Written and photographed by Bethany Goodrich for Alaska Business Monthly
Dennis Gray Jr. sets his fishing gear with a calm and practiced rhythm in the Gulf of Alaska, south of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. “My ancestors have fished these waters since the last Ice Age,” Gray says as he slides his knife through the crimson gills of a coho salmon.
Gray is a fourth-generation commercial fisherman. He’s also the city administrator for Hoonah, a Tlingit village carved into the slender coast of Chichagof Island.
Aboard his humming freezer troller, Gray relies on a time-tested strategy: selecting hoochies and flashers, adjusting depth and speed to catch salmon. But back in town, he and his community of 800 concentrate their efforts on another silvery target: building prosperity in rural Alaska.
Challenges confront hundreds of isolated villages across Alaska. Despite being just seventy miles west of the state capital, Hoonah remains accessible only by boat or small plane. Goods and services are barged in, and that’s costly. Energy prices are more than double what Juneau residents pay. And the unemployment rate for the Hoonah-Angoon Census Area, which includes Angoon, Hoonah, Gustavus, Tenakee Springs, and Pelican, was more than twice as high as the state’s average in 2015, due in part to a lack of year-round jobs. Still, many Alaska Native families in Hoonah trace their ancestry back for centuries with roots anchored to specific shorelines, forests, and fishing grounds.
And despite its isolation, Hoonah’s location helps. There are bountiful fisheries and the town’s position between Juneau and Glacier Bay makes it a strategic and attractive stop for cruise ships plying the Inside Passage from Seattle or Vancouver. According to the city of Hoonah’s 2016 economic report, the number of available jobs and average annual wages have all risen since 2010. The median family income jumped 15 percent and Hoonah’s sales tax revenue jumped 46 percent, according to the report.
While every rural Alaska town and village has its own unique economic challenges, the way Hoonah is facing theirs can offer insight and inspiration to others seeking development options.
Adapt with Authenticity
“Adapt or die,” says Gray with a smile as he captains his freezer troller past a brightly lit cruise ship pulling into town. “Hoonah has always done a good job of transitioning from one industry to the next. We are good fishermen, we were good loggers, and now we are good tour operators.” Icy Strait Point, established by Huna Totem Corporation in 2004, is a cultural ecotourism port built on the site of Hoonah’s historic cannery, which operated until 1953.
Gray vividly remembers the energy in town when Hoonah decided to invest in Icy Strait and tourism—even though it was contentious. “I was twenty-two, new to the city council, and scared as heck,” he says. Huna Totem requested city support to connect the historic site to city water and electricity. Some Hoonah residents were not convinced. “I’d say the community was about 40/60 against developing tourism. People were like: ‘What? That’s never going to happen. A little Indian village, why would tourists even come to Hoonah?’ Eventually, we spent our last savings to put in a waterline… because we believed in … what it might do for Hoonah.”
Before Icy Strait, tourists seldom visited. Today, according to the city, Icy Strait Point supports one-third of the city’s sales tax base. Huna Totem Corporation says more than 156,000 visitors arrived this year on eighty-three cruises, including Disney Cruise Lines—a number the company expects will exceed one hundred next year. And Icy Strait’s workforce is 80 percent local.
According to Russell Dick, CEO of Huna Totem Corporation, authenticity and community buy-in led to Icy Strait’s success. “If there is any place we are going to invest our money, it is going to be at home, putting our people to work,” Dick says.
“It’s not Disneyland. [Icy Strait Point] is an incredibly authentic port and done in a way that meets the expectations of the cruise lines without having to compromise our values.”
Sharing Home and Culture
Britney Jack began working with Icy Strait Point while in high school. Today, the twenty-two year old is the company’s logistics coordinator. “I take a lot of ownership and pride in working here and so [do] a lot of other local people … This is our home and our culture. We want to share it,” Jack says.
Gordon Greenwald is a master carver in Hoonah who also sits on several city boards including Hoonah’s economic development committee. Since Icy Strait opened thirteen years ago, Greenwald has seen progressively more tourists wander into the center of town, some visiting the carving shed where he works.
