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SEATOR: Southeast’s Shellfish Safety Squad Takes on Climate Change

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.


Happy harvesting

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

On the Road with Moby, Alaska’s First Traveling Greenhouse

Written by Lia Heifetz for Edible Alaska


Adam Davis drives the Mobile Greenhouse off the Alaska Marine Highway ferry to Kake.

Puzzled drivers look on as the greenhouse cruises down Egan Drive toward the Juneau ferry terminal. There it is delicately backed down the ramp and on to the Alaska Marine Highway ferry. After a seven-hour journey through fjords and around the numerous islands of the Inside Passage, it touches down at its new summer home in Kake, a small coastal community of about 400 residents. In Kake the greenhouse is towed off the ferry and to the school where the Organized Village of Kake, the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, and students of Kake High School get to try out their green thumbs.

Meet Moby, Alaska’s first classroom greenhouse on wheels. Moby’s walls rise about ten feet high from an 18-foot long flatbed trailer. With clear polycarbonate walls and ceiling, a solar powered fan for ventilation, a water catchment system, sturdy wooden raised beds, and hanging baskets brimming with rich topsoil, the greenhouse is nearly an all-inclusive growing system. All Moby needs is now sun, water, seeds, and some TLC, and it comes to life.

The beauty of a traveling greenhouse is its mobility. Moby travels with a mission: to share knowledge and food production skills with schools, and to support healthy students while growing vibrant, sustainable, and food-secure Alaskan communities. It’s a steppingstone that helps communities whet their appetite for local foods by providing a space for students and community members to engage in hands-on cultivation and education.


Jaquelin Bennum, Simon Friday, Anthony Gastelum, Charles Duncan , and Loretta Gregory display fresh veggies produced in the greenhouse with pride. 

Throughout the spring, summer, and fall, Kake residents will use the greenhouse to kickstart local food cultivation. “The availability of fruits and vegetables is a challenge, the stores are expensive. Additionally, energy is expensive and there are not many jobs,” says Jacquelin Bennum, a senior at Kake High School and the president of the newly formed Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter here.

Moby’s visit to Kake is what prompted the group’s formation. “FFA and the greenhouse have taught me a lot about responsibility,” says Jacquelin. The FFA students oversee the planning, watering, weeding, thinning, and harvesting to maintain the greenhouse crops. “We have the opportunity to learn how to run a business. The greenhouse is a place where we can go to unite with people our age, to get to know each other, and get to know a little more about our wonderful land around us and how we can grow where we live,” says Jacquelin.

Cucumbers crawl up the windows, while squash, tomatoes, and giant Swiss chard burst from the beds. By late summer, Moby is full of life. and expanding its reach beyond the indoor space. Raised beds have been built outside, and the students are gaining skills and inspiration to grow food in the open air. “I learned how much water things need and how often I need to be up here. The rainy days I can pass by a day or two and it will still be moist,” reports Charles Duncan.


Charles Duncan  holds up his harvest.

Charles is a 10th grader and the treasurer of the FFA in Kake. He harvests a handful of chard from the raised beds to reveal a couple of smaller plants growing underneath. “The plant I have to pay attention to the most is the chard, which absorbs the most water,” he says. A raised bed dedicated to chard is harvested by Jacquelin and Charles, and brought to the senior center to be shared with the elders for lunch. It’s a tradition in Kake to share the first harvest of the season. The rest of the day’s harvest is sold to raise funds for the FFA club.

Education, community, and student engagement have been priorities from Moby’s inception. The greenhouse was designed by Kaden Phillips, a University of Alaska Southeast student in the Construction Technology department. It was then built by Juneau Douglas High School students in their Basic Construction class using local cedar sourced from Icy Straits Lumber & Milling, based out of the nearby town of Hoonah. Juneau start-up AKReUse, a local company offering high-quality repurposed materials, also provided materials to construct Moby.


Simon Friday gets to work in the Mobile Greenhouse learning hands-on skills in food cultivation in rural Alaska.

Kake is only the first stop for the traveling greenhouse. Each fall, rural communities in Southeast Alaska can apply to be Moby’s next home. Community partners are encouraged to submit applications and explain how using the greenhouse will help community food cultivation goals be realized.

The possibilities are endless – school gardening and farming allow the future leaders of Kake to recognize the potential for local food production. “It doesn’t mean we have to start big. Start small, slowly add on to it. Over time we could start an actual fresh business out of it,” says Jacquelin. Charles agrees, “What we planted has flourished and almost everything has grown. There is a giant possibility for something to happen. It is a great opportunity.”

