Written by Christine Woll, Southeast Alaska Program Director of The Nature Conservancy
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.
Prince of Wales residents were invited to attend an Air Source Heat Pump Expo on this spring at the Craig High School. The Expo featured guest speaker Dana Fischer from Efficiency Maine, and included mechanical contractors, financial institutions, and experts statewide through a webinar.
The event was organized because the micro-grid that supplies POW residents with electricity will soon have more hydro power electricity on-line, than the island currently demands. Today most of POW residents use diesel oil to heat buildings; the new hydro plant may provide a unique opportunity for residents to convert to a more efficient and sustainable heating option.
What are Air Source Heat Pumps? Air source heat pumps (ASHP) use electricity to circulate air through a heat pump, this is the same technology used in your refrigerator, but in reverse. The heat pump extracts heat from the air outside and transfers it into the building. Even in cold climates, outdoor air contains heat. The efficiency of a heat pump will change with the temperature outside. High performance ASHP models have been shown to perform at, and below, 00F.
In southeast Alaska’s mild climate, heat pumps can have a coefficient of efficiency (COE) that surpasses other heating technologies. For example, a COE of 2 means that for every one unit of energy which goes into the heat pump system, two units of energy are produced. It is typical for a heat pump unit to deliver four units of heat for every unit of electricity at 50°F, but only deliver two units of heat for every unit of electricity at a temperature of zero. However, a COE of two is still much better than the COE for heating fuel (COE of 0.85), or electric space heaters (COE of 1), neither of which change depending on temperature.
Electric Rates and Conversion to an ASHP: Hiilangaay Hydropower is expected to come online in 2018. The 5-megawatt hydropower project near Hydaburg will eliminate the need for diesel powered electric generation (except during times of maintenance), and result in a surplus of clean energy available for future growth on the island. Growth in electric demand will actually result in utility fixed costs being spread over a larger sales base, resulting in downward pressure on rates.
Prince of Wales residential customers currently pay $0.25 per kWh, $0.23 per kWh with Power Cost Equalization (PCE). Heat pump use and the related cost will vary by household circumstances. AP&T strongly encourages customers to do their own research and analysis based on the cost of heating fuel, electricity, heating habits, and the age/ efficiency of the old heating system.
It can be challenging for consumers to predict the cost comparison over time, because today’s fuel and electric prices are unlikely to be the same as tomorrows. One advantage offered by ASHPs on Prince of Wales Island is that they provide more stable, predictable pricing due to the fact that they use locally available hydropower. The price of hydropower is relatively flat, and is not susceptible to global events which impact the supply and price of oil.
Homeowners are encouraged to maintain a back up heat system for very cold temperatures. This allows consumers to use fuel if diesel prices temporarily fall, allowing residents to take advantage of temporary price swings. Some consumers also choose to keep wood stoves or propane heaters as supplemental heat sources.
The Cold Climate Housing Research Center has done a lot of research on the effectiveness of ASHP’s in Alaska, and specifically in SE Alaska. For more information, including contact information for mechanical installers and financial institutions, visit AP&T. To request an Air Source Heat Pump financial calculator, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written and photographed by Bethany Goodrich for Alaska’s Capital City Weekly
Katlian Street in Sitka is a bustling cultural and fishing hub. Along this winding harbor-side road, tightly squeezed between fishing gear shops, processing plants, and docks crowded with scavenging gulls, is the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s (STA) Resource Protection Department building.
While the building’s salt-worn front doors look unassuming, behind its modest exterior is a state of the art laboratory dedicated to harmful algae bloom monitoring and shellfish research. This year, the lab will add ocean acidification monitoring to its impressive coastal monitoring toolkit.
The Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research partnership (SEATOR) was formed by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska in 2013 as a network of tribal governments, universities, and nonprofits to monitor harmful algae blooms in the state.
“Alaska is the only state where people still die of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning,” explained Chris Whitehead who is the Environmental Program Manager at STA. “Alaska was the only state that didn’t have a monitoring program in place and we have such huge levels of toxins so it was very disconcerting.”
