Sun'aq Tribe of Kodiak
A rich tradition of harvesting and processing
How do you preserve and sustain a culture that is 8,000 years in the making? For the Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak, located on the northwestern edge of the Gulf of Alaska, one answer is in the rich waters surrounding the archipelago.
The Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak, one of ten Alutiiq tribes, is deeply connected to the surrounding land and sea, encompassing nearly 75,000 square miles. Its mission is to provide its members with leadership, economic, and educational opportunities while embracing and sharing their rich culture with pride and dignity.
“We want to be stewards of our wonderful seafood resources.”
JJ Marsh | Executive Director | Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak
Subsistence living to fish processing
As Executive Director of the Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak, JJ Marsh recognizes the Alutiiq people’s unique connection with the water. “Our ancestors followed an elaborate maritime subsistence lifestyle of hunting, fishing, and gathering throughout the year,” Marsh explained. The knowledge gained over 80 centuries of subsistence living led Sun’aq to pursue fish processing to support its members.
In 2009, the Sun'aq Tribal Council met with Chris Sannito, owner of Kodiak Island WildSource, to discuss a partnership. Sannito still recalls walking members of the Tribal Council through the processing facility: "We discussed the potential of Sun'aq wanting to get into seafood processing, and in my mind, it was a match made in heaven." Later that year, Sun'aq purchased WildSource, and with the benefit of the new partnership, the processor began to see steady growth until a devastating fire destroyed everything.
A whole new future
In August 2016, a fire engulfed Eastpoint Cannery, forcing WildSource to find another location. “That’s when First National Bank Alaska came in to help. We were looking for funds, and the bank believed in us,” said Sannito. “Being able to purchase new space on the waterfront gave us new life and a whole new future.”
Sun’aq has a longstanding relationship with First National. In 2013, the bank assisted with an Indian Affairs loan to help Sun’aq purchase its current office, a two-minute walk from First National’s Kodiak Branch. After the fire, Kodiak Branch Manager Mark Lonheim and Operations Supervisor Debbie Olson worked with Marsh to secure two loans for the new dock – one to facilitate the dock purchase and another to rebuild the processing facility.
“Mark was more than willing to work with us. He and Debbie are always available. They give us a hometown feel,” said Marsh.
Well-positioned for success
In their new location, WildSource serves Kodiak’s small and charter sports boat fleets. “We fill in the gaps that the big processors can’t and produce a high-quality product,” described Sannito. “And the future looks fantastic.”
Marsh and Sannito attribute WildSource’s success to their new dock and incredible employees. “We all know location is important, but you can only go so far without good employees. They’re dedicated, hardworking, and just amazing people,” said Marsh.
WildSource serves health food stores, local restaurants, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, and food banks throughout Alaska. The business also provides custom solutions for independent fishers who want to market their products. As a small fish processor, WildSource is nimble, changing seasons and projects quickly. It specializes in areas the big processors don’t, such as processing sea cucumbers, specialty processing, portion cutting, sport fish processing, smoking, and most recently, thermal processing and kelp farming.
The seaweed industry, specifically kelp, presents a huge opportunity to WildSource. “We’re in the infancy phase right now, but we think eventually kelp farming, processing, and drying will be projects we work on 365 days a year,” said Sannito. Current distribution extends far beyond Alaska to national and international resellers. This year’s crop is set for the Japanese market.
With WildSource’s success, the Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak has new resources to meet its mission and support its members. The Tribal Council is currently renovating space across the street from WildSource to create a market and coffee shop where tourists can sample some of its products. Lonheim explained, “The whole point of WildSource is to provide opportunities for their tribal members and a healthy and sustainable product to the community. They are thriving, and we are proud to help them accomplish their goals.”
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Loans for success
When businesses collaborate, they create opportunities for success that are not possible otherwise. For the Sun'aq Tribe of Kodiak, success means additional support for its members.
In 2022, Sun'aq opened the Alutiingcut childcare program at St. Mary's School. "[The students] are speaking and singing Alutiiq," said JJ Marsh, Executive Director of the Sun'aq Tribe of Kodiak, excited about the program and its upcoming expansion. Sun'aq is collaborating with Kodiak Area Native Association to increase capacity by 40 children and plans to open a new daycare program soon.
Marsh is also excited about the Tribe's work to safeguard the natural habitats and ecosystems of the archipelago. "We want to be stewards of our wonderful seafood resources," she explained.
Sun'aq Tribe of Kodiak's acquisition of Kodiak Island WildSource set the stage for both companies to achieve their goals. Sun'aq's financial backing allowed WildSource to invest in the dock and infrastructure necessary to become profitable. Now, its members benefit from the revenue generated by the fish processing facility's success.
First National is proud to provide financing to help Sun'aq and WildSource build the partnership they envisioned. A partnership that, now realized, continues to benefit Sun'aq's members and the Kodiak community.
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Branch Manager Mark Lonheim | Branch Operations Supervisor Debbie Olson
First National Branch Manager Mark Lonheim and Branch Operations Supervisor Debbie Olson provided the Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak with the support, expertise and financing they needed to rebuild Kodiak Island WildSource into the successful business it is today.
When Lonheim joined the bank in 2013, he immediately prioritized meeting with Sun’aq to continue to build an already strong relationship.
With 41 years at First National’s Kodiak Branch, Olson has strong ties throughout the Kodiak community. She has witnessed firsthand how the right loan at the right time enables local businesses to pass their success on to the local economy and community.
At Alaska’s community bank, relationships are at the heart of everything we do. Our Kodiak Branch team’s strong relationship with the Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak exemplifies what we can achieve when we work together.
First National Branch Manager Mark Lonheim and Branch Operations Supervisor Debbie Olson talk with the Executive Director of the Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak, JJ Marsh, and owner of Kodiak Island WildSource, Chris Sannito.