Next spring Moby will be on the road again, with hopes of inspiring a new crop of Southeast Alaskan gardeners and farmers by planting seeds of awareness throughout the region.

Want Moby to visit your Southeast Alaskan school? Applications are Open, Click Here to Apply


Kake School was so inspired by Moby the Mobile Greenhouse that the students built raised garden beds to continue growing fresh veggies in. 



Kake Listens: High school Juniors Interview Elders


Nestled in Keku Strait on Kupreanof Island, sits the Tlingit village of Kake. Around 600 people are lucky enough to call this community home. With its inspiring landscape, unique history, and flourishing culture, many of the people who live here have interesting life stories to tell.  In late autumn last year, equip with iphones, guiding questions, and a bit of curiosity, six inquisitive students from Kake’s high school set out to explore and share some of those stories.

These students participated in a program coordinated through StoryCorps. StoryCorps is a nonprofit organization founded in 2003 that, according to their website, ‘has given more than 100,000 Americans the chance to record interviews about their lives, pass wisdom from one generation to the next, and leave a legacy for the future’. Interview excerpts are shared during weekly National Public Radio broadcasts and on digital platforms.
In Kake, Jordana Grant integrated a StoryCorps curricula into her 11th grade Advanced Composition English Class. Students were taught how to conduct interviews and were shown how to use a smartphone recording application developed by StoryCorps. Six students interviewed elders and community members on a diversity of topics ranging from Tlingit culture to life in the military. As part of this program, these unique oral histories were uploaded to the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world, where historians and the general public can access them indefinitely.

The full six interviews can be listened to online by clicking here!

If you or your school are interested in replicating a similar project and would like to access the free smartphone application and classroom curricula, please visit www.storycorps.me.

Breathing New Life into Kake’s Historic Cannery: Reconstruction Project to Stimulate Rural Alaskan Economy

Photos and Story by Bethany Goodrich, For Alaska Business Monthly December 2015

KakeCannery (1 of 1)

It was approaching dusk in April when something out-of-the-ordinary, yet strangely familiar, caught Casimero Aceveda’s eye. “It was like something being reborn,” says Aceveda. The lights in the old cannery were on for the first time in almost 40 years.

Aceveda is the tribal president for the community of Kake. A predominately Tlingit village of ~650 residents, Kake is located on Kupreanof Island in Southeast Alaska. Like many of its elder residents, Aceveda grew up in the days when the salmon cannery was thriving.

“People were happy they were working. Our sisters and aunties would babysit the younger ones. Our dads fished and our moms worked on the cannery. It was a central part of our life,” remembers Aceveda.

At its peak, the Kake cannery was a force to be reckoned with. In 1930 it exported 615,000 full cases of salmon, more than double what its competitors produced.

“Everyone was working, everyone was doing things and things were going well. The cannery was really the hub of employment and activity at the time,” says Aceveda.

As the political, environmental and economic atmosphere that stimulated the canning industry waned, Kake’s cannery joined others across the region in collapse.

“When the cannery closed down around 1980, everybody had started putting away their fishing boots and were going into the woods to go logging, so it switched from one entity to the other and the cannery kind of fell to the wayside. The community altogether changed,” says Aceveda.

Breathing new life back into Kake’s historic cannery buildings has been a dream for Aceveda and his community for decades. Although tinged with nostalgia for the past, the cannery restoration project has more to do with securing Kake’s future.

“This is about all entities working together for the common cause of economic development and education for our kids. They need to step up and help themselves but they can’t do that unless we can offer a space for them to go and do it,” says Aceveda.

This was once the bustling site of Kake’s historic cannery. Today, the site is being stabilized and renovated to suite Kake’s modern economy. In the process, local workers and local wood (pictured) are being utilized wherever possible to inject more money into the community.

This was once the bustling site of Kake’s historic cannery. Today, the site is
being stabilized and renovated to suite Kake’s modern economy. In the process, local workers and local
wood (pictured) are being utilized wherever possible to inject more money into the community.

Teetering on Catastrophe

In 1997, the U.S. Department of the Interior and National Park Service recognized the Kake cannery as a National Historic Landmark. After two of the buildings later collapsed, the cannery was added to a less celebrated list: the “Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The need for help was urgent. After years of working tirelessly with state and federal agencies, Kake’s call was finally answered on Christmas Eve, 2014. Gary Williams, the executive director of the Organized Village of Kake (which is the tribal government for the Kake area), was contacted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Funding had come through.

