Indigenous Stories of Strength: Sam Schimmel’s Operation Fish Drop

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Sam is Siberian Yupik from Gambell and Kenaitze Indian from Kenai, currently attending Stanford University. He was selected as a 25 Under 25 honoree for his passion for food sovereignty, hunting and fishing, both of which keep him connected to tradition and infuse his efforts to combat the suicide, drug abuse, and cultural erosion that riddle Native communities. Having seen the effects of climate change in Alaska firsthand, Sam is also working to raise awareness of its impacts on tribal communities. He is an active member of Alaska’s Climate Action Leadership Team and serves on the Cook Inlet Tribal Youth Council.

Click here to learn more about Operation Fish Drop by Indigenous Stories of Strength 

Operation Fish Drop was a direct response to barriers that Covid 19 presented for Alaskan Natives with regard to food security and access to critical cultural, and community sustenance.

A group of committed Alaskan Native corporations, non-profits, tribal councils, and community members came together to distribute vital cultural resources to the Alaska Native community suffering from the impacts and consequences of the Covid pandemic. Guidance and lessons learned from our elders life experience, history, heritage, and traditions, gave us solutions to impossible conditions. Without our stories this would not have been possible. We thank all of those who paved the way for us and passed down our traditions and ways of knowing.

Read Sam’s story, browse photos, and watch a video on Operation Fish Drop:


Operation Fish DroP

It is a great honor to share stories. It seems like I always find myself sharing the same introduction across a broad spectrum of platforms when representing indigenous topics. That introduction goes something like this: I was raised on the laps of my grandmothers and great grandmothers, my great uncles, and elders, listening to our stories and our way of life and how all of the generations before me lived with our knowledge and traditions.

It’s true.

My great grandmothers were from two distinct Alaska Native cultures, Kenaitze Indian, and St. Lawrence Island Siberian Yupik Eskimo. One lived to 100 and the other to 96. They shared our history with me and made me part of our traditions and heritage. I was very close with each of them. Telling stories honors them and our traditions, so it is an honor to share these stories.

My Apa, Estelle Penapak Oozevaseuk told me about times of starvation and sickness when she was a little girl.

She told me about people dying and what little they had to eat and how it impacted her the rest of her life. She also told me once of being in a terrible plane crash. She was medevaced to Anchorage. The doctors didn’t think she would survive and when she did, they said she would never walk again. They kept her there for months for her recovery.

“Nnnda” she said, “enough.” “Send me home”. She wanted to eat her foods and heal in her way with her family and her traditions. She did, and she walked, and split Walrus hides and cut mungtuk and oogruk and walked me to our summer hunting camp, and the fields of salmon berries where we’d pick for days and listen to and share stories from when I was a baby until I was 13.

In Kenai I would go to coffee time with Granny (Fiocla Wilson) and she told me about the old times and how my great grandpa Phillip would feed the entire community with moose and fish.

There was always a reason for every story they shared and mostly the understanding would come much later, sometimes years. I found myself always on their laps, in their presence. I’m honoring them now with this story I share, because so many years later when I experienced our communities inability to access our traditional foods I started to understand.

The Covid 19 pandemic impacted our indigenous communities to our core. Many of us were unable to get back our villages, or our lands, and subsistence fish, hunt, or gather. The fear of spreading disease into our communities was real and in our histories this had been devastating.

I was going to school remote and continuing work on several Native boards. The Center For Native American Youth had a combination of Get Out The Vote, and other opportunity grants.

I applied for grants and started smoking fish for our elders on the Kenai peninsula, who could not access our tribal resources due to the Covid pandemic. I was not able to go back to Gambell as the village and nearly every village across Alaska was closed.

The supply chain issues in the villages were immediately apparent. Locally it seemed we were short on traditional foods, in the villages they had no supplies. No Personal Protective Equipment, no hand soap, and little outside food. I realized while I could smoke fish locally I needed to also help my community in Gambell. With the help of friends and grant money we packed PPE (2 masks) a bar of soap, hand sanitizer, and a package of ramen in brown paper bags so that every single person in the village got a care package and some protection from Covid at home. We boxed up the bags and got them out to the village in time so everyone could go vote wearing a mask and be able to wash their hands with soap. These simple basic needs were a challenge across Alaska villages. It was a small way to say we’re thinking of you. Stay safe, stay healthy. Sending PPE and making smoked fish made me think of my great grandmas and how they would been proud of me, but expected nothing less.

