Ancient Wisdom, New Vision: Village of Solomon’s Path to a Green Future
The Village of Solomon is what’s known as a displaced tribe: the roughly 165 tribal members are all descendants of original village residents, but no one lives there now. VOS members live in Nome, throughout the rest of Alaska, and in the Lower 48, but they all have a strong connection to the place and to each other.
From atop the red metal roof of the old school in Solomon, a clutter of buildings along a gravel road 30 miles east of Nome, Deilah (dee-EYE-lah) Johnson could see for what felt like forever. To the north, the blue-green humps of the Kigluaik and Bendeleben Mountains. To the south, the glimmer of Norton Sound. Nearby, the fading wooden structure of an old general store listing to the tundra, and the silver slice of the Solomon River. And all around, miles and miles of green.
It was July 2021 and Johnson, the environmental coordinator for the Village of Solomon (VOS) Tribe, was working on conquering her fear of heights. Clad in a safety vest and hard hat, and joined by a team of eight similarly suited crew members, Johnson was in the middle of an effort to do something remarkable at this mostly empty waypoint a mile inland from the coast: bring a state-of-the-art solar energy system to a Native village that had been abandoned decades ago. The energy system was part of a new vision for an ancient place: a plan to rebuild this tribal community green. And it was an opportunity to recognize what was possible in reimagining a permanent homeland for a scattered tribal community committed to their identity, place and future.
The Village of Solomon is the tribal name for the descendants of the original settlers of Solomon, Inupiaq of the Fish River Tribe. Known originally as Erok, the community was a summer fish camp that blew up into one of the busiest outposts on the Seward Peninsula during the Gold Rush. There were seven saloons, a post office, ferry dock, horse stables, and school building. Solomon was also the terminus of a narrow-gauge railroad that extended to mining camps in the area, the remains of which sit rusting on the tundra today.
Although the 1918 flu epidemic killed many village residents, in 1940 with the mining boom long over, the Bureau of Indian Affairs built a school with the goal of educating the remaining village kids. Barely sixteen years later, the school in the shrinking village was shut down, and the post office closed too. The last year-round resident of Solomon was Garfield Okitkon, an Elder who left his cabin to search for firewood on a winter day in 2004. His snowmachine broke down, and he was stranded in the elements. He later developed pneumonia and died.
Today, the region around Solomon is an important subsistence harvesting area. In the winter, there’s ice fishing, crabbing, and jigging for tomcod. In the spring, Johnson explained, people gather wild plants such as masru (also known as Eskimo potato) and sura, or willow leaves. Seals too are often harvested in the spring. In early summer, grayling and trout are plentiful, and pink salmon begin to run in July, when the salmon berries ripen. August is prime time for blueberries and silver salmon. Fall brings the opportunity to hunt moose.
The Village of Solomon is what’s known as a displaced tribe: the roughly 165 tribal members are all descendants of original village residents, but no one lives there now. VOS members live in Nome, throughout the rest of Alaska, and in the Lower 48, but they all have a strong connection to the place and to each other. Today, Solomon comes to life in the summer. VOS operates a small bed and breakfast in the old school building (now called the Community Center), which is popular with government survey crews, and each August, Johnson helps to facilitate a week-long youth and Elder camp based in the same building.
Johnson is 33, and her history goes deep into this place. Her great-grandfather was a mail carrier here, ferrying letters by dog sled. He also helped save the village when a huge storm flooded the area. He brought in heavy equipment to move the buildings to higher ground. Johnson’s grandmother grew up here, and her mother spent time here when she was growing up too.
As a child, Johnson knew nothing about her Tribe. She moved from Nome to the Anchorage area with her mother and two siblings as an elementary school student, not long after her father died. But as soon as Johnson graduated from high school, her mother moved back to Nome. Johnson began studying criminal justice at the University of Alaska Anchorage. During spring break one year, when she was a broke and unmotivated college student, Johnson went to visit her mother in Nome. VOS leaders recognized potential and offered her a position writing grants for the Tribe. “I didn’t even know what a grant writer was,” she said. But she was excited by the opportunity. So, Johnson taught herself. She moved back to Nome and dug in, bringing books to the beach after work to research the Tribe and how to write effective grants.
A decade later, with more than $1.4 million in grant funding secured, Johnson is leading the way in charting a green future for the Village of Solomon. In addition to serving as the grant writer, Johnson carries out environmental education for tribal members and represents the Tribe to the EPA, Army Corps of Engineers, local utilities, and other entities.
Johnson is also the Tribe’s renewable energy expert, and is part of an Arctic-wide movement to promote renewable energy in the far north. She is participating in the Arctic Remote Energy Networks Academy (ARENA), a circumpolar program carried out by the U.S., Canada, Iceland, and the Giwch’in Council International. Through site visits, knowledge-sharing, and relationship-building, ARENA’s goal is to help support development of remote renewable energy systems.
“It makes me feel hopeful in that I’m not alone in this,” she said.
