On a sunny Sitka afternoon, a group of Pacific High School students and community members carve four inch deep lines into the soil. Gingerly, the students cradle seed potatoes in their palms. These small fingerlings, studded with dimples also known as ’eyes’, aren’t your typical Russets or Yukon Golds. The United States Forest Service and Sitka Tribe of Alaska are partnering to cultivate a unique community garden. With sprouting eyes facing toward the sun, the group carefully lowers ‘Tlingit potatoes’ into the earth.
This variety of potatoes is also called Maria’s Tlingit, named after Maria Ackerman Miller of Haines. Because potatoes are cultivated not by seed but by planting part or all of the tuber, each new season of potato is a genetic clone to it’s parent. This means that a potato planted now could be genetically identical to the original ‘cultivar’ planted a century ago. Families may care for potato varieties that fare well in a given climate and pass these unique lines from one generation to the next. Maria’s Tlingit family cared for this particular lineage for over 150 years.
If we could teleport back in time, Maria’s Tlingit potatoes would be found in many south facing gardens and patches across the region. The method of cultivation for this variety was pretty hands off. “I call it ‘plant it and forget it’,” laughs Elizabeth Kunibe. Kunibe is the leading academic researcher of Alaska’s unique potato past. Because of their easy cultivation, Kunibe explains that Native gardeners often planted large patches on nearby islands with ideal growing conditions.
In Sitka, oral history traces local potato cultivation north to the turbulent and wild coast of West Chichagof Island. Tucked into a calm cove, sits the ‘Potato Patch’ where story has it, that the Tlingit people would plant rows of these potatoes on their way to fish camp annually. Each autumn, in wooden dugout canoes laden heavy with dimpled spuds, they would return home each autumn to stock underground cellars with a winter load of these nutritious root veggies. Attentive locals still report stumbling upon potato plants in this lush meadow today.
Potatoes are not native to Southeast Alaska however. So how did spuds migrate to our island-clad rainforest?
“At first people thought that European settlers brought them, but the thing is, there were potatoes here before the settlers,” says Kunibe. Settlers did bring potatoes from Europe but they were different varieties.“The other theory is that Russian explorers and fur traders brought potatoes as they circumnavigated Chile. And then there’s also many Alaska native stories about Tlingit and Haida travelers who were going down to South America in big canoes who brought potatoes north.” Kunibe believes that potatoes populated our coast via a combination of these theories.
Artistic rendering of the Potato Patch of West Chichagof by Michaela Goade (click the image to see more of her work)
Maria’s Tlingit potato is a ‘primitive cultivar’ meaning they have not been selectively bred and genetically altered like most commercial varieties today. Their ancestry has deep roots. According to Kunibe, primitive cultivars “usually have more eyes and some may be oblong and finger shaped.” Thanks to advances in genetic research and collaborations like ‘The Potato Genome Project’ that Kunibe works with, we can trace Maria’s Tlingit back to Mexico or Chilean varieties.
There are only four varieties of primitive potatoes traditionally grown by Native North Americans according to Kunibe. Two of those, the Tlingit potato and one other, are grown right here in the temperate rainforests of Southeast Alaska. To learn more about the second spud, we need to leave the garden plot in Sitka and head South to Prince of Wales Island.
Down an ambling gravel road is the tiny remote village of Kasaan. With just 60 year round residents, Kasaan is the smaller of only two Haida villages in Alaska. Here, between ocean and forest, Eric Hamar and his family prepare to plant Julie’s Kasaan. This genetically unique variety is often referred to as the Haida potato.
“Deer don’t eat them, that’s nice. They pretty much bother everything except the Kasaan Potatoes,” says Hamar. His family has been planting Haida potatoes in their hometown for six years. “They are definitely more suited to the climate compared to other potatoes. They are really rot resistant,” says Hamar and that’s not the only reason his family digs Julie’s Kasaan. “They taste very, very buttery. You almost actually don’t need to put butter on them,” says Hamar.
When it comes to chatting about the deep history of Julie’s Kasaan potato, Eric defers. “Don’t ask me, ask Julie,” says Hamar. Julie Coburn, the ‘Julie’ in Julie’s Kasaan gave Eric’s father a box of shriveled old seed potatoes years ago. Today, she lives in the Pioneer Home up in Anchorage. “She’s 95, sharp as a tac and fiery,” Eric warned.
