CREATING A CANNERY COMMUNITY
“The end is where we start from.”
The NN Cannery History Project was designed to create awareness of the long and rich cannery history of Bristol Bay, a history built on the foundation of Bristol Bay’s pristine habitat and unparalleled sockeye salmon runs. The NN Cannery is situated on the south side of the Naknek River, one of the five major rivers that constitute the Bristol Bay salmon fishery. The cannery was built in 1895 near the village of South Naknek and along a freshwater stream called Packers Creek. For more than a century the NN Cannery processed millions of red salmon and was part of an industry that played an important role in Alaska and throughout the Pacific World. The NN Cannery was a place where thousands of people made a living.
Contrary to notions of isolation, the NN Cannery was a cultural crossroads. Over time, cannery people developed unique identities and stories, which today remain little-known or understood. Most public displays interpret Alaska’s salmon industry through the activities of fishermen rather than the processors, whose collective knowledge of the mechanical operation, the physical labor, and the place itself formed the cannery’s industrial backbone. From its bunkhouses to the boardwalks, the cannery’s dwindling structures contain this history. Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon, the ethnically diverse cannery workers and the corporate owners connected the NN Cannery to a global web. Its shutdown in 2015 marked the end of an era.
When the current owner, Trident Seafoods, permanently closed the NN Cannery in 2015 and era of Bristol Bay history came to an unceremonious end. But the closure also opened a rare window of opportunity to Alaska’s humanities groups. In 2015, a contingent of historians, curators, filmmakers and residents launched The NN Cannery History Project, a grassroots public history endeavor that, through the historical lens of work, aims to preserve the history of the 128-year-old NN Cannery at South Naknek. Because the cannery was built by the Alaska Packers Association in 1895 and functioned continuously into the 21st Century, the complex still maintains extraordinary architectural integrity, and remains one of the most historically intact remnants of the cannery industry on the West Coast.
With authorization granted by Trident Seafoods in 2016, the NN Cannery History Project established collaborative partnerships with the National Park Service (NPS), Alaska State Museum (ASM), University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), Alaska State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), the Bristol Bay Borough (BBB), the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation (AAHP) and Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust (BBHLT) and the digital storytelling consulting business, See Stories. Together, we aim to work with local institutions to transform the historic salmon cannery into a humanities community.
Uncovering the Stories of Alaska’s Invisible Cannery People
The NN Cannery History Project will accomplish this goal through four separate, but interdependent deliverables by 2021:
1) Nominate the NN Cannery Maritime Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places
2) Develop a digital storytelling workshop with the Bristol Bay School District designed for resident youth (completed in September 2018)
3) Create a Project Jukebox oral history archive with UAF based on cannery workers social histories at South Naknek
4) Produce a museum exhibition with the Alaska State Museum called “Mug Up” that will share the stories of the multitudes who canned salmon and created an ethnically diverse, economically vital, cannery culture.
In 2017, the NN Cannery Project team received technical assistance from the National Park Service’s Alaska Regional Office to collect archeological, historical and architectural data at the NN Cannery for the National Register nomination and to share project objectives with the local community. Project Director Katie Ringsmuth presented at the American Institute of Architects conference, in which she discussed how the NN Cannery History Project exemplifies “participatory history preservation.” Additionally, The NN Cannery was listed as one of Alaska’s Top Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties.
In 2018, Ringsmuth presented at Trident Seafoods, the Alaska Salmon Canners Association, the Bristol Bay Chamber of Commerce, Anchorage Rotary Club, and the Cannery Worker Reunion at the APA Museum, Nature Conservancy, Katmai National Park & Preserve, Bristol Bay Fish Expo, Tundra Vision Lecture Series, Alaska Historical Society Annual Meeting and the Bristol Bay Historical Society Museum. She has met with representatives from the Filipino American National Historical Society, Bristol Bay Native Corporation stakeholders, and Bristol Bay Borough Assembly.
Throughout the year, the NN Cannery History Project has organized a series of “Mug Ups”—public gatherings in which cannery people are invited to share their stories—in communities such as Birch Bay, Juneau, Anchorage, Palmer, Naknek and South Naknek. The NN Cannery History Project team has interviewed former cannery workers in Washington, California, Anchorage and Bristol Bay to include in UAF’s Project Jukebox oral history archive. We facilitated a trip to the NN Cannery, in which curators, historians, cultural resource experts, and journalist collected objects and experienced the site first-hand. The NN Cannery History Project supported the participation of 19 Bristol Bay High School students in a Digital Storytelling Workshop, in which they produced 17 film that will be included in the museum exhibition. We forged a collaboration with Bristol Bay Native Corporation Education Foundation, the National Park Service, University of Alaska’s Engineering Department and Alutiiq Artist Andrew Abyo to construct a scale model of the NN Cannery, which will serve as the centerpiece of the exhibition and will reflect a full spectrum of Alaskan innovation.
2019 will see the completion of the National Register nomination and Project Jukebox. The NN Cannery History Project team will launch the second annual Digital Storytelling Workshop, in which we will teach children of cannery caretakers to become caretakers of history. We will continue to strengthen our “humanities community” and look at how we might bring Heritage Tourism to Bristol Bay. And, we will turn attention to the community-curated Mug Up exhibition, lead by local curator LaRece Egli.
To date, the NN Cannery History Project has raised nearly $215,000 dollars, secured through individual donations as well as from the Bristol Bay Borough and the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation. We have also received funding through grants from the Bristol Bay Native Corporation Education Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation, and two from the National Park Service: Underrepresented Communities Grant and NPS Maritime National Heritage Grant. Although deeply appreciative, we still have work to do. As we turn towards 2019, our goal is to raise another $250,000 to support the Mug Up exhibition.
Additionally, the NN Cannery History Project has received media attention from a variety of local and national outlets. Alaska Magazine, Pacific Fishing, Point Roberts Press, and E&E News in Washington D.C. and Ravn’s inflight magazine, Alaskan Spirit, have reported on the project. Public media affiliates such as KDLG in Dillingham, KSKA and KNBA in Anchorage, and KTOO in Juneau have featured stories and conducted interviews with team members on their respective broadcasts. Palmer’s community radio station recorded the Mug Up in Mat-Su, which featured former NN Cannery Superintendent Gary Johnson, Cannery Caretaker Carvel Zimin, and former journalist, Bob King. Most recently, KTVA-TV (CBS) reporter, Rhonda McBride, accompanied our team to South Naknek in June. She will be covering project activities in a 2-part series on the local news serial, Frontiers.
Despite is state of decline, the NN Cannery is a place that still holds extraordinary community values and history and, therefore, creates a conduit for expressing the voices of the cannery people—the local and the global perspectives. Perhaps we cannot save the actual buildings, but we can assign dignity to the people who worked within them. From the laundry lady, the spring/fall crew, to the winter watchman, the local cannery people cared (and continue to care) deeply for this industrial workscape and they left a mark on its history. Their work mattered. In addition to providing leverage for history-related economic endeavors, our goal is for Bristol Bay youth to be equally proud of a mother who cleans fish as a father who catches them. Work is a universal concept that transcends the historically unfamiliar and connects the little-known cannery experience to knowledge and values shared by visitors from California, China or even Kansas. The NN Cannery History Project can create a humanities-community around the demise of a 128-year-old salmon cannery. As T.S. Eliot once observed, “the end is where we start from.”