There may be some drumming, there may be an open mic or another cultural activity, there may be a guest from Switzerland or Canada. There will most certainly be fresh-caught, wild Alaskan salmon, all you can eat. For many people, it will be their first experience with one of Kenai's most treasured icons.
"A lot of people from far away, Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, Florida ... . A lot of people haven't had the salmon before and they just love it," said Trudy Stillwell, one of the waitresses at the Kenaitze Indian Tribe's wild salmon bake at the Tyotkas Elder Center in Old Town Kenai.
Not everyone at the Salmon Bake has traveled such a distance. "There have been a few people I've waitressed a few different times that are local folks," said Melissa Shaginoff, another waitress for the event, which has been taking place Thursdays through Sundays since June 15.
The salmon doesn't have to travel far, not once it comes out of the water. According to Dave Segura, an elder advocate and personal care attendant with the Kenaitze Elder Program who coordinates the salmon bake, they look for the only the freshest salmon available.
"We work with one of the canneries, Pacific Star ... we get it right off the boat. They do the head and gut, and I get it within hours of it coming off the boat," Segura said.
The kitchen is usually run by Julia Wilson, but on Friday night, Scott Juliussen was putting trays of salmon and chicken (another option) into the oven, and testing out the fry bread.
"Scott, he's a cook on the (North )Slope, so he volunteered to cook for us tonight," Segura said.
The fry bread is served simply, with butter and honey, and it covers a plate.
"It's an Indian bread. It's basically like a doughnut, it's our version of a doughnut. It's really good," said Juliussen.
Though he's just gotten back from Hawaii, Juliussen enjoys the opportunity to pitch in at the tribe where he is also a member. He gets a kick out of the Kenaitze elders. The wild salmon bake is held at Kenaitze's Tyotkas Elder Center in Old Town Kenai, and the proceeds benefit the tribe's elder programs.
"Number one goal is to prevent isolation of our elders," Segura said of the elder programs. The activities run the gamut, ranging from home health care to lunch programs at the Tyotkas center, to organized classes and trips.
"We have different activities. For example, we have an elders' drum that's started. This past winter we had a basket-weaving class. During the summer we have 17 outings down at the Kenaitze Indian Tribe's nets ... we gather all the elders together and we go fish the net. We have a big picnic on the beach. End of July, Seldovia invites us every year to go pick salmonberries," Segura said, giving a few examples of the activities, all meant to gather elders together.
The Kenaitze's elder programming covers a service area that is slightly larger than 800 square miles of the central Kenai Peninsula. "In the elders program with our tribal and nontribal elders we have a little over 300 elders," Segura said.
"We don't turn anyone away. We encourage everyone to bring a guest to lunch with them, because we are trying to break isolation, and if you're comfortable with someone, bring them with you," Segura said of the Tyotkas Center's policy. They serve Alaska Natives, American Indians, elders with disabilities, and Hawaiian Natives. Many of the Alaska Natives in the program are from other parts of the state and look forward to the opportunity to talk with others about their homes.
"We do still hear some stories. We hear a lot of stories from up north Nome, Barrow, the Yukon-Kuskokwim area ... we've got a lot of those elders coming in here, and they miss their home," Segura said. "We also encourage that when we're down at the net fishing. We'll say, 'Tell us what fishing was like at your home,' Some of them used fishwheels, some of them purse seine, we use gillnets."
The importance of caring for the elderly is a tradition in Alaska Native culture.
"Native people believe that you have to take care of your elderly and you have to take care of your kids. If you don't take of your elderly, you lose your past. You don't take care of your kids, you lose your future," Segura said.
The knowledge and wisdom of the elders is not only about what is past, but also about what the Kenaitze Indian Tribe is working to pass forward. Through events such as the wild salmon bake, there are opportunities for Kenaitze to share cross-culturally as well as cross-generationally.
"There was a couple yesterday from Canada. They said they just passed the Russian Orthodox Church over there and then they came in here. They said it was really neat seeing all the pictures and the history around here," Shaginoff said of her customers. "We had some people wanting to take pictures of the food, and take pictures with Julia. I don't know, it seems like it's going to be a mark in their trip to Alaska Kenai, coming here, and having as much salmon as you could eat."
The salmon bake is at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays at the Kenaitze Indian Tribe Tyotkas Elder Center, 1000 Mission Avenue in Old Town Kenai, through Aug. 15. For more information, call 283-3612.
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