“When they told us the amount, it truly and literally brought tears to my eyes because it gave us enough, along with other resources we had found, to do the stabilization that needed to be done. That was the Christmas Miracle, it was truly a blessing,” says Williams.

Securing funding was only part of the struggle. The magnitude of the job that lay ahead was formidable. There were no blueprints and the remaining structures literally teetered on the verge of catastrophe. This contract would require a fearless, imaginative and talented crew to complete. In January of 2015, came Kake’s second miracle.

“This is fun, you’ve got to use your imagination, and you’ve got to figure it out. New construction can get boring. This job does not bore me,” says Greg Harrison.

Greg Harrison is the owner and operator behind Diversified Diving, a Ketchikan based construction company. While working with the tribe, the project’s engineer, Harrison and his crew have risen to the challenge with grace and good humor.

“With a job like this, there is a lot of shimmying that happens. When you are doing a new construction you try and get everything plumb and level. These guys will be working on something here and be like ‘Well it’s an inch and a half off Greg!’ and it’s like well, after almost a hundred years I’d call that perfect!” laughs Harrison.

The team is innovative. They rely on the tides to help raise heavy wood pilings, salvage wood from the original structure whenever possible and straighten the building with a series of counterbalances. The magnitude of the construction is impressive. There’s something else notable happening here: local wood and local workers.

Adam Davis is the Community & Economic Development Specialist for the Tribe.

“The scale is impressive, the scale of the work being done with mostly local hands, local wood and materials. It’s very impressive to see and, now that the building is getting more work done on the outside, it’s coming to more people’s attention. People are taking note and more of the community is getting excited about what this all means for Kake’s economy,” says Davis.

localwood (1 of 1)

Diversified Diving uses beams that have been milled by Kevin Merry using locally harvested timber to replace rotten ones. The project explores every opportunity to stimulate the local economy.

localwood (2 of 1)

Kevin Merry milling locally harvested timber at his saw mill in Kake, Alaska.

A Community-Driven Economy

While the dream of rebuilding Kake’s historic cannery has been lingering for decades, it was during a series of community economic meetings that the project was formally established as a priority. Currently, Kake is the only rural community in southeast Alaska that regularly drafts an economic plan. The Kake Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy was established after the logging era met a similar fate as the canning industry.

“We lost half of our community because of lack of work in our community. The younger ones with families took off to the bigger cities to find work to survive,” recalls Aceveda.

The magnitude of community out-migration has plateaued in recent years, but the community still faces formidable social and economic challenges. According to a community survey conducted in 2009, more than half of the working population between the ages of 18 and 64 is unemployed with 61 percent of surveyed families reporting at least one household member actively searching for work.

“In 2004 was when our economy really took a downturn and that was when the charter members of the Kake Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy came together to put together the first edition of the current economic planning process,” says Gary Williams.

Gary Williams takes records community feedback at the 2015 Community Economic Development

Gary Williams takes records community feedback at the 2015 Community Economic Summit

Fast forward one decade later to Kake’s 2015 Economic Summit and the process is thriving. Representatives from the tribe, city, school and village corporation joined business leaders and other residents at the school for dinner and discussion. On giant sheets of paper hung across the cafeteria, participants mapped Kake’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Participants voiced concerns and spoke passionately about building a sustainable and prosperous future for their home village.

Input from these meetings is regularly compiled into a formal plan that identifies priorities, fosters collaboration and drives an informed, community-driven development process. Over fifty projects have resulted from this process since the first plan was published in 2005.

“Right now we are working on the fourth edition of this economic plan and throughout it all, the cannery has been recognized as an integral part and priority because so much economic opportunity can and does branch off of it,” says Williams.

While Kake’s historic cannery provided community employment while in operation, a series of out-of-state companies ran the show during the first half of the last century. The majority of profit was thus siphoned out of Kake. Today, the historic site is owned in trust by the tribe for the purpose of stimulating the local economy. With more than 70 percent of Kake’s households headed by enrolled tribal members, the future of the cannery will remain a community owned asset.

Like many communities on the Inside Passage, Kake identifies tourism as an economic priority. Residents and leaders view the cannery as a unique asset that sets them and the type of tourism they want apart.