“Honestly, I was not in favor of it [Icy Strait Point] in the very beginning because I thought it was going to change us and we would end up like South Franklin [Street] of Juneau or Ketchikan. I don’t want that for Hoonah and I’m afraid that’s the direction they are going to go,” says Greenwald. “But in the meantime, it’s a positive thing and an employment base. Yes, it’s a service industry [and] it’s not a $35-an-hour job, but it’s better than nothing, and I think it has helped put Hoonah on the map.”
Since Icy Strait launched, nineteen new locally-owned businesses have opened in Hoonah, most catering to visitors. Tax revenue from Icy Strait is being invested in community assets such as sidewalks, a youth center, and the school system.
“Hoonah in the past had a lot of male-dominated employment opportunities with fishing and timber,” Gray says. “Tourism presents more widespread opportunities for women with kids and even grade-school students who work after school or dance when ships are in.”
Collaborate and Diversify
Some 150 miles of old logging roads weave throughout the forests, rivers, and valleys surrounding Hoonah. These roads, maintained by the US Forest Service, support local subsistence users as well as tourism guides and charters. They’re also important to a collaborative land management partnership called the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership that includes Huna Totem Corporation, Sealaska, the City of Hoonah, the Hoonah Indian Association, the Nature Conservancy, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, and the US Forest Service.
According to Robert Starbard, tribal administrator of the Hoonah Indian Association, some of these entities—particularly environmental nonprofits and Alaska Native corporations—have not always seen eye-to-eye.
But the organizations have adopted “this new collaborative way of working. This is the… future of how to do natural resource work effectively, efficiently, and sustainably,” says Starbard. “It is possible to have all stakeholders at the table building an effective private-public partnership for land stewardship and watershed management.”
A core goal is to create career opportunities in natural resources and land stewardship for locals.
“[It’s] about diversifying the economy in Hoonah,” adds Dick. “Tourism is not for everybody, but doing things like harvesting commercial blueberries, for example, are great opportunities.”
“Alaskan blueberries, black huckleberries, dwarf blueberries, bog blueberries,” rattles off Donovan Smith, who belongs to the partnership. “We’ve learned a lot about all the different plants and types of habitats where they thrive.”
This year, local pickers sold blueberries to Goldbelt Corporation, as well as ice cream and coffee shop, Coppa, in Juneau. Juneau’s Amalga Distillery also purchased one hundred pounds of blueberries for its blueberry vodka.
And while harvesting blueberries doesn’t bring in anywhere near the money that the commercial fishing fleet earns, it creates economic options for Hoonah. And the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership is about far more than just blueberries: the field crew traverses across the landscape from Sealaska watersheds to US Forest Service lands to map and monitor salmon streams, report on road conditions, thin forest stands for timber production, and restore salmon habitat.
“In terms of our youth and early career residents, the partnership creates professions for land use management. If you want to work with fish, you don’t have to be a commercial fisherman, you can be a fisheries biologist and can come home even if you went out to college and studied science. You can bring that expertise back to Hoonah,” says Starbard.
Kristi Styers dishes up a holistic view of her hometown’s economy while bouncing her daughter Alfie on her knees at Fishermen’s Daughter, the restaurant she opened in 2011.
“Everyone has to eat,” says Styers. “[So] we really see how the economy is doing. When fishing is good, we feel it. When it is great weather or a full cruise ship is in town, we feel it.”
Styers also felt it when Hoonah secured federal economic development agency grants and state legislative grants to invest $5.5 million in a boat haul-out that attracted more outside revenue.
“[Now] the boatyard stays full in the spring and the fall. It really stretched out our season,” says Styers, who keeps Fishermen’s Daughter open May to November, three months longer than during her first year. And when Huna Totem Corporation and the city installed a $22 million deep-water dock, more cruise companies could stop in Hoonah, and Styers saw even more diners.
That’s no accident. According to Gray, the city invests purposefully in infrastructure that catalyzes far-reaching economic impact in town for new industries like boat repair, old industries like fishing, and ancillary businesses like Fishermen’s Daughter.
Thinking Outside City Limits
Hoonah can’t do it alone and is looking to surrounding villages to ease some of the costs associated with isolated island living. “Savings can happen region-wide if we collaborate,” Gray says.
