Finding my culture meant finding my passion for nature

4/27/2016

By Keemuel Kenrud, Arctic Youth Ambassador

I feel very fortunate that I was able to discover one of my greatest passions so early in my life. When I was four years old, I moved from Bristol Bay, Alaska to live with my grandparents in Togiak. Like most kids my age, I was loud and full of energy. Luckily, my grandparents had big plans for putting that energy to good use. 

When I was six, my grandfather was working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. To get more kids excited about nature in Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, he began a program called “River Ranger for a Day.” It drew children like me to the Togiak River, where we would learn about plants and animals and the importance of nature. After a day on the river with my grandfather, he would have us talk and draw pictures about our experiences.

A young man and an older man on a boat moving across the water
Keemuel Kenrud driving a boat in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Keemuel Kenrud.

Being outdoors is important to our Yup’ik culture. Even at a young age, I felt our connection with nature. I would explore the wilderness and observe birds and game to learn how they lived their daily lives. What came from those experiences was something I couldn’t learn from a book. I was opened to a new world.

A baby fox playing in tall grass.
A fox kit in Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I also learned a lot about respect. Respect is a powerful idea in my culture. If you don’t respect something or someone, you won’t get respect in return. On the day I got my first moose, respect for nature took on an even deeper meaning.

Like many in the Arctic, my family relies on the land for food. Before we began the hunt, my grandfather said a prayer, asking for a great day. After hours in the wilderness, we spotted a moose. It went down with one shot. Before we could start the butchering process, my grandfather stopped us. He gathered us in a circle around the moose and made us join hands. In a strong voice, he began to pray, thanking the Lord for this gift, and thanking the moose’s spirit for offering itself to us. At that moment, I felt connected to everything around us. I knew what I wanted: To further my education in my culture and strengthen my connection with nature.

A teenager and a child hold a large fish on a river bank.
Keemuel Kenrud fishing in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Keemuel Kenrud.

Today -- like my grandfather -- I work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, running the program he started. I’m proud to bring youth onto the river and open their eyes to a new world. These children get to explore the outdoors and learn about plants and animals. It’s exciting for me to spread awareness about my culture and the climate around us. It was one of the reasons I became an Arctic Youth Ambassador. It gives a 19 year old like me the opportunity to voice my opinions and beliefs about my culture, and why it is important to spread the knowledge of who we really are.

A clear river flowing through a valley surrounded by snow capped mountains
Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

At the end of every trip, I ask the children what they learned. The answer I get most often is that the “river is so clean.” Knowing that I’m able to talk to children about nature is priceless. I hope it’s something they will continue to experience as they get older. 

My hope for future generations is that they get to experience the power of nature, in the same way I’ve experienced it, and our grandparents before us. My Yup'ik culture is slowly washing away. To keep it alive, I will share my passion and do what I can as an Arctic Youth Ambassador to raise awareness and tell my story of my people.

A group of young people sitting on a rock and looking out over a large body of water in Alaska.
A group of teens participating in a Youth program at Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Arctic Youth Ambassadors program was established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-Alaska Region, U.S. Department of the Interior, and U.S. Department of State in partnership with nonprofit partner Alaska Geographic. Keemuel is a member of the Yup’ik People of Alaska.