Before heading to Sitka to work with STA, Whitehead spent years working in Washington with tribes and researchers monitoring shellfish populations for toxins. So, when a group of community members and local elders inquired about setting up harmful algae testing in Sitka, Whitehead stepped in.
“It was just good timing. There was a need, and I was able to bring up experts I had met in Washington to help set something up locally. Then we went to work writing grants and securing funding,” Whitehead said.
Today, the lab monitors plankton samples under the microscope, tests for harmful toxins and sends out warnings when toxin levels are too high for safe foraging.
“We want to be as proactive as possible to catch a toxic event before anyone gets sick. That means every week, we collect plankton and water samples to make sure there are no active harmful blooms. In addition, we collect blue mussel samples every one to two weeks since they are the first species to pick up toxins and are not widely consumed. If we see any indication that toxins or harmful plankton are rising, we preemptively issue a community advisory, increase our sampling frequency, and start testing all shellfish species,” said Esther Kennedy.
Kennedy was born and bred in Alaska. She returned after receiving a BA in Earth and Planetary Sciences from Harvard University to work with Sitka Tribe and can often be found pulling plankton nets through Sitka’s shoreline.
Of course, Sitka is not the only community where avid shellfish harvesters punch rusty shovels into sand and grit in pursuit of delicious bivalves. Fifteen other tribes in Southeast Alaska also employ specialists who peer through microscopes for dangerous plankton and send water samples to STA for toxin tests every week.
Carrie Davis fills this role for the Organized Village of Kake. She shares updated information about shellfish safety for this community of 600.
That information has given Kake resident John Williams Sr. greater confidence when harvesting this important cultural resource. Williams, 65, has been setting out by boat or by foot to dig for clams and picnic with loved ones for as long as he can remember.
“I’m always talking to Carrie and she posts it on the community board there, to show us where it’s safe and it’s useful because we know where to go and where to stay away from,” said Williams who can now share his chowder and cockles with less worry.
Climate change’s under-recognized twin: ocean acidification
Since the lab began monitoring efforts in 2013, nobody has become ill or died from Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning on any of the studied beaches. Success, one might say, has spread like a sunlit plankton bloom.
“When it first started, it was just six to eight tribes and now it’s 15 tribes in Southeast, four sites in Kachemak Bay and a handful of tribes in Kodiak that are starting up,” Whitehead said.
And the network isn’t just growing geographically.
“When this all started, the tribes hadn’t worked together in this capacity regionally before. Once this began, it really opened the door for the tribes to ask, ‘What else do we have common concerns about, what else can we work together on?’ and climate change was at the very very top,” Whitehead said.
That comes as no surprise. Alaska is warming faster than any other state.
“Ocean acidification, global warming’s under-recognized twin, is also affecting Alaskan waters faster than any other state,” said Kennedy.
“As carbon dioxide dissolves into the ocean, it becomes more acidic. It’s a global problem, but colder Arctic waters absorb more CO2 so it’s hitting us especially hard. Acidification makes it difficult or impossible for creatures like shellfish, crustaceans, and pteropods to make shells. This is bad news because it decimates the foundation of the marine food web,” Kennedy said. “We depend on the sea for everything in Southeast Alaska. It’s hard to imagine that we will be unaffected by ocean acidification.”
So the SEATOR team went to work figuring out how to tackle a challenge as far-reaching and daunting as ocean acidification. That’s where the “Burke-o-Lator,” a scientific instrument which Chris Whitehead called the global standard for measuring ocean acidification, comes in. Burke Hales, the scientist who created it, will be headed to the Sitka lab in mid-May to help install this new addition. He’s excited for what this data set and network will mean for ocean acidification research globally. With more than fifteen tribal governments across the region contributing to the monitoring efforts, SEATOR will paint a representative image of how ocean acidification is impacting a large geographic area.
Chris Whitehead and the entire SEATOR network are excited for what the data set will also mean locally.
“There is not a lot of ocean acidification work being done in the Southeast,” Whitehead said.
“We will have a good data set in Sitka and these other communities across the Southeast will submit their samples and it will all contribute to a robust local picture. And here, we have 15 tribes working together to provide this big data set and not a lot of people are doing that nationally.”