Hoonah hired a consultant to look at the feasibility of Angoon, Hoonah, Tenakee, Pelican, and Kake forming a borough. “That would help us with school costs,” says Gray. “Neighboring towns have schools of the same size and have the same overhead costs of a superintendent and principal and in theory we could share.” A flourishing school system can help Hoonah cultivate homegrown leaders.
“For a community to thrive you need to have committed people … in leadership positions [who] are around for the long term,” says Gray.
But Dick sees a Catch 22.
“How do you invest in local leadership? You have to create employment opportunities for good top-notch people to come back. And, if you don’t have that kind of leadership, how do you create those opportunities? It’s really a challenge.”
Cultivating prosperity in isolated Alaska is not easy. However, the coastal community of Hoonah remains dedicated, leaning on collaboration, diversification, adaptation, strategic investments, creativity, and a focus on cultivating local leadership to meet the challenge.
“My biggest hope is that in twenty years, Hoonah remains this place we can all be proud of,” says Styers.
Written by The Nature Conservancy, Sarah Dybdahl, and Tis Peterman
Focussing on youth leadership in Southeast Alaska, First Alaskans Institute assisted in facilitating our time together by creating a space for youth, community leaders, local and regional organizations to share and discuss opportunities to address the wants and needs of youth, their communities and the surrounding region with special emphasis on catalyzing leadership behaviour.
Youth and communities leaders (or organizational representatives) participated from the communities of Kake, Hoonah, Kasaan, Juneau, Yakutat, Wrangell and Klawock.
Organizations in Attendance:
- Alaska Crossing
- Discovery Southeast
- Forest Service – Tongas National Forest
- Goldbelt Heritage Foundation
- Hoonah City Schools
- Huna Heritage Foundation
- Organized Village of Kake
- Organized Village of Kasaan
- Sealaska Corporation
- Sitka Science Centre
- Southeast Regional Health Consortium, Kake
- Southeast Sustainable Partnership
- State of Alaska Community Economic Development
- Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards (SEAS)
- The Nature Conservancy
- Yakutat Tlingit Tribe
The first day of our time together we had the opportunity to have a series of catalyzing presentations. To start, the community of Kake outlined the years of work they’ve spent developing and creating their Annual Culture Camp. Another catalyzer presentation was provided by the Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards (SEAS) program based out of British Columbia. The intent of these catalyzer presentations was to educate participants of current programs that exist to provide leadership development opportunities and generate thoughts, ideas and conversations
What is important for our young people?
The adults and elders representing their communities and organizations discussed amongst ourselves questions including:
- What is important for our young people to know?
- What would we like to see in our youth?
- What could adults do to assist in the success of our youth?
Key takeaways included the need for more opportunities for youth to get outside, connect with elders and community members, and learn about their culture.
Developing Leadership Programs over the next 40+ years
The youth then had the opportunity to spend time together thinking about and sharing their ideas amongst themselves, lead by First Alaskans Institute’s guiding questions. The start of their conversation was looking ahead into the future forty years and discussing where they would like to see opportunities for leadership development.
Key takeaways included the desire to see more opportunities to learn about culture in school (tools, names, language), the preservation of traditional language and practices taught by elders and more consistent opportunities for cultural events like trips, native activities and dance group practices. These types of immersive learning opportunity allow the youth to connect with each other informally in the region.
How do we make that happen?
The youth were encouraged to share their ideas and thoughts on activities and actions that would need to take place to make their vision of 40 years from now come to reality.
Key takeaways included broadening the youth’s support system by allowing for time to visit elders and involve language instructors to assist in all aspects of culture. From learning stories, purpose and pronunciations to preparing foods and understanding the words of songs and practicing dance, learning their culture in context help the youth feel empowered and whole; confident in passing on their learnings to the next generations.
What is possible?
Participants were divided into groups to identify what methods of developing leadership programs resonated as most possible, with one youth leading the smaller group discussions. Providing the youth an opportunity to have a voice in what happens in the region ______
Key takeaways included regional cultural camps to bring youth together from their expanded regions (ex: British Columbia), providing structure to the educational experience by replacing existing SEAS curriculum to allow for more active engagement in school and time with elders (through the outdoors or specialized projects), and the creation of safe space/networks for students leaving community for post-secondary education.