I struggled with how I could do more. I was in remote learning class full time and overextended in impossible ways. Because class was remote I could be on multiple zoom calls simultaneously.

I was on the core planning team, and a keynote speaker for the National Tribal Climate Change Summit, the Vice Chair of the Arctic Youth Network, an Arctic Youth Ambassador for the State of Alaska, representative for the National Congress of American Indian Climate Action Task Force, Board member on the Center for Native American Youth, Presenter at the UArctic Congress…. I was on panels and in meetings every day at all times of the day.

I spoke about Climate and Covid 19 pandemic impacts on indigenous communities.

School became much less important and I found myself searching for ways to make a bigger impact for my communities while struggling with the frustration of a lack of understanding others had about our people.

While working on the 2020/2021 National Tribal Climate Summit with The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians I came across partners that had some surplus fish. I thought about my communities and how I could get these resources to them. It was a slow process but I kept looking ahead at what it could be. The conversations started small with up to 500 pounds of salmon that I could access and have sent to Anchorage. With each communication thoughts about Nativizing community aid kept me awake at night. I thought about what this would look like if it could be scaled up, and decided to try to do just that.

One conversation would lead to another and that would open a door to another partner and from 500 pounds that number quickly climbed 1000 pounds, then 3500, then 5000. Things were spiraling up in the best of ways.

I expanded into my network looking for support and aid. When asked by donors how many Native Elders and community members were experiencing food security issues, I said I needed fish for 3000 people in the Anchorage area. That was met with a thoughtful reply that was code for, are you crazy?

After months of dialogue and developing relationships with generous partners, 5000 pounds became 7500 pounds. Every time we spoke I would ask for a little more if it was possible, and we eventually ended up with over 16000 lbs of frozen Sockeye Salmon filets in 25 lb boxes.

I’ve learned the hard way about offering assistance and then having it fall through and being the one responsible for hope and support that never showed up. I knew I had to wait for the fish before it was offered to be given away. The logistics were overwhelming.

Once I had the fish I started to call on community leaders I had relationships with. I asked for vans and trucks for transporting the fish boxes when they arrived. Emily Edenshaw, Director of the Alaska Native Heritage Center, offered the Heritage Center as a central depot for distribution, along with support staff to help load fish boxes. I called around and spoke with managers of commercial freezer space and 10th and M stepped up and was willing to donate space for up to a week.

We launched the Operation Fish Drop flyer at 11 am and by 6 pm we had all fish accounted for. I had no money to make this happen so I needed everything to be donated. Cook Inlet Tribal Council filled all of the gaps. There were lots of hurdles and barriers, but there always are. This entire project was aligned perfectly with my finals week. The weather was dictating the arrival date of the fish, which then challenged all of the on-the-ground partners resources to be on stand-by.

When it launched I was the only one with access to the signup. Initially, we were going to give 50 pounds per elder and family and 25 pounds per individual. I was watching the sign up fill by the minute. That feeling was unexplainable in the best of ways, until I realized we were going to run out of fish and fast. I was doing simple math in my head. 480 boxes minus what was reserved for elder programs divided by 50. The math didn’t work. Signups already exceeded that number in the first hour. I had no choice but to draft an apology and reduce the 50 pound offer to 25 pounds so we could reach more families in need. The elation turned to sadness of not being able to reach everyone and the inequity of the process. The signup was left open with a note that it was becoming a waitlist or future list for another event. That went on to fill with over 500 sign ups in the first day. I was exhausted.

Years of thinking about, and talking about how to effect change in the community was in front of me. I got to Anchorage, finished writing a final and headed out to meet with the manager of 10th and M Seafood in Muldoon. Benito set me up and told me where to put the fish. The support team showed up in a fleet of vans to help unload the fish from the Lynden Truck and everything was coming together in a way that seemed like it was planned.

Emily called me first thing in the morning to be sure we had the fish so she could start messaging from the Heritage Center’s social media platforms. I told her the fish had arrived and was on the Lynden truck for delivery. The Heritage Center sent out a press release and social media blast.

Four hours later with no fish I called Lynden only to find out our fish had been dropped off already at an unknown location. I called Emily and let her know that even though I told her the fish arrived in Anchorage, she should know it had been misplaced. Our fish was lost. We did find it, and I escorted the Lynden truck to 10th and M and our team was elated.

Operation Fish Drop was a go!

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