn’t around enough to learn to use a fish wheel and catch salmon herself. And now that she’s finally here full time, Englishoe worries she never will. 

Every generation of her family before her has fished on this river. And now it’s her turn and she can’t.

“It’s hard,” she said. “I almost feel like I’m missing a part of myself.”

This loss has fueled a sense of purpose. Englishoe said she feels a responsibility to help save her community from existential threats like climate change. She’s become an advocate for climate justice and Indigenous rights. She serves as an Arctic Youth Ambassador, a program through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that helps young Alaskans spread awareness about challenges in their communities. This spring she was chosen as an Emerging Leader for the Tanana Chiefs Conference.

She’s particularly focused on fighting for more Alaska Native control over fishery management. 

It’s a lot of pressure: advocating for action on climate change and more tribal sovereignty. She’s considering putting her undergraduate studies on hold to take a position in the village mentoring youth.

“It’s overwhelming, but I’m happy to do it,” Englishoe said.“Because if our generation doesn’t do it, then there’s no one to be able to get that fish back for our future. It’s something that we have to do now.” 

On a rainy September morning, Englishoe sat with her grandfather, Sonny Jonas, at his kitchen table with a cup of coffee. Photos of their family going back generations line the wood-paneled walls of his house. 

For years, Jonas taught kids in Gwichyaa Zhee how to fish and make fish wheels. If Englishoe had grown up here, or if fishing were open now, he’s the one who would have taught her.

Jonas has watched climate change transform the Yukon Flats, just in his lifetime. It’s not just the salmon. Thawing permafrost has caused houses to cave in. He says summers are unrecognizably warm.

A man and woman share stories by a wood stove.
Sonny Jonas (left) at his home in Gwichyaa Zhee sharing stories of his younger life with his granddaughter Kenzie Englishoe. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

“There’s a lot of changes around here, I’ll tell you,” Jonas said.

The changes are alarming, he said. But he sees hope in his granddaughter.

“I’m glad for what she’s doing right now,” Jonas said. “She’s really trying to get into our culture. And I’m really proud of her for that.” 

As for Englishoe, she’s still learning that culture — and she’s determined to keep it alive, for herself, and future generations.

“That’s why I moved back. Because I know this is where I’m meant to be and I’m meant to have my future family,” she said. “And try my best to give them a better life.”

RELATED: Four years into the Yukon salmon collapse, an Interior Alaska village wonders if it will ever fish again

Kavitha George is Alaska Public Media’s climate change reporter. Reach her at kgeorge@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Kavitha here.

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