Circle within a Circle – Adults working with Youth
A select group of adults who represented their communities or organizations were asked to sit in a circle with the remaining participants surrounding them on the outside. Those on the outside were to be active listeners while those in the middle shared their thoughts and ideas. Those sharing imparted many barriers both personally and professionally, along with reasons they are dedicated the youth leadership in their communities.
Key takeaways included an appreciation and sense of pride towards the youth that have stepped up into leadership roles to help the community and strengthen traditions and language. By providing the opportunities for the youth to work with elders to bridge the gap of knowledge from the past trauma, helps them appreciate things happening in the community – the more communities are connected, the better. Listen – Learn – Do.
Reflections of Leadership Development Lists
Participants were asked to take some time to review all the thoughts and ideas captured regarding youth leadership. Below are thoughts shared after having time to absorb and process what had been shared collectively up to this given point.
Key takeaways included more programs in school and jobs in the community with an emphasis on sharing among tribes, mentorship/apprenticeship opportunities to bring elders and youth together, diversification and support for the leadership in the community and motivating the youth by recognizing their achievements within the community.
How can we move forward?
The last activity of our two days together was to share what each participant could do now to ensure the thoughts and ideas would become a reality. What would each of us commit to within our communities and organizations, both personally and professionally.
Key takeaways included opportunities for youth to connect with each other informally at culture camps or other events in the region by creating events for them to connect with each other, opportunities for youth to have a voice in what happens in the region and more consistent opportunities for youth to get outside, connecting with elders and community members, and learn about their culture (year-round). The collective group continually returned to cultural connection as the heart of what they wanted to focus on. Getting youth outdoors, involved in science, or on career development paths wasn’t enough – this must always be integrated into the idea of cultural connection as a whole.
The Hoonah Native Forest Partnership (HNFP) has completed its last season of data collection with our locally trained work crews and is now full-steam ahead with writing a watershed management plan. On November 6th-7th, 2017 the HNFP Steering Committee and Technical team met to discuss the landowners objectives and recommendations as the partnership moves forward. Each of the groups spent time reflecting on important steps for the HNFP to be successful. There were many mutual answers for ways to create success, and both groups agreed it is crucial the Steering Committee to work closely with the Technical Team and that community value needs to be at forefront of all discussions as we move forward with recommendations and projects through the HNFP. This type of collaboration takes a lot of work! Ultimately the watershed management will be collaborative document that will be guided by community values, land manager needs, and technical advice.
A Relationship Between The Steering Committee, Technical Team, and Community
The technical team presented their results and preliminary recommendations in each of the resource areas. These recommendations will be refined by community priorities and values as well as landowner needs before they are finalized in the watershed management plan. Hoonah Indian Association Community Catalyst Ian Johnson will be hosting meetings with community members, and maintaining regular dialogue between the teams. This project will span the winter with a final watershed management plan being completed by April so that the local crews can complete projects. Although the projects are yet to be determined, it is possible that crews will be build on the stream restoration work they learned in 2017.
Check out the presentations on each of the resources that the technical team presented to learn more:
The technical team met at the Sealaska Plaza to go over results and next steps in the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership. Their results will be provided to the community and land managers to collaboratively form the final land management plan for the study area.
To learn more about Hoonah Indian Association’s Environmental Programs, check out their new beautiful website here!
To learn more about the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership or to get involved with the Hoonah Stewardship Council, please get in touch with Ian Johnson. firstname.lastname@example.org. 907 945 3545.
Written and published with Alaska’s Capital City Weekly
The days are getting shorter and full of rain. Many Southeast Alaskans are dreading the impending seasonal shift. In Hoonah however, one 12-old boy is pretty excited. Standing over his garden, Ted Elliot pops another snap pea into his mouth.
“The most exciting thing is the end of fall when you get to harvest all your stuff and have a good green meal,” Ted said.
Tucked into the center of town behind the Fishermen’s Daughter, a local restaurant shaped like a boat, sits a grid of raised garden beds called the Hoonah Healing Community Garden. These beds are free for community members to use. Exploding out of the bed that Ted has cared for over the past two years stands impressive snap pea bushes laden with pods. This season, Ted has been bringing fresh produce home to feed his family. His mother, Elleana Elliot, is beaming about it.
