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Wild Ecologies: So Go the Salmon, So Goes the World

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

In this episode, writers Tucker Malarkey and Will Bardenwerper, as well as rancher, rider, and member of the Oglala Sioux tribe Stan Brewer talk about their connections to the natural world. Malarkey talks about efforts to save wild salmon, their vital role in the ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest, and how relations between the US and Russia on this issue might provide insight on global climate change cooperation. Bardenwerper and Brewer, the first writer-source duo to appear on the show together, discuss Indian relay horse racing, and horses’ importance to the Lakota community.

To hear the full episode, subscribe to the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app (include the forward slashes when searching). You can also listen by streaming from the player below.

Readings for the Episode:

Part I : Tucker Malarkey

V.V. Ganeshananthan: One of the most rewarding things about Stronghold is that sense of appreciation that you draw from Guido’s journey through the natural world, and he ends up seducing—for lack of a better word—some really powerful people who go fly fishing with him. And this connection opens up this world of conservation and allows them to really connect to the ecosystem and also to want to help preserve it. So what was that journey like for you, and the experience of fly fishing? I’ve never done this. I just watch others do it. And even from that I can extract a sense of peace, but I’ve never done it. What’s it like?

Tucker Malarkey: Well, it can be maddening. But there’s something absolutely wonderful about standing in a beautiful river and having the wind in the trees and the current tugging at your legs and there’s nothing buzzing or beeping and you’re trying to communicate with this mysterious force under the water, and it can be meditative. Guido’s theory is that we all are hunters on some level—that wiring is in our brains. And so, people get into the river and they start to understand that this is a hunch and it’s also a conversation with the wild. But it really activates them and it becomes exciting and everything about the habitat starts to figure into that hunt. And so the whole river system becomes alive in all its dimensions.

Whitney Terrell: Tucker, you and I overlapped at Iowa. When I was there, I was working on a book about commercial salmon fishing in Alaska, which I used to do and paid for some of my education with, so I’m really into what you’re talking about. The wild salmon population is so important ecologically and tells us a lot about the state of the of the world really, and I wonder if you could talk about how why salmon are such a keystone species and how that works and what following them can tell us about the health of the planet.

Even the forests, those big forests in the Pacific Northwest, are built on salmon.

TM: Salmon were originally freshwater fish and so when the ice caps melted, they started to sense a greater food source in the ocean and they adapted themselves. They’re basically Transformers—they’re just unbelievable creatures! There’s nothing like them.

WT: Meaning the spawning in freshwater and then living most of their life in saltwater, just to be clear.

TM: So what happens is when they’re ready to go to the ocean, they just tip into the deep dark Pacific and they swim for rich food sources, which are usually in the north, and they sometimes go thousands of miles, so this is just going to explain the whole reason they’re a keystone species. So they eat this incredible plankton, zooplankton, and they are basically nutrient bombs for so many species in the ocean, but also when they swim back into the freshwater system, everything feeds on them as well. So they die—the whole effort of spawning and the journey back is fatally exhausting, basically. And so salmon die within a week or so of spawning.

But imagine hundreds of thousands or even millions of these nutrient bombs, these carcasses, decomposing, going into the soil and feeding everything from a microbial level all the way up to bears and eagles and all of this stuff. In fact, they’ve discovered that you cut open a 1000-year-old tree and you find a nitrogen isotope that’s unique to marine systems. So even the forests, those big forests in the Pacific Northwest, are built on salmon.

WT: Speaking to listeners, and maybe you, Sugi, if you’ve never been along a river that has spawning salmon, first of all, the idea that they can find their way back there after having just traversed hundreds and thousands of miles in the sea, and they just they have a homing system that brings them to the exact place that they were born. And then seeing all of them, all of them in the water like that—it’s an amazing, incredible sight. Magical, really.

TM: The migration—seeing them, it really stirs something inside of you. They’re so tough and determined, and there’s so many barriers and to see salmon coming in to spawn, they are just absolutely gorgeous. They represent some of the best qualities of any living organism, as far as I’m concerned.

VVG: I haven’t seen this. It does sound really beautiful. Most of where I see salmon is at the grocery store, en masse, when I go to the big box store or–

WT : You should be buying only wild salmon!

VVG: I knew you were gonna say that! But there was that report, maybe several years ago, about all the mislabeled salmon as well. My primary relationship with this is to wonder what is the ethical way to consume it, and it’s too bad that I’m quite removed from the life cycle of this fish that I certainly love eating. But I’ve never seen it en masse the way that you’re describing it—it sounds really gorgeous. And it’s scary to think that it’s at risk, right? When a lot of people think of climate change, I think their first image is of greenhouse emissions or plastic on the beach, things like that. And the more hidden in plain sight issue and what’s really affecting the health of salmon populations is habitat destruction, right? So, Tucker, I wonder if you can talk about where the threats to important wildlife habitats come from.