“Let me tell you, those potatoes have been in my family for well over a hundred years!” says Julie Coburn. Coburn has a melodic laugh and a sing-song voice that could draw a grin from a stoic. Her great aunt on her father’s side brought the original Julie’s Kasaan potatoes up from Washington State by dugout canoe over a century ago. She has many fond memories of her potato planting past.
“Oh yes, potatoes were a very big thing. Just about everybody in Kasaan had a garden,” say Coburn. Each spring, Julie and her family would scramble aboard her father’s 45 foot seiner and head to Adam’s Point up the bay where it was flat and south facing.
“We made a big deal of it and we would spend maybe a couple days planting potatoes and cooking over a beach fire and we always had a big coffee pot of course. We would put herring in a barrel and let it rot, good and proper and we used that for fertilizer and a lot of kelp and seaweed which was easy gathering.”
Julie is read this story at the Pioneer Home in Anchorage
After the leaves died down in autumn, Julie and her family would return to reap their harvest. “That was the fun part! You never knew what you were going to find as you kept on digging and digging each hill. I can remember my dad said it was a good year when we harvested 800 pounds of potatoes for our family alone!”
He built an underground root cellar for their bounty and while 800 pounds of potatoes may seem excessive to some, this is not the case for Julie Coburn. “Potato salad, fried potatoes, baked potatoes,” Julie sings. “Mashed potatoes, stuffed potato, boiled potatoes, potato salad! We enjoyed those potatoes every which way we could think of,” says Coburn.
Julie is certainly a fan of her namesake. How would her parents and great aunt react if they knew this potato would pass down in history named after her?
“Ha! They would be shocked, amazed and delighted,” says Coburn. “I was the keeper of the seed for a while but I just did it for the community. I never called myself the ‘keeper of the seed’, I just did it because I wanted to and didn’t expect anything as return,” says Coburn who has shared seed potatoes across Kasaan, in ports along the coast, in Oregon and in Washington. “I do always tell the people I shared with to spread it amongst your friends so they can have a garden too.”
Julie’s generosity is contagious. With support from SEARHC, the Organized Village of Kasaan and the Alaska Native Fund, the school in Kasaan is preparing to plant a community garden plot of Julie’s famous buttery fingerlings thanks to a donation of seed potatoes from Eric Hamar’s family. This tiny Haida village is dead set dedicated to keeping Kasaan’s potato heritage thriving long into the future.
Protecting Sacred Seeds
These little potatoes are more than a lip-licking connection to our region’s colorful cultural heritage. Protecting seed diversity is important and Tlingit and Haida potatoes are uniquely suited to thrive in our rainforest climate. Protecting hardy plant varieties and maintaining a diversity of types translates into greater resiliency and more success for growers in the long run helping to combat climate change and beat out yearly fluctuations.
Good news for Julie, Maria and all the other seed keepers and sharers across the Southeast, efforts are ramping up to cultivate and share these traditional Tlingit and Haida potatoes. From the Klawock Cooperative Association’s garden to community and household gardens in Juneau and beyond, Southeast Alaskans are hungry for these unique little tubers.
Back in Sitka, the students delicately blanket their tiny time capsules with seaweed in the same way Native Alaskan gardeners have done for over 220 years. Michelle Putz, one of the lead organizers of the event hands over two additional seed potatoes for the students to plant in their own school garden. With dirt under their nails and smiles splayed across their sun-kissed cheeks, the students pile back into the bus and eagerly look forward to the autumn harvest.
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.
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.
Haida apprentice carver St’igiinii (Harley Holter) works diligently on a totem pole that will be completed later this year. Photo by Quinn Aboudara
From left to right, restoration crew apprentice carver Wooshdeiteitxh (Justin Henricks), lead carver Gitajang (Glenn “Stormy” Hamar), apprentice carver Nang K’adangaas (Eric Hamar), and apprentice carver St’igiinii (Harley Holter) stand behind the plaques honoring their and past carvers’ contributions to the restoration of Náay í’Waans. Photo by Quinn Aboudara
As the morning of Sept. 3 broke warm and clear over the village of Kasaan, a small southeast Alaskan village of approximately 50 year-round residents, a sense of excitement and celebration — along with laughter, music, and the sound of carving tools on wood — filled the air. Carver Gitajang (Glenn “Stormy” Hamar) along with apprentice carvers St’igiinii (Harley Holter), Nang K’adangaas (Eric Hamar), and Wooshdeiteitxh (Justin Henricks) were in the carving shed, preparing for the rededication of Náay í’Waans (The Great House), better known as the Chief Son-i-Hat Whale House.
