“When we lose a culture, we lose our self-identity. We want to keep that intact and give hope to people through what we do with our business.”
Hugh Amaguq Ahnatook | Founder Sacred Waters Fish Company
Imagine a thank you gift so big, so impactful, it inspired your life’s purpose.
Such is the story of Hugh Amaguq Ahnatook (Inupiaq) and Sacred Waters Fish Company.
In 2016, fires ripped through the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington, and Ahnatook decided to volunteer for two months to help fight the fires. As a thank you for his time and service, Ahnatook received 600 pounds of Northwestern sockeye salmon from the Colville.
In a time when salmon and Northwestern waters are constantly in danger from ongoing climate change and habitat loss, 600 pounds of salmon is nothing short of sacred. “The salmon is a gift to the indigenous people; it has meaning, honor and respect,” says Ahnatook. He did what made sense: built a homemade wood smoker in his backyard, smoked the fish, packaged it up, and began gifting and selling it to people.
Located on 20 acres in Bay Center, Washington, Sacred Waters Fish Company is now putting down roots in a Northwestern home. Co-run by Ahnatook and his wife Paige Sutherland Coleman, the business is a small but mighty operation. Sacred Waters sources its fish from Natives who fish for a living on the Columbia River, harvesting a first food from their native region. The fish is then processed and smoked for 10-12 hours in an alder wood fire in a traditional, smudge pot-style smoking method.
“Some people would describe us as a social impact company,” says Coleman. “Our transactions are Native-to-Native, and we’ve begun introducing fair-trade practices on the Columbia.”
While building Sacred Waters, the couple also saw a need for more opportunities for Native people to sell goods to the public. They created Native Vendors United, a Facebook group and online community, and began organizing Native pop-up markets around Portland and Vancouver. “It’s fostered the idea to create marketplaces for other Native vendors,” says Coleman, who runs the business and operations side of Sacred Waters.
While Sacred Waters gets its commercial kitchen underway, the product is available online, at local pop-up markets, and pow wows, and the couple hopes to get small batches into local, small-chain grocery stores in Portland and Washington.
A fisherman at heart with roots in Alaska, Ahnatook keeps integrity at the core of Sacred Waters. “When we lose a culture, we lose our self-identity,” he says. “We want to keep that intact and give hope to people through what we do with our business.”
Author: Dez Ramirez
Photos: Kari Rowe
Published: December 2019