Cory Mann is a quirky Tlingit businessman hustling to make a dollar in Juneau, Alaska. Smokin’ Fish relates his efforts to negotiate between survival in the world’s economy as an entrepreneur, and retention of his cultural identity as a member of the Thunderbird Clan. His business travels take him across the Pacific to various Asian countries, but the lure of smoking fish and nostalgia for his childhood draws him to spend a summer smoking fish among relatives near Klukwan, Alaska. The unusual story of Mann’s life and the untold history of his people interweave with the process of preparing traditional food as he struggles to pay his bills and keep his business (mass producing and importing Tlingit artwork and wholesaling it to the tourism industry) afloat. Mann’s casual style makes him very effective as the cultural broker, bringing the varied scenes of Tlingit cultural life to those of us who know little, if anything, about it.
Mann – a young, modern Tlingit guy – tells the story of his life and culture without pretense in a thoroughly fresh, funny, wise, and sweet way. He is seen participating in the traditional life of his clan – fishing, padding a canoe, cutting up the fish so they can be hung on poles and placed in the smoke house, repairing and reconstructing the smoke house, and participating in ceremonial dancing. Members of his family, including the seven women who helped raise him, feature prominently in the film. His Aunt Sally Burattin anchors the narrative about the history and culture of an ancient civilization, while Mann’s various business exploits carry him helter-skelter through the 21st century, as he tries to navigate the messy zone of the modern world as it collides with traditional culture. “For a while,” he says, “I didn’t really like it. I didn’t want to be Indian. I felt like I was being punished for something I didn’t do. All I could think of was I just want to be away from it.”
Although Mann was born in Juneau, his mother took him to live in San Diego when he was an infant, until his two aunts, unhappy with the situation, decided to bring him back to Alaska to live under the care of his extended family. His childhood was centered on life with his great grandmother, who was born and raised in a time when Tlingit culture was still dominant. She dedicated herself to smoking salmon in the traditional manner on an almost industrial scale, providing food, and a cultural connection, to a wide network of people. “Smokin’ Fish is more than preparing traditional smoked salmon,” explains Luke Griswold-Tergis, the film’s producer, co-director and writer. “We see traditional food as a connection with history and with the land, as well as a pillar that supports living Indigenous culture.”
Running time: 57 minutes