“It (Náay í’Waans) is our history and connects us to our heritage, our ancestors, and means everything to the people and to the village of Kasaan,” said Gitajang.
Prior to the past three years of reconstruction, the longhouse, built in 1880, was subject to insects, adverse weather and vandalism. Gitajang and his crew have replaced rotting and weakened poles, planks, and roofing, carefully restoring Náay í’Waans to its traditional beauty and strength. They’ve used as much of the original longhouse as possible.
As the day progressed, nearly 1,000 visitors began to make their way from Kasaan to Náay í’Waans, a leisurely stroll along a sun dappled trail, to meet canoes from Kasaan, Klawock, Ketchikan, and as far away as Juneau. St’igiinii ran briskly along the trail, calling out greetings to guests as he raced to meet the first of them.
St’igiinii has worked tirelessly on Náay í’Waans. Many who call him nephew or friend have heard his laughter in the carving shed or through the forest. On Sept. 3, however, he was serious when he spoke of what the longhouse means to him. “Náay í’Waans was a beacon of hope to the people of Old Kassan,” he said. (A century ago, many people moved from Old Kassan, on Skowl Arm, to Kasaan for jobs and the school.) “It was built to preserve and protect the Haida culture. And today it still serves as that beacon of hope to this community. It still preserves and protects the Haida culture and connects us to our ancestors.”
Náay í’Waans, The Great House in Kasaan, as seen from the beach. Photo Quinn Aboudara
That morning, a young voice announced the sighting of the first canoes as they rounded the point into the small bay in which Náay í’Waans sits, its main entrance facing the beach. People began to fill the beach as the canoes paddled closer to shore. Both those on water and on shore sang traditional songs as each canoe passed the beach, allowing the standing Chief Son-i-Hat, John McAllister, to recognize them before they gathered off shore and waited to be recognized. (Kóyongxung was the original Chief Son-i-Hat, a wealthy Haida chief and the man who commissioned Náay í’Waans; he died in 1912.)
Standing Chief Son-i-Hat’s voice sounded across the water as he identified each of the canoes and granted them permission to land upon the shore before Náay í’Waans. Those on land sang them in, and St’igiinii waded into the water to help the crews disembark and join those gathered on the gravelly beach. People sang songs of celebration and welcome as they walked the canoes up the shore with the rising tide; guests and locals filled the area around Náay í’Waans. As the grand entrance began, dance groups from Hydaburg, Klawock, Ketchikan, Juneau, and Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands), circled the longhouse, singing and dancing as they entered. Their voices and drums filled the air and drifted through the trees.
Standing Chief Son-i-Hat, John McAllister, welcomes and grants permission to canoes to land on the beach before Naay i’Waans. Photo by Quinn Aboudara
Canoers from Juneau passthe shore to be recognized before requesting permission to land on the beach before Náay í’Waans. Photo by Quinn Aboudara
Haida elder from Kasaan Julie Coburn gave opening prayers and recognition to Taslaanas, the bear clan of Kasaan. Then Anthony “Tony” Christiansen, mayor of Hydaburg, and Chalyee Éesh (Richard Peterson), President of Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, who is from Kasaan, took over the duties of announcing the speakers for the event.
Speakers included Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot, Kavilco Incorporated president Louis Jones Sr., Organized Village of Kasaan tribal president Ronald Leighton, City of Kasaan mayor Della Coburn, Rasmuson Foundation representative Jason Smart, Skidegate Traditional Chief Russ Jones, and Chief Son-i-Hat descendant Clinton Cook Jr.
As the speeches ended guests began to make their way back toward Kasaan, where an evening of celebration awaited before the recently opened Totem Trail Café. Kasaan community members and volunteers had been preparing throughout the day, cooking and setting up seating for their guests. They filled long tables with traditional foods: salmon, halibut, venison, and more, along with endless pots of hot coffee and strong tea.