Geoducks and upcoming scientists
Climate Change monitoring is not the only new addition to SEATOR. The lab is working on getting FDA approval to administer PSP testing to Southeast Alaska’s commercial dive fisheries. For geoduck fishermen, this will mean more streamlined and local testing opportunities and a longer harvesting window.
The lab is also dedicated to building capacity among Southeast Alaska’s upcoming scientific leaders. On Thursdays this spring, several Mount Edgecumbe High School students filed into the lab, donned authoritative white lab coats, pulled mussel cages, homogenized tissue, ran genetic testing, peered through microscopes, and analyzed results. They were part of an internship program aimed at preparing the next generation of scientists for meaningful careers in applied research. Sienna Reid, who is both one of those students as well as a member of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, is heading to Western Washington University this fall to pursue a degree in science.
Energy is building for these programs, and not just among the tribal governments who are actively participating.
“Senator Lisa Murkowski, Sullivan and Don Young too have all been very supportive of ocean acidification work. It’s a bipartisan issue, regardless of your views on climate change, it is clear that the oceans are acidifying and that is going to affect Alaska’s fisheries, so when we have spoken to those offices they have been really excited about doing this work,” said Whitehead.
Of course, like all grant-funded efforts, there is uncertainty.
‘“We are in the same boat as everyone else, waiting to see what happens for Fiscal Year 2018. EPA dollars are the backbone for this. We have other funding in Sitka but the tribes across the region who are doing the consistent weekly work are almost 100 percent funded by EPA dollars,” said Whitehead. “So we are hoping that these programs don’t get targeted.”
SEATOR started as an idea four years ago. Today, it’s helping to not only provide safe access to an important subsistence resource, but is also leading the way in ocean acidification research. All the while, this humble beach-side laboratory is providing opportunities and building capacity for the future stewards of Alaska’s coastal health. In a state that depends on coastal resources for everything, that is certainly something to celebrate with a community clam-dig.
Visit http://www.seator.org/ for more
A Reflection written by Sonia Ibarra, PhD Candidate, College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Over the last two years, I have been very fortunate to attend the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) Conference alongside bright young students from Hydaburg, AK. In November 2016, we made our way down to chilly Minneapolis and were welcomed by many warm faces, hugs, and songs that echoed the values of many Native peoples throughout the U.S. AISES is a unique scientific conference that reminds me that
1) We need to increase Native voices in the sciences and
2) We need to rekindle the understandings of our ancestors in solving contemporary problems.
For me personally, accompanying students at AISES was a big deal because I value organizations that provide multiple roadmaps for increasing diversity of perspectives, worldviews, and values in the sciences.
As a graduate student who has had the opportunity to attend and visit various universities through coursework, internships, and research experiences, one thing that I have personally noticed is that little diversity exists within higher education. Native Americans represent 1.7 percent of the U.S. population, yet less than 0.5 percent of all U.S. scientists and engineers are Native American (King 2013). Therefore it is critical that we address ways of creating opportunities for indigenous youth that both acknowledges their value systems while helping them navigate and train for the outside world. AISES does both of these things by integrating strong diverse cultural values into a scientific conference.
At AISES, indigenous and non-indigenous scientists learn about and showcase cutting edge research, high school and undergraduate students have secured scholarships, internships, and jobs, and support networks can be created and expanded. This year one Hydaburg high school student (Navaeh Peele) received a laptop award for her exceptional poster presentation and one Hydaburg undergraduate student (Sarah Peele) received a travel award. AISES also provides experiences for indigenous students that undoubtedly helps them become leaders and scientists in various capacities. Capacity-building is a foundational way to plant a sustainable idea for the future. AISES helps plant this seed by empowering young indigenous scientists.
When we think about the sustainability of our decisions, the way we live, and the jobs that employ us, we should always think about how we plant seeds for our future. Opportunities like AISES and nurturing hands-on science experiences for our youth can help plant seeds that will help Southeast Alaska become a better place for the next generation. Let’s work together to support our upcoming leaders and scientists.