“Right from the beginning of the planning process, it was identified that in Kake we didn’t want to go too large in scale with tourism. If you go too big it destroys the character of Kake for the community and the visitors,” says Williams.

Building an authentic tourism experience for Kake’s visitors, while at the same time ensuring it respects community residents, has been central to the planning process. While a few small tourist boats visit Kake, existing opportunities for locals to capitalize on tourist dollars are limited. Located next to the main dock, the cannery will act as an iconic gateway to Kake with spaces for artisans, vendors and other service-industry entrepreneurs.

The space however, is not slated to be only a tourist attraction. The tribal transportation program will move in and light industrial options are being explored to help diversify the benefits. A section will be dedicated to Kake’s Keex’ Kwaan Dancers, room made for a community meeting space and a cultural and historical museum will span across the central floor. The idea is for Kake’s cannery to become an incubator of entrepreneurial, social and cultural ingenuity, a space for the community to gather and collaborate, share ideas and face the many challenges that come with living in a remote community head on. Proponents of the project continually stress the desire for the cannery to be “a part of the community” rather than a playground for tourists.

The stabilization stage of the project is wrapping up. The tribe is well positioned to secure funding for the final process of bringing the rooms up to code while preserving the historic structures of this historic landmark. Some space may be used as soon as next year and momentum in the community is building.


From a window in Kake’s Historic Cannery, Gary Williams overlooks Greg Harrison and his construction crew. This hardworking team is inventive, fearless and includes five Kake locals (including Williams).

From a window in Kake’s Historic Cannery, Gary Williams overlooks Greg Harrison and his construction crew. This hardworking team is inventive, fearless and includes five Kake locals (including Williams).

The Power of Collaboration

Returning the old cannery site to a community asset has taken dedication. This work is a promising example of economic innovation in a state replete with untapped opportunity. Alaska boasts a unique history, cultural identity and natural assets that, with hard work, can be harnessed to build a more prosperous and sustainable future for our rural communities.

This story is about more than just a restored cannery. It is the story of a community coming together to persevere through economic hardship. The community of Kake has come together to ask: What makes our community unique? How can we develop these assets and opportunities in a way that maximizes benefits both locally and long-term? And, how can we keep our families and quality of life at the forefront of every step in the process?

For Kake, achieving a long-term prosperous community vision starts with revisiting its historic roots. These roots run particularly deep for Casimero Aceveda.

“My dad worked on the cannery and when I grew up my first paying job was working on that cannery. I was a carpenter. So now, third generation coming down I got my nephew working to remodel the place! So yeah, we have pride in that cannery. The whole community has pride in that cannery, that’s where our families grew up, it’s part of us.”


Spotted through a hole in the cannery’s floorboards, Kake local, Tyrone Paul grins while stabilizing a wood piling.

Spotted through a hole in the cannery’s floorboards, Kake local, Tyrone Paul grins while stabilizing a wood piling.

The community’s mission to restore the historic cannery to incubate local business is made possible with the support of local, regional, state and federal partners. This includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service, Alaska State Historic Preservation Office, Organized Village of Kake Tribal Historic Preservation Office, Mike Jackson of the Organized Village of Kake Transportation Program, National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Office, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Development Agency, University of Oregon, Sustainable Southeast Partnership, and former-Senator Begich’s office.

This long list is a testament to the collaborative effort and far-reaching impact and significance of the project. The first stage of building stabilization is set to be completed by the new year.

Wrapping up Energy Audits – Thank You!

This summer, SSP’s Regional Energy Catalyst brought together energy experts to the communities of Haines, Hoonah, and Prince of Wales Island to help commercial building owners identify energy savings through a Level I Walk Through Energy Audit. With the help  of on-the-ground Community Catalysts, the team was able to identify plenty of interested commercial building owners, managers and tenants.  Jim Fowler of Energy Audits of Alaska audited 35 buildings totaling nearly 230,000ft2! These Level I Audits were paid for by the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with support from Southeast Conference, Renewable Energy Alaska Project, and Alaska Energy Authority. By coordinating the audits all together, the cost of these audits was cut by an estimated 2/3. The effort also included free energy workshops and outreach to numerous other building owners, managers and tenants through a ‘walking workshop.”

Direct follow up is being provided for all building owners that received an audit report.  The real results will hopefully be realized in the coming weeks and months.  We are optimistic that businesses can save money on their bottom line with energy efficiency measures, and hopefully re-invest in their businesses and community.  Thank you to all participants and partners!