As an ARENA participant, Johnson has studied energy systems in Kotzebue and Iceland, met with energy experts at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and built relationships with people across the Arctic who are working to develop renewable energy systems. The networking has been invaluable, Johnson explained. “It makes me feel hopeful in that I’m not alone in this,” she said. In 2020, Johnson secured support from the Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund, a tribal-led philanthropic grantmaking opportunity that funds new solar projects in tribal communities. That grant made it possible to bring the VOS’s vision to fruition to replace the diesel generator that powered the Community Building with a solar energy system. Over ten days in July 2021, Johnson, along with an energy contractor from Colorado and a handful of Nome-based renewable energy enthusiasts, installed 21 solar panels and a bank of batteries. This infrastructure is key to the Tribe’s goal of making it possible for VOS members to move back to the community year-round, to turn the homeland of a scattered people into a real home.
“We don’t have an opportunity to grow up knowing and experiencing our culture.”
Being part of a displaced Tribe has unique challenges, Johnson explained. With low enrollment and members scattered geographically, VOS’s tribal sovereignty is not always recognized or even understood. VOS cannot apply to certain funding programs, Johnson said, which threatens the Tribe’s ability to invest in themselves and their future—the very things needed to amplify their tribal visibility. Sovereignty, Johnson explained, means “having a seat at the table.”
And without geographic proximity, Johnson said, “We don’t have an opportunity to grow up knowing and experiencing our culture.” The Tribe has addressed this challenge head on with the annual week-long youth and Elder camp. Johnson coordinates this coming together of youth and Elders in Solomon for a week of berry picking, fishing and storytelling. “We all act like a huge family,” Johnson explained. This strong connection helps tribal members share important cultural traditions, through traditional language lessons and opportunities to work together on subsistence activities like making blueberry jam, harvesting wild plants for tundra tea, whipping up akutaq with salmon berries, and smoking silver salmon that run up the Solomon River.
Caring for the land is an important value shared during camp, and stewardship is a core part of VOS’s mission. Johnson has been working with the Tribe to advocate against development of a dredge gold mine in Safety Sound, a nearby estuary that is important habitat to juvenile salmon, shorebirds, and marine mammals. Johnson feels confident that the five government-to-government formal and informal consultations VOS had with the Army Corps of Engineers—in addition to water quality sampling data the Tribe provided to the Corps—helped the agency understand what was at stake with potential development of the mine. Last fall, the Corps issued a rare rejection of the mining permit application from the Nevada-based mining company.
“There’s no manual” for the work Johnson does for the Tribe, she explained. Her projects are wide-ranging, but she is laser focused on improving quality of life for VOS enrollees. Currently, Johnson is working to develop new housing in the Nome area for tribal members to help address the crisis of housing instability that affects many people in Nome. She secured funding from the American Rescue Plan for a project to construct three single family homes and a community center in Nome.
Johnson currently lives on the coast of Oregon. She travels to Nome regularly for meetings, and each summer, brings her young son to Solomon for the youth and Elder camp. He’s eight years old and loves his visits to Nome and his weeks at camp, calling all of his fellow campers “cousins,” Johnson said. It was at camp where her son caught his first silver salmon at age four, and where Johnson herself learned how to cut silvers into strips and smoke them.
Although Johnson’s son is growing up even farther removed from their tribal homeland than she did, Johnson said that he feels proud of his tribal identity. Her highest hope is that he always feels connected to Solomon and always wants to go back. Johnson works hard to secure funding so that all tribal members have the support they need to travel to Solomon for youth and Elder camp.
Johnson remembered what it was like to turn on the new solar system at the Solomon Community Building for the first time. The crew let her do the honors of flipping the switch. “I had been spearheading this project for a long time,” Johnson said. “I was fighting back a ton of tears.” The crew was crowded into a narrow utility room. First, Johnson shut off the generator, leaving only silence around them. Then she pressed a big red button on the inverter, which made two beeping noises, before it went silent. And that was it. The solar system was up and running, and the Tribe’s vision of going renewable had come to life.
The Tribe celebrated completion of the solar project with a potluck at the Community Building. Each attendee had a chance to express what the project meant to them. But mostly, Johnson said, the focus was: What’s next? For Johnson, this means she’ll continue to advocate fiercely for her fellow tribal members and work to bring to life the vision of a clean energy future that is the stepping stone for a tribal homeland that can be home, too. This work will increase visibility and build sovereignty for a small but determined Tribe. “Although we’re displaced,” Johnson said, “it doesn’t make us quiet. It doesn’t make us irrelevant.”
Deilah Johnson is the Environmental Coordinator, Grant Writer and a Council Member for the Village of Solomon. She is the daughter of Elizabeth Johnson with siblings Derek and Amy Johnson.
Words by Miranda Weiss. Miranda is a science and nature writer and the author of ‘Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska’. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Economist, The American Scholar, Alaska Dispatch News and elsewhere. She lives with her family in Homer.
Photography by Brian Adams (Inupiaq). Brian is an editorial and commercial photographer based in Anchorage specializing in environmental portraiture. His work has been featured in both national and international publications, and his work documenting Alaskan Native villages has been showcased in galleries across the United States and Europe.
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