King, H. (2013) Native American perceptions of scientists: An ISE research brief discussing Laubach, Crofford, & Marek, “Exploring Native American students’ perceptions of scientists.” Retrieved from http://relatingresearchtopractice.org/article/276
Written for the Salmon Project
Like a salmon, I grew up running wild. As a toddler, I chased my brother through the trees behind our childhood home. Later (braver), with dirt beneath my nails and calloused feet, I trailed new boys through those same woodlands. And when I discovered that all the land I knew and loved was slated to become rows of cookie-cutter colonial houses, I ran away, right out of Massachusetts. I chased ambitions across the globe before finally falling face-first in love with the rich and plentiful waters and rainforest of Southeast Alaska.
Southeast is now my home, and I’m lucky enough to travel and explore the region for work, shadowing locals and documenting their ways of life. In each community I’ve found teachers who have helped me establish my gait in this new backyard. Teachers, like my friends in Hydaburg, who have taught me how to stop running through a landscape. To instead, take root. This is a story of beach seining with the Haida, of finding my footing. This is a story of how you gill a girl.
Beach Seining With The Haida
Hydaburg is one of only two Haida villages in Southeast Alaska. Located on Prince of Wales Island, this community of 400 pulses with energy. Colorful salt-worn homes border streets alive with laughing children. Gangs of all ages look out for one another, dropping fishing lines into cold clean waters and sneaking thimbleberries from neighbor’s yards. Yells, hollers and revving engines fill the evening as people return triumphantly with deer strapped to their ATVS. Haida dancers practice songs before scrimmaging basketball in open gym. Uncles tease and chase their nieces for hugs with the lingering stink of a successful salmon fishing day.
I head out on the water with Sam Mooney, Edward Peele and Toni Rae Sanderson to beach seine sockeye at Eek Inlet. Sam runs the show and I know he’s testing my character from the moment I step onboard. Who is this peculiar lanky white chick with the camera anyways? Ed sits on board with a grin like a Cheshire cat. He dips his hands into a giant bag of taffy before burning one of Sams cigarettes and whispering a prayer as we cut through the water and head out to fish.
We arrive at our spot and the fish rodeo begins. Scanning the horizon for jumping fish and disturbed water, we hunt for our target. Sam explains to me the significance of salmon, of harvesting rich nutrition from the landscape as being the crux and backbone of being Haida. His lesson is quickly brought to life.
“There!” Sam points and rams the boat into gear. Toni, watching from the dingy attached to our skiff, gets poised and ready. “Go!” screams Sam. She drops the bucket attached to the net into the water. Sam speeds the skiff in a circle, lassoing the school of sockeye. The loop is completed and the dingy reaches the skiff. Ed jumps on board with Toni and starts beating the metal plunger into the water. He is trying to startle the salmon into the net and also prevent the fish from sneaking through the open end. Toni slowly pulls the net in, tightening the circle, smaller and smaller. No fish this round. We try again and again, each time a little more successful than the last.
It’s getting late and we plan for one last rodeo. Sam looks at me with his testing expression and a mischievous smile. He doesn’t need to ask twice. I hop on the dingy and he sets off in pursuit of our glittery friends. “Go!”. We let the bucket loose and hold tight. I plunge as hard as I can to the yaps and demands of my mentor. “Faster! Deeper! You won’t scare the salmon like that,” he shrieks. As we pull in the fish he reminds me to take over for Ed, that you don’t ask to help an elder you simply do it. I take note.
Sam howls. He points his finger at me from the skiff, my tired arms collapsed pathetically at my sides. “Now, you’ve gone beach seining with the Haidas!” he hoots. “This is what we call a deck-load,” he says gesturing to the salmon overflowing the cooler resting on deck. The sun is starting it’s slow summer descent toward the horizon. Toni collapses at the nose of the skiff in exhaustion. The golden light trims the water and illuminates the proud beaming grin of Ed resting content beside our deck-load of salmon. We turn our tired faces toward town.
A successful day on the water means celebration. But first, it means work. When we pull up to the dock, exhausted and weary I hop into the truck bed with Toni. They slow at my door and I feel the gaze of my teachers land upon me as I leap out with my things.
