Regina Kong, '22
Our islands, Our stories: Oral history and community-building in southeast Alaska
We were inside Taiga’s fishing boat, docked at the back of the cove. I remember taking a deep breath before setting the voice recorder down on the wooden table. The boat swayed side to side with the afternoon currents. Behind Taiga, I could see thickets of salmonberries and wild blueberries. According to the locals, the dense vegetation sheltered bears that roamed the island. I began the interview by asking Taiga about his childhood, and from there, I followed him as he spoke about everything from commercial fishing to ecology to fatherhood. To this day, everything about that experience and that summer feels entirely surreal.
Taiga was one of 15 people I interviewed for an oral history project I conducted through an internship with the Inian Islands Institute, a nonprofit experiential field school in Southeast Alaska that engages students in climate advocacy and sustainability. I found Inian as if by fate. When I reached out to Inian’s director, Zach Brown, PhD ’14, a few months prior to the summer of 2019, I learned that they had wanted to do an oral history project for a while, but had never had the capacity to do so.
“Do you think you would like to do this?” Zach asked me during one of our initial phone calls.
“Absolutely,” I said.
From a young age, I have always loved stories, especially those involving multiple generations and cultures. When I began thinking about interning with Inian, I was halfway through my freshman year and already thinking deeply about what a true education meant and what forms of wisdom could be attained outside of the traditional classroom—questions that I discovered resonated with Inian’s own mission.
And that was how, not even a week after the last day of school, I found myself in the breathtaking Southeast Alaskan wilderness, surrounded by endless swathes of forest and ocean. For the rest of the summer, I traveled by boat or seaplane to various communities, collecting stories surrounding the island’s homestead, fondly known by local fishermen as the “Hobbit Hole.” My goal was to preserve important community narratives containing such rich anthropological, ecological, and cultural histories; in the process of doing so, I realized that I was also preserving something much deeper.
Oral histories are a methodology for recording and preserving information not found in written records. Because they are shaped by the contours of an individual’s experience and reflections, they allow for the unearthing of rich and often unexpected stories. While these interviews proved emotionally intense, they also taught me how to listen deeply, how to be fully present. I heard incredible stories and met the wisest and most generous people. Strangers like Taiga shared their homes and lives with me, and I will always be grateful for that. From the changing climate in Southeast Alaska to the area’s geologic history to diverse definitions of home, I found myself continually learning more about this unique community as well as discovering a greater human narrative of love, endurance, and connection.
I know this summer will continue to shape who I am for the rest of my life, and I hope to take these stories and gleams of wisdom with me wherever I am in the world. To Taiga and everyone else who made this experience as special as it was and continues to be, thank you from the bottom of my heart.