Sitkalidak Island: New Home of the Bison of Old Harbor, Forever Home of My People

By Dahlia Berns | September 6, 2022

A creek on Kodiak Island. Photo credit: © Dahlia Berns.

On the southeast side of Alaska’s Kodiak Island, tucked just beneath the Koniag Mountains, is the place that I call home. Just short of 200 citizens, Old Harbor is an Alutiiq community where the values of tradition, culture, and unity are immeasurable. It is here that reliance and respect for the land through subsistence hunting and fishing must go on. They are what has kept my family lineage and community strong for thousands of years.

This land of my ancestors possesses an unsurpassed beauty. Immersed in lush greenery, the little piece of paradise that is nearby Sitkalidak Island has flourished in its biodiversity for as long as any of us can remember. When looking out over the island’s vast verdant hills, you might spot one of the 70 bison that make up a herd that today sustains the residents of Old Harbor.

ADF&G biologist Nate Svaboda and Dahlia Berns preparing an ear stamp for a sedated bison on Sitkalidak Island. Photo credit: © Dahlia Berns.

The Sitkalidak Island Bison Herd holds the potential of creating a stronger sense of unity and connection between all who currently reside in Old Harbor and those who have come before. By providing the tribal residents with generational food security and local job opportunities, our bison herd offers a bright, sustainable future.

I saw the introduction of plains bison to Sitkalidak Island as a new beginning for my people, and I’m sure that many others felt the same. On a crisp September morning in 2020, Old Harbor community members stepped aboard my grandfather’s seining vessel to adjoin a landing craft in which three bulls had travelled all the way from Yellowstone National Park to their new home.

“The Sitkalidak Island Bison Herd holds the potential of creating a stronger sense of unity and connection between all who currently reside in Old Harbor and those who have come before.”

The moment the bison were released from their containers, I felt a great sense of community, of unity. Throughout the crowd were smiles, laughs, and cheers that spread like wildfire. We’d accomplished something great, something that will benefit the people of Old Harbor for generations to come.

Rolf Christiansen field cleaning a bison during a traditional hunt. Photo credit: © Dahlia Berns.

The Old Harbor of my childhood was a safe place where children roamed widely and dinner was just a catch away; where everyone was connected, either by blood or by shared values and practices. Today, young people seem more comfortable with the internet than our traditional ways of life. To rekindle the traditions of Old Harbor, we must stoke a desire to live sustainably and to preserve the land that mothered our ancestors.

In order to continue our traditional ways of living off this land, we must take care of it as it has taken care of us. By providing a source of income and a source of protein and nutrients that families can depend on year-round, the Sitkalidak bison herd will promote the expansion of both economic and educational opportunities for our youth, while rekindling traditional ties and bringing the community together, even stronger than before.

“The Old Harbor of my childhood was a safe place where children roamed widely and dinner was just a catch away; where everyone was connected, either by blood or by shared values and practices.”

Lifelong resident, Rolf Christiansen does not worry whether the community will have enough food. “I’ll be fine right here where I am,” he tells me. “I’ll have my buffalo.” Indeed, throughout his life, Rolf has survived by the traditional ways of his mother and her forebears, living off the land.

Dahlia Berns. Photo credit: © Dahlia Berns.

The importance of community revitalization cannot be overstated. Rural areas all throughout Alaska struggle to maintain stable subsistence resources. Rolf represents the many people living in culturally rich communities who nevertheless need secure sources of food.

Due to outmigration, the village’s population has diminished, and job opportunities have decreased. My grandfather Rick Berns, who is a longtime resident and current mayor of Old Harbor, looks at the bison herd in terms of how it fits into the community’s economy, noting, “This type of project takes a lot of work and innovative thinking, but eventually there will be paying jobs. As of now, we are just focused on harvesting the meat and distributing it.”

“We hope the bison herd will spark opportunity for younger generations and draw people back home as commercial fishing once did.”

Families in Kodiak have depended heavily on fishing over the last century, but dynamics in the industry are changing. For the last several decades, many people in my community have left the village in search of other job prospects. We now hope the bison herd will spark opportunity for younger generations and draw people back home as commercial fishing once did.

Melissa Berns applying a cold brand to one of three Yellowstone bison bulls on Sitkalidak Island. Photo credit: © Dahlia Berns

Documentation of this process, as I am trying to do via a film project with WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), is pivotal to capturing Old Harbor’s history for future generations. It is my hope that years from now, new and old residents will be able to refer to this and other records of the bison herd and remember the progress that we’ve achieved together.

As a young woman who aspires to work in the wildlife conservation field, I have followed these events with wonder. In carrying on and expanding subsistence traditions while ensuring the security of our land’s diversity, the Sitkalidak Island Bison Project is helping Old Harbor further improve and develop. I am honored to participate in such an important part of our history. The ancestors are proud.

Dahlia Berns is a member of the Alutiiq Tribe of Old Harbor and has been involved in the Sitkalidak bison project since its inception in 2017. She is currently working with Woodruff Laputka, of the WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) Arctic Beringia program on a feature-length documentary, “The Herd.”

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