Lt. Governor Byron Mallot speaks before Naay i’Waans. Also standing, to the right, is Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA) President Richard Peterson (Chalyee Éesh), who is from Kasaan. Photo Quinn Aboudara
As dance groups from around Southeast Alaska and Haida Gwaii sang and danced, gifts of carved panels, woven cedar hats, headdresses, and regalia were given to honored guests while gifts of t-shirts, jams, honey, jarred salmon, jewelry, posters, clothing, and many other items were given in thanks to all that attended.
And as the sun set on Náay í’Waans and the village of Kasaan, the carvers had been honored, respect had been given to all who had made this historic event possible and Náay í’Waans, The Great House, often known as the Chief Son-i-Hat Whale House stood, restored, in the brilliant glow of the setting sun, a continued beacon of hope for the preservation and protection of the Haida culture and a testament of strength and unity.
The traditional Haida longhouse restoration project was made possible through the partnership of the Organized Village of Kasaan (OVK), Kavilco Non-Profit, and the Kasaan Haida Heritage Foundation. The efforts were also aided through funding from the Rasmuson Foundation as well as donations of timber from Sealaska Corporation, The U.S. Forest Service, and the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority.
Whale house carvers dance before guests at the Discovery Center/Totem Trail Café in Kasaan during the rededication of Naay i’Waans. Photo by Quinn Aboudara
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!
Eric Hamar (left) and Harley Bell-Holter (right) stand in the doorway to the Kasaan Community Carving Shed.
On Prince of Wales Island, beside a trail west of the small community of Kasaan, sits Náay I’waans. Also known as the Whale House or, more specifically Chief Son-i-hat’s House, this building is the oldest surviving example of traditional Haida architecture in the United States. Originally built by Chief Son-i-hat in the 1880s, Náay I’waans was once home to the wealthy and revered chief and his family. Today, the site attracts ogling tourists from all over the world. As carver Eric Hamar puts it, the site also serves as the “historical and emotional center of Kasaan.”
The fight to keep Náay I’waans standing has spanned over a century. The building has been re-shaked (roofed) at least twice, reworked and officially restored by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. This labor of love has called on the commitment, creativity and craftsmanship of many skilled workers including Eric and Harley Bell-Holter. The two have been active on the current Náay I’waans Restoration Project, led by the Organized Village of Kasaan and Kavilco Inc., for three years. They are apprenticing under lead carver Stormy Hamar (Eric’s father) with Justin Henricks joining the project in July of last year. This week marks one year until the official rededication celebration, set for Sept. 3, 2016.
I sat with Eric and Harley in the Kasaan Community Carving Shed atop a seemingly bottomless floor of heavenly smelling cedar chips. In the company of visiting community members and an impressive collection of coffee mugs, Eric and Harley share their experiences on the project.
View of the Whale House from the beach in Kasaan.
How would you describe Kasaan to someone who has never visited?
HBH: I would say that it is the most unique place you will ever see and witness from the way that the weather hits us, all the way down to the people and everything in between. We operate by a different set of rules, we work towards a better tomorrow. Kasaan is unique because of the longhouse, the trails, the fact that we still look like a village did 50 years ago. The fact that it is the land that time has forgotten.
What is the significance of the Whale House to Kasaan?
HBH: Death [from smallpox] hit so hard in Old Kasaan that they didn’t even have time to bury the bodies. That drove our people to this small place [the current site of Kasaan] because the missionaries promised us education, medicine and religion. That drove Chief Son-i-hat to build this longhouse just outside our village. This was him trying to coax his people into moving over here, away from that disease. By the time he built his longhouse, 32 people lived here with him. After he passed away, everyone moved here. To this day, Náay I’waans, the longhouse I have the privilege of working on every day, is a beacon of light to our culture and has been since its original building.
What inspired you to work on the project?
EH: I got involved with it in part because it is important to the community. It’s one of the very rare things in the community that everyone agrees is important. And for that, it is important. Historically it is significant as far as the people who lived there, why it was built in the first place. It’s also kind of the historical center, not necessarily the physical