TM: It’s different. So the habitat of the Pacific Rim—and this is very cool—is the entire Pacific Rim. So it starts in Northern California, goes to Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Alaska, across the Bering Strait to the Russian Far East and Japan. So that’s a big habitat. So you’re going to get different threats depending on where you are. In the Pacific Northwest, it’s generally dams, clear cutting of trees and agricultural waste and water diversion. And those are things that conservationists here have made great inroads on and the Pacific Northwest dams are coming down as the information comes in about how important salmon are people are responding, but the true enemy and opposition are extractive industries like mining for instance, or natural gas.

WT: What a surprise that mining sucks! They’re always the bad guy.

TM: They are such bad guys. Mining, just like any extractive industries, basically, multinational companies coming into some pristine environment and extracting, meaning drilling in, exploding, bombing, poisoning. Mining’s incredibly toxic. They use poisons to extract the ore. And they never clean up their mess. They’re the filthiest industry in the world. And in Bristol Bay, Alaska, there’s a big battle. You might have heard about Pebble Mine. This is the second greatest salmon stronghold in the Northern Hemisphere. The year before last there were 60 million sockeye salmon coming home to spawn there. And this multinational consortium of mining people want to drill down, and not just drill down, drill as deep as the Grand Canyon—two miles long, this open pit mine in this porous land. It’s for copper they’re digging, and copper is a neurotoxin for salmon, and it’s a total disaster. And it got the kibosh under Obama. But of course when Trump was elected he greenlighted it. So it’s back on track. And it’s a real battle. It’s something that Guido’s deeply involved with and as are all the communities of that Alaska area.

VVG: Tucker, I think the natural follow-up question to that, because, you know, I as a character in my own life would always like to have some agency, and I think this is the hardest in all discussions about the environment, is what can we do about this? And I’m curious also specifically what Guido is doing about this because he’s your protagonist and such a compelling character.

TM: The answer is linked. The answer is really developing a relationship with your local river and they’re all over, right? It doesn’t matter where you are. It doesn’t matter if salmon are swimming in them, and it doesn’t even have to be a river. It’s nature. It’s getting out to the earth, because it is one big living organism. And when you start to spend time in it and start to feel how it’s all connected, it’s very hard not to want to save it because it gives us so much. The book is called Stronghold, which is the name of Guido’s philosophy, as opposed to conservation. So Guido saw billions of dollars going into attempts to restore degraded salmon rivers. And really those efforts have not been terribly productive. So what he thought was a better idea, a cheaper idea, and a more efficient idea was to protect the best salmon rivers that were already there. So across the Pacific Rim, establishing a network of cold, clean, pristine salmon rivers, where the salmon could shelter while all this other horrible stuff goes down. And he’s been really successful at doing that.

* Part II: Will Bardenwerper and Stan Brewer

Whitney Terrell: Stan, could you describe Indian relay racing for our listeners and tell us how you got involved in it?

Stan Brewer: Indian relay racing, as a Native American—it’s one of the hottest things going right now. It consists of four team members: three horses, one rider. So the rider starts usually on the ground, beside the horse with the mugger hanging onto it while all the other racers are at the starting line and at the sound of the gun or the horn, the rider swings on and runs around typically a half mile track, one lap per horse and they come in pretty fast, horse still running, and they jump off and usually take three, four steps and jump right onto their next horse, which the mugger is then setting up, and you have a catcher waiting for the horse that’s come running in, and he catches that one. And you have two exchanges, usually on a half mile track, usually five to seven teams on the track at once. So it’s usually dangerous—it’s a lot of horses on a small track at the same time.

WT: And when you say mugger—could you tell people what that means?

SB: The mugger is the guy who sets up the horse that the rider is about to jump on. So while he’s running around, you got to set that horse up just in the right spot and have them standing still so when that rider comes running in and jumps off and takes a few steps, he could jump right onto that horse and take off again and that’s the exchange. That’s a lot of times where you win or lose a race.

Conservation doesn’t just mean preserving land, it also means conserving traditions that were related to the land and that were healthy.

Will Bardenwerper: And also, it’s important to note that they’re riding these horses bareback, which adds an element of difficulty to it that’s pretty remarkable to watch.

WT: In the article during an important race an exchange is missed because one of your team’s horses bolts, Stan, as I recall.

SB: Yeah, it was right during the World Championships, one of the biggest races and yeah, it was our best horse who never, never ever did that and we were so far out in front it was just surprising because a lot of them horses are thoroughbreds that come from the track so a lot of times, a horse runs up behind them, they want to go faster just because they’ve been racing their whole life. But that one, he was so far out in front, no one was even close to him. So I don’t know what happened there. It was pretty devastating.

V.V. Ganeshananthan: So interesting. I come from a track-watching family. So what you’re basically describing is a system where the person is like the baton in a 4×400. But the baton in a 4×400 with people—the baton is the thing that might get dropped there. And that exchange is also important, but the baton is the thing that’s, I don’t know, slippery or unreliable or someone’s not looking, and in this case, the baton is very reliable, but the runners are the horses, and they could be in a mood, it sounds like. It must be amazing to watch. It was certainly amazing to read about. And Will, you’re a veteran of the war in Iraq. Your last book was about Saddam Hussein. So what drew you to this topic?

