“Can salmon people still be salmon people if they aren’t allowed to fish in water that legally belongs to them?” Bridget Groat (Alaska Native) poses the unanswerable to her Indigenous Food Systems class. Talking slowly, intentionally, she draws connections between pipelines, mines, dams, and food sovereignty, guiding her discussion-based class from conversations about traditional food sources to contemporary issues affecting Native nations.
After earning her doctorate in Native American History from the University of Arizona, Groat came to Fort Lewis College in 2019 as a visiting professor. She’s since taught classes on boarding school identity, Indigenous art, and early American history, to name a few, and is now an assistant professor in the History and Native American & Indigenous Studies departments, which she says offers the best of both worlds for her multidisciplinary approach.
“All of these interests are diverse because I really like looking at things from many different angles,” Groat says.
Groat is from a small village called Naknek on the edge of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the red salmon capital of the world. With nearly 1,000-foot deep freshwater lakes, the area is the perfect environment for sockeye salmon, which Groat explains is a keystone species that every organism in the ecosystem depends upon. She loves sharing her passion for fish and fishing with her students, many of whom are from Alaska Native villages.
“Some students are from my hometown and a few more are from my rival high school 80 miles away,” Groat says.
In Naknek, salmon season is short and intense, lasting only a few weeks from June till the end of July. Groat grew up fishing with her dad and attending the school where her mother still works to this day. She says women in her community are very strong, with 80-year-olds still picking berries on the tundra and catching and preserving fish.
“If I got my love of fishing from my father, then my love of learning comes from my mother,” says Groat, a first-generation college graduate. “My mother pushed us into doing our best always. She was pretty harsh, but I guess it paid off.”
The oldest of five sisters, Groat left the village when she was 18 to attend the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. She married a military man and left school to raise four sons. After a 20-year break from college, when the boys were older, she enrolled at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, where she received her bachelor’s in multidisciplinary studies, history, English, and technical writing, and a master’s degree in Native American History. While her thesis focused on land claims in Southeast Alaska, her doctorate tackled issues in her home community, with an aim to raise awareness and ultimately find protection for the land and watershed. Over the course of writing her thesis, Groat got to travel home often to visit with family and friends, something that helped ease the homesickness she feels around the beginning of July every year.
“I miss the water; that’s the drawback,” says Groat of living in Southwest Colorado.
But Groat says she likes the quiet of Southwest Colorado, where she has plenty of time to watch nature and tend to her plants while she dives deeper into Native American studies. This past summer, thanks to a grant from the Native American Agriculture Fund, Groat and colleagues undertook a book study to discuss Indigenous food systems, something Groat always circles back to in her teaching.
Besides serving as co-coordinator of the Regenerative Food Systems Certificate, Groat is also involved in the Agricultural Committee and the Native American Graves Protection Act committee, which ensures FLC is cataloguing and returning funerary objects and human remains to their people. She also helps oversee the new River Studies & Leadership Certificate. This semester, she started teaching an online FLC Teacher Education program for students in Metlakatla, Alaska. The program is designed to certify Indigenous teachers in a community that lacks teachers. As part of the Native American Advisory panel, Groat advises FLC’s president about Indigenous issues on campus. At the heart of it all, Groat says she’s here to help students grow during their time in college.
“These aren’t my kids,” she says. “They can go home after school. It’s just so exciting to see them go through hard times and still make it to graduation. The joy on their faces when they graduate is worth everything.”