Renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma joined a group of Alaska Natives, artists and environmental activists last month in Fairbanks for a performance that expresses Indigenous peoples’ grief over the shrinking population of salmon and other impacts of climate change on the far north.
In his composition performed during a climate change workshop at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Yo-Yo Ma’s mournful strains reflect the sorrow that Alaska Native peoples feel at the loss of once-rich salmon runs decimated by climate change and overharvesting.
The tempo builds early in the composition before it gives way to cries of outrage in the verses of a poem composed for the occasion by Gwich’in filmmaker, screenwriter and activist Princess Daazhraii Johnson from Arctic Village.
The poem is entitled “When We Were Salmon,” and Johnson describes it as a sort of lament about the state of planet and its peoples.
“We do have a lot of unexpressed grief about what it happening,” she said, “and from my perspective as an Alaska Native person, it’s like so many families are not able to fish anymore up and down the Yukon River and feed our families and communities.”
That was the theme of three workshops held this summer in Fairbanks by a group that included the Alaska-based indigenous-advocacy organization Native Movement, the Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition, Association of Interior Native Educators and UAF Climate Scholars.
The workshops were presented in partnership with a program run by Yo-Yo Ma’s organization called Our Common Nature, which explores how culture connects people to one another and the natural world.
“It was really a pilot program, of sorts,” Johnson said in a recent interview with other workshop participants. “We brought in elders, and we listened to traditional stories from the region, and then we brought in a lead artist for every workshop that we did.”
But the stories related by elders and other workshop participants weren’t just focused on the loss of salmon. The conversations also brought comfort, and healing for other emotional pain, as highlighted in a final event called “Gath and K’iyh: Listen to Heal.”
“Gath in the word for King Salmon in the Benhti Kenaga dialect,” she said, “and then k’iyh is the word for birch — the birch trees.”
Mato Wyuiyuhi, who helped facilitate the musical component of the workshops, says he found comfort in Ma’s composition.
“It was really a cool thing,” he said, “because it was mournful, but it wasn’t glum or it wasn’t really solemn. It was like a really beautiful thing.”
Wyuiyuhi is a musician, filmmaker and a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe of Pine Ridge, S.D. His professional experience includes work as a composer for the hit television series “Reservation Dogs.”
Wyuiyuhi says he appreciates what he calls the “spiritually centered” approach to grief in workshop sessions.
“So I think that sacred element was really good,” he said. “And then, yeah, moving forward, how do you integrate the type of grief into something that can actualized through music?”
Another workshop participant, Eli Wasserman, brought his experience as an educator who gives music instruction to kids in Baltimore schools that don’t have enough funding for the arts.
“So I definitely took my music education background, teaching people how to write music and make music and why music is important, and kind of create together,” he said. “And then brought that to the workshop.”
The hundred or so people who attended the workshops included kids who, like all the participants, were welcome to join some of the jam sessions held during the workshops, which included a Sept. 4th finale with Yo-Yo Mah at the University of Alaska President’s House on the UAF campus.
“Throughout all these workshops, we’ve really thought about everybody who enters that space as being a participant, whether they are an organizer, or an artist, or an elder,” says Aurora Bowers, a communications organizer for the Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition. She herself picked up a fiddle to accompany Ma in the final workshop concert.
Bowers says the workshops showed how music can bridge cultural divides and heal the trauma of climate change.
“It’s a massive, massive issue to be facing,” she said, “and so we really need tools to be able to feel our way through that.”