EE Workshop Partners


What’s Next for Kake’s Snapped Totem Pole

Written for and published with the Capital City Weekly

Photo1_RuthDemmert (1 of 1)In 1926, the village of Kake reluctantly decided under heavy pressure to burn all of the community’s totem poles in the name of “progress.” Decades later, in 1971, Kake elders rose the world’s tallest pole as a reaffirmation of Kake’s cultural roots. In April of this year, a powerful gust of wind snapped the top of the 136-foot-tall pole. Now, the community must decide how to move forward.

Ruth Demmert is a cultural leader and teacher in Kake. In her elementary school classroom, among carved paddles, Tlingit textbooks, and Tlingit worlds sprawled across the whiteboard, we flipped through old newspaper clippings and photo albums stuffed with polaroids. She shares some of the pole’s secrets and explains the significance of this particular totem in helping Kake “recapture its culture.”

Q: How did the pole come to be?

A: They cut Kake’s totem poles down and had a big bonfire and people cried just like losing loved ones all over again. I was not alive at that time, but I have heard the history. There were tears shed but that was their decision to go forward for ‘progress.’

I was really young and I don’t know who all took part in the planning of the pole but I remember my grandparents being together over coffee and my grandfather talking about how it was a shame that all the poles were burned and that we need to replace them because we are losing the culture. We need one put up in place for all those that were lost, that were cut down and burned.

We need to recapture our culture.

So they were talking about a pole being put up to represent all of the clans here in Kake. The killer whale, the shark, the salmon, the frog, the beaver, the eagle, the raven and more.

Q: Who carved the pole?

A: When the tree was found they barged it to Haines and Carl Heinmiller was the master carver. You recognize the name Heinmiller? German! He hired his apprentices and of course, he had the blueprints of what the people wanted on the pole.

And when the pole was finished, probably in 1969, elders from Kake went to see it. I know my grandfathers were up there and their wives and people went to Haines for the busing of the pole. The Kake people blessed it and then they barged it to Japan for the World Fair.

It came to us in 1971. But while in Haines, Carl Heinmiller carved his face on there! But, I don’t think you want to mention that because it will bring back hard feelings, Ha! But he had his face on the pole and people were shocked to see it. A German’s face and he had an eye patch! They did not want him on the pole, it was our pole and he put himself on there so I think they shaved it and carved over his face.

Q: What is the significance of the totem pole to people in Kake today?

A: It brings a lot of tourists to Kake, to us. There are three other really large totem poles that I hear of, I don’t know where they are, but I still consider ours to be the world’s tallest because it is one tree, not two trees put together.

But to me, I always tell the kids that this pole was put up so we can recapture our culture our history, our way of life. I think it is a remembrance for us, it makes us remember the things our families went through, our ancestors went through to get our culture back and this pole was the beginning.

Q: How do you think Kake should move forward now with the broken pole?

A: I think it should be laid to rest just like our ancestors were laid to rest and not just cut down any which way. There needs to be a ceremony for it like laying it down and put back on the earth carefully, with branches like blankets underneath it. There is going to be a lot of tears shed when it does come down.

I really believe there should be one to replace it, I don’t know that it will be just as tall and who knows what crests will go on there, maybe the same crests because they are crests from all our clans here in Kake.

Q: Can you comment more broadly on your time as a cultural leader in Kake, as a teacher?Photo2_KakeTotemPole (1 of 1)

A: It was still shameful you know, when I started teaching in the ’70s, people were still ashamed to speak Tlingit in public.

Now in the classroom here we teach Tlingit culture and language. Even those that come in blonde and blue-eyed, learning Tlingit culture gives them the respect they need for other cultures. So, I am really glad to have a part in their lives too. I teach respect in this classroom. I used to be a tour guide too and I taught a lot of those people to tell their people back home that we are the same as you. We might speak different, look different but our blood is just as red as anybody else’s and we are survivors we are not just in the museums, we are still here.

I’m working on a song for our dancers, I was given the song from someone in Klawock and reworked it a bit. This will be the dance at the ceremony to take down this pole.

“Our way of life and our language is our strength our inner strength.

The love of our ancestors along with their respect for one another, let it be within us.”


The community of Kake has created a committee to discuss the future of the pole and is currently looking to secure funding for a lowering ceremony.

• Bethany Goodrich is a freelance storyteller and the Communications Coordinator for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership. For more, visit www.SustainableSoutheast.net


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