WB: I was actually up on Pine Ridge researching what I thought might become a book proposal on law enforcement on the reservation. And in the process of interviews for that, I met a young woman who said, you know what, if you’re looking for cool material to write about, you should really meet my brother. He’s involved in this sport called Indian relay racing; I think you’re going to discover that it’s pretty remarkable. And I thought to myself, all right, well, we’ll see where this leads. So I wasn’t immediately sold, but I took her at her word and I went to meet her brother. And it turned out that well, first of all, he just had a remarkable, interesting life story of his own. And the sport that he introduced me to turned out to be just super exciting and compelling. Before I knew it, I was knee deep in learning the nuances of Indian relay and the whole law enforcement story got put on the back burner.

WT: I was wondering, Stan, how you got started. In the article, you’re the captain of this team. But did you start as a rider and if so, who was your captain when you were riding?

SB: We always go up to Montana and we go on this memorial ride. It’s a memorial ride for the the Little Bighorn battle, the victory that our people had over the 7th Calvary and Custer, so and during that time, they had races there, horse races. We never had a track on our rez, we always just raced through pastures or up and down hills, whatever—they had just them kind of races there. Here we call them war pony races because no thoroughbred will be able to do that, like a thoroughbred can’t run up and down hills like that, across roads and run down and stop and spin around. So we call them war pony races because thoroughbreds can’t do none of that. And so we went and we just took our war ponies to the races and then they had an Indian relay. And so we figured we would try it out and we just had our war ponies and the people there liked it—it’s a big tradition up there in Montana. They all been doing it for 30 years or whatever.

So at first they were a few steps ahead of us—we would take off in front just with our war ponies and they’d pass us all up down the backside with their thoroughbreds and then we would come in and our little smaller war ponies are so tame they don’t even know what’s going on. We run up and jump on and take off and would be out front but on the back side all the thoroughbreds would fly by us again. So, I mean, like, that was just a difference then that we noticed that like how hot thoroughbreds are coming off the track, it’s hard to make them stand still. So our little war ponies there, you could do anything off them, so they just sit there and so then I start realizing, because I got tired of getting my ass kicked, that I need faster horses. And then they built the track on our reservation because our local teams here started wanting to do that. And this other team leader, they got a grant wrote to build a rodeo grounds here and the racetrack with it. So then Indian relay started getting big here because we then had a track so then we can get thoroughbreds and stuff because you can run them on a track. So that’s how that’s how I got introduced to it.

VVG: So how old were you?

SB: I think 15 whenever we first relayed against all them guys up in Montana there and got our ass kicked and then I think the track got built when I was maybe 18 or 19 here on our rez. And then I started buying thoroughbreds myself because I was working at the fire station here saving up money to buy my horses. I used to ride with me and my brother and our cousins, whoever. We just had our own team, so we never really started out with anyone else.

WT: So this episode is about stories about, in a way, conservation. I mean, it’s sort of weird to talk about horse racing as a conservation, but I wanted to think about it in this way, like conservation doesn’t just mean like preserving land, it also means conserving traditions that were related to the land and that were healthy. In my view, that’s what I think. And when you talk about that length of time, and you think back to Little Bighorn and riding up there, and that those traditions, is that a way that this racing could connect to conservation and stuff like that? Does that make sense, that idea that I’m trying to get across there, Stan?

SB: They call the Sioux people the horse nation or the horse people because ever since horses were brought over it changed the path of our history dramatically, from battles to hunting to traveling. The Native American people were survivors with or without, but I mean, it’s hard telling where we would have been without it because, like, all the battles that they won on horseback and all the hunting and everything and now, Native American people, they’re all natural horsemen and they have a natural connection and not a lot of people have that. I mean, it’s just like anything, any sports or wherever. You can tell when someone’s natural or whatever, and someone’s uncoordinated and they’re just not gonna work.

WB: I can chime into that one at the expense of my own pride, but I went on that Little Bighorn ride with Stan and his friends and family. And I saw that firsthand because, you know, I always actually considered myself a decent athlete and I played sports all the way up until college. But I got on a horse, basically for the first time in 30 years, and I’d never really ridden a horse much. And it was just a thousand times more awkward and difficult than I ever had imagined it and having been watching these guys for so long. And here I am struggling to control this horse and I’m 200 pounds and right in front of me was—Stan, I don’t know how old that that Jumping Eagle boy was, but he’s maybe like five years old and he’s on this thousand-pound horse and he’s just jumping on and off with no saddle, making it look completely effortless. And I was doing everything I could just to not fall off the horse I was on, so I’ve seen what he’s referring to firsthand.

Transcribed by and condensed and edited by V.V. Ganeshananthan.

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