“So where are we going to process these?” I ask.
Their stoic expressions crack and Sam lets out a guffaw and slaps his door. “Haha! You pass the final test. Drop your things and I’ll be back in fifteen to get you.” Salmon fishing is a means for testing each other’s character. It is also an opportunity for testing and building your own.
A warm dark night settles over Hydaburg as we head down the dock. We battle bugs for hours as our assembly line carefully heads and guts our bounty. We work until we can barely keep our eyelids from collapsing. Washing the blood and guts off our hands, we finally itch the bites that litter our faces necks and backs. I’m not sure if the blood on my body came from me, the mosquitos, my comrades or the salmon and I’m far too tired to care. Sam’s heart-melting smile erupts across his sleepy face. “You can be a little Haida now,” he says. He points to the very itty bitty tiny tip of his pinky finger, “That much!,” he laughs.
Well, it’s a start anyways.
The next day I process salmon with Toni and her sisters Mary and Jennifer. Neighbors stop by to offer advice, recipes and secrets. We float a potato in our brine to test its salinity and kids poke in to see the fish, learn the process and help. The sisters teach each other how to clean the sockeye and filet properly so the salmon straddle and hang in the smoke house. They take turns brining, hanging and using berry bushes to swat bugs from our bounty. The fire is set and the girls trickle off to their families. Toni will check on the fire through the night.
Trails of alder smoke chug out the chimney and through cracks in the wooden smokehouse. Streams of this potent heat sneak through my open window as my head hits the pillow. My drained mind slowly wanders and processes the days as it heads full speed to sleep.
I think about salmon fishing and my new friends. While we are united in our exhaustion and contentment, our perceptions of fishing are unique. For Ed, salmon fishing is a tradition as familiar as the sunrise. He explained how when he grew up in Hydaburg, there was no road that connected his village to the outside world. Your grocery store was the alpine or river mouth.
For me, this seasonal tradition is still fresh. With each passing year, I feel more tempered to the way of life here but I still have a lot to learn.
I roll over and stuff a grin into my pillowcase, thinking about salmon and all that they mean to this region. I visualize the fish as they tie together our forest and ocean, our economy and families, our health and our hopes, Hydaburg to Kodiak, age-old Alaskans to newcomers. They tie all these things into a complex web, a big ‘ole net. This is the net that finally gilled my wandering body, the net that caught me and roots me to this land. A net where I rest my bones, where many Alaskans place their futures and tonight, the net where I curl up and graciously succumb to a hard-earned sleep.
Written for Alaska’s Capital City Weekly
For many, art is defined as a pretty landscape painting interpreted by a single artist using store-bought materials. The final product is sold to an admirer, tossed up on a wall and enjoyed for a generation before ending up discarded at the Salvation Army.
Sgwaayaans (TJ) Young is not in that business. As a Haida carver who works predominately on community-based projects, his artwork is dynamic and consuming. His process pulls together a collective vision, a tested history and a proud future. He uses materials borrowed from the landscape and shapes them with tools hand-made from trees. Though sometimes, he proudly uses chainsaws (more on that later). His work encourages collaboration between teams of artists and depends on the support and love of a community at every step in the process. The final pieces live and breathe and eventually, like the best of us, they return to the earth and rot.
TJ helps work on the raven pole at the 2015 Hydaburg Culture Camp.
I first met Young in his hometown of Hydaburg. In the summer of 2015, he returned home for the annual Culture Camp, where he was quickly locked up in the carving shed and put to work helping to complete two totem poles to be risen later that week. Light crept out through the boards of the shed until the wee hours of the morning.
Community members helped the carvers long into the evening before the Totem Pole raising at the 2015 Hydaburg Culture Camp.
The night before the raising, I joined community members and visiting dance groups in the shed. To the beating of drums, singing, dancing and laughter, friends took turns helping the carvers layer on paint and varnish late into the night. Everyone crossed their fingers that the paint would dry before men, women and children hoisted the eagle and raven pole to attention the following afternoon. The energy not only left my head, heart and body pounding to a powerful beat, the experience redefined the role of art and culture for me.