“I made jojos the other day from his potatoes! I invited his grandpa down and fed the whole house. We have a family dinner gathering every Sunday and different houses come down and its tradition. Ted has been bringing fresh greens to those Sunday dinners,” Elleana said with excitement.
Located on Chichagof Island, Hoonah is an isolated Tlingit community that is home to roughly 750 year round residents. Like all Southeast Alaskan communities, the great majority of store-bought food travels at a snail’s pace from the lower 48 by barge. Serving quality, fresh produce for family dinner is both challenging and expensive. Residents who aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty, however, see this challenge as an opportunity to learn how to grow more locally.
“At first it wasn’t like this, the way we ate. It was more store bought carrots, more store bought potatoes, store bought snap peas which my mom don’t like that much,” Ted explained. “With gardening, we save a little bit of money and it’s tastier.”
And Ted’s green thumb isn’t just caring for one single raised bed.
“This is Moby,” Ted said as he marched into a small, bright, wooden structure beside the community garden. “Moby is a great and wonderful greenhouse on wheels.”
Moby the Mobile Greenhouse is a project by the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership to kickstart greenhouse growing in rural Alaska. The structure was designed by students at the University of Alaska Southeast and built using local lumber by Juneau-Douglas High students. Moby comes equipped with raised beds and classroom curriculum.
When Moby first came to town in April, Hoonah teacher Melissa Thaalesen used the greenhouse as a tool to teach nutrition and healthy eating. Moby also provided starts for 12 community members looking to jumpstart garden growing. With the help of those seedlings, growers in the Healing Garden celebrated the lushest and most successful growing year since the community beds were raised in 2012. When school ended, Hoonah moved Moby to the Community Garden where volunteers, like Ted and his mother Elleana, began caring for it.
“It’s been a good food provider for us,” Ted said as he showed off chard, kale, peas, green beans, tomatoes and more. “It’s solar powered too! Not many greenhouses are solar powered which really saves on electricity and what not.”
A solar panel installed on the roof powers a fan that helps circulate air and regulate the temperature.
Below the solar panel and the growing space is another unique characteristic of Moby: wheels. Moby is made to move. Like many residents of Hoonah and Southeast, Moby gets a ticket on the Alaska Marine Highway System and can travel to different rural communities. Last year, Moby spent the growing season in Kake. This year, Moby paid Hoonah a visit. Next spring, Moby will begin its journey to a third community.
“I’m going to be sad when Moby moves to a new community but I’m excited that someone will go through the same experience I got to go through,” Ted said.
Where will Moby go? Applications will open in late October and any Southeast Alaskan community can apply. Teachers, individual schools, school districts and community organizations are eligible.
Ted’s advice for the next cohort of gardeners who get to fill Moby with greens:
“Be nice to Moby and Moby will be nice to you. If you weed its gardens it will give you whatever you planted. And if you don’t, you don’t get what you really want or maybe you get half as big as what you were thinking.”
Despite its transitory lifestyle, the impacts Moby leaves behind appear lasting in Hoonah. “It’s almost like Moby helped me,” Ted said. “My garden last year wasn’t that good. It helped me learn that daily weeding would lead to success.”
Community wide, Moby has helped seed momentum for a more permanent greenhouse project. Hoonah Indian Association and the City of Hoonah teamed up to initiate a feasibility study analyzing the economic viability of a district biomass heatloop. This proposed heatloop would connect and heat five downtown buildings with renewable energy. Community volunteers are itching to tether a greenhouse structure into that loop.
For now, as long as there are greens to gather in Moby or his raised bed, Ted will keep sharing.
“He will come home with a handful of snap peas every day and we put them in salads. He comes home all muddy and it’s nice to see him getting dirty again,” Elleana said.
Ted is currently deliberating how he will plant his garden next year. He’s considering focusing on carrots and potatoes. Of course, he plans to keep space for his famous snap peas.
“When he comes home, he tells me all about his snap peas and he has pride in his eyes. He’s learning, you know? He is getting involved and it’s pretty cool. We are very impressed and proud of him,” Elleana said.
Learn more about Moby the Mobile Greenhouse by clicking here!