Needless to say, I was excited to hear that Young was joining a talented crew of artists on a local canoe project in the Sitka Historic Park. For more on that project, please check out the CCW’s story here: http://bit.ly/1YOVjFX.
After months of sheepishly admiring their handiwork, I built up the courage to finally ask Young on a pizza date to discuss in more depth his art, process and aspirations.
BG: How did you find yourself in this career?
TY: We grew up carving a little bit but it wasn’t in school past grade seven so it just kind of tapered off for most people. What happened with us was that our mother got my brother (Joe Young) a tool roll with some carving tools and I think I got jealous and she ended up getting me one, too. It was pretty expensive back then but we were both excited about our tool roll. We were always fascinated by my grandpa Claude Morrison, too. He used to make halibut hooks, functional ones that people would actually use.
Then, a group of us made a model-sized long house about 3 feet by about 2.5 feet. We used a little diagram sketch in one of the old books and got $600 for the longhouse. That was a lot of money to us as kids back then as sophomores in high school. Our superintendent bought it and that was one of those ‘Aha’ moments: We could get paid to do this and make a living doing art.
BG: How has the scope of your work changed since that first model longhouse?
TY: So, my grandma, Gladys Morrison, died in ’97 and the following year my brother Joe and I decided to carve a little totem pole for her. It’s right in front of her house still and I remember thinking how big of a project it was despite it being only 7-feet tall. We had our tool rolls and two little adzes and we were fishing in the meantime and it just seemed like we were never going to finish it. It was a gift, it had my grandma’s crest on it, a beaver with an eagle on the tail and a watchman on top to represent my grandfather looking out at the ocean.
TJ and his brother Joe carved their first totem pole in honor of their grandmother, Gladys Morrison. From that point on, the poles got taller and the scope of their work grew and grew.
So, we had a little totem raising and it was nice weather and it went up in just a second because it was so small, ha! It seems like a small project now but it was a big project to us and to a lot of people because what it meant was big. My grandpa was real proud of it. His generation was more apt to let that way of life go, to move on, so it brought a twinkle to his eye to watch us carve.
We were getting little jobs here and there, commissioned poles on Prince of Wales and the poles were getting bigger and bigger and we were getting more comfortable as we went. It wasn’t until 2006 that my brother and I actually got our first big job, a 40-foot pole here in Sitka. I remember coming in on the ferry and we were getting docked up and we looked at each other, my brother and I, and we were like: What are we doing? We’ve never even done (something) like this before! We were anxious.
In the meantime, we have done some poles for galleries in Anchorage, a couple commissions down in Texas and Washington, more on Prince of Wales and I am pretty excited about this canoe I am helping work on. I hope we jump on another one in the next few years so we can get real familiar with it.
BG: What do you like most about this work?
TJ: I couldn’t see myself doing anything else beside this. I’ve worked other labor jobs but this is a real privilege. I learn something new every day and it’s my way of keeping in touch with who we were as a people. You learn more about who you are by doing this kind of work. You get to step into your ancestors’ shoes and you are constantly studying these old pieces and reflecting on what they were going through at that time, through the art.
They were able to reflect their everyday lifestyle and values through their work and I want to get to a point where my art can more accurately reflect what I was going through instead of trying to cater for a market. I want to get to the point where I can reflect through my work how I see the world and how I interpret not only who we were but who we are (and) who I am now.
It takes an entire community to raise a totem pole. The community helps carry the raven pole out of the carving shed during the 2015 Culture Camp.
BG: How do you define a successful community project?
TY: I guess just involving as many people as you can. It doesn’t take 10 people to pick up a pole, it’s 100 people. The kid at the end who isn’t really pulling hard but he has his hand on the rope and in his mind he thinks he helped out, it’s all about that feeling, that sense of belonging.
And, it’s sometimes hard to get that feeling when you grow up in some of these communities where there are struggles. To feel like you belong, that’s why we need to get back into our language and our culture. All of a sudden you are one of a kind, you speak a language that a hundred people speak at the most in the world. It’s a commitment. You start getting into language and like one of my teachers Robert Davidson told me, you have to look back to look forward sometimes.
BG: What is the most frustrating reaction to your work?
TY: When we get called out during carving for using modern tools, like small chainsaws on the canoe project. Things changed pretty quickly for us with European contact and survival is always based on whether you can adapt or not. So we get our balls broken about using modern tools nowadays but we don’t get personal with it. They aren’t being personal, more ignorant than anything. One tourist the other day said that we were cheating our ancestors. Well, no, your ancestors probably cheated our ancestors, ha. But, we have a good humor and I think that’s one thing that’s gotten us through a lot of what has happened in the past. You can’t walk around mad, that’s not what life is about. Life is too short.
TJ Young adzes out a dugout canoe in Sitka.
BG: What is the most rewarding reaction?
TY: When the whole village cheers when we put that pole up. There’s nothing like it. You can score a game winning basket in a tournament and it’s maybe a bit like that. Also, somebody dancing in one of your masks or pieces in a dance group is a pretty cool feeling.
And that is what they were meant for, what they were needed for, to be used and not hung up on a wall and not created for just money. That is why a lot of people put more love into this type of artwork because they know certain people will be using it and thousands of people might see it. So I think that seeing your work being used is the best feeling. And yes, it will be a good feeling when we get this canoe in the water and people jump in, so long as it doesn’t sink!
BG: Do you have any advice for aspiring carvers and artists?
TY: There’s this quote I like, “I’m aware that my time is near because I start to see my idols as peers.” I forgot who said it, but what it means is that if you are passionate enough about something then you are going to gravitate toward somebody who can help you get to be where you need to be. You might need to be a little bold, you might need to ask questions, but if you are passionate enough about what you do, find someone who can mentor and help you get to the next level and from there you will find something else. So be courageous, you can’t get what you don’t ask for.
Have balance. There is this story from Haida Gwaii where the Haida were disrespecting the hooligan and they went away and we had to get the hooligan from the mainland. They were overfished or something and they never came back and it was a tough lesson to learn at the time. The lesson was to have a strong sense of balance. And that’s important with everything. There’s a balance in life, with marriage, with kids and with art. The best artists have a good balance, and balanced proportions and they were sought after more. That’s why eagles marry ravens and vice versa and potlatches were about balance, about attaining wealth for five years or 10 years just to give it all away. It’s just a beautiful way of going through life and for creating good art.
And lastly, keep learning. I love what I do because it’s a learning process. No matter the project, I’m still learning. I’m 35 and I have a lot to learn. So stay open to learning, be courageous, be bold and ask questions. Have balance in life and in art.
BG: What are your hopes and goals looking forward?
TY: One thing I’m kind of nervous about, especially with these canoes, is that yellow cedar is getting harder and harder to acquire. That’s why we are working on a log that is so messed up right now with cracks. It was the best one available and that’s kind of scary. It’s kind of scary and sad that if we continue to pick up this technique of canoe carving, whose to say that my kids will even be able to carve? There might not be cedar like that around. So, preserving our old growth cedar should be a priority. When they are gone they are gone.
For my art, I’d like to get my skill set up to par with some of the great masters of the late 1880s. Those old Haida masters were just on a whole different level than most people are now. That’s what I’m going for. And when I was done apprenticing with Robert Davidson he said, “Don’t be stingy.” What he meant by that was to just help other people out. Don’t take this knowledge I gave you and hoard it. I gave it to you to give to somebody. And I mean, don’t just give it to everybody on Facebook, ha!
But I will give it to the people who are eventually going to gravitate to me and that’s where I want to be. To get to that level and be able to pass it on to a couple of younger ambitious Haida who want to preserve what we do. It’s a wonderful art, its a beautiful art form and it needs to be preserved. I look forward to passing that on. That’s what I’m shooting for and to keep putting feeling and love into all of my work.
TJ works on a dugout canoe in Sitka.
The carvers dance before the Raven pole is hoisted to attention in Hydaburg.
The canoe project that TJ is currently working on with Tommy Joseph, Nicholas Galanin and Jerrod Galanin under the direction of Steve Brown, is being orchestrated by the Sealaska Heritage Institute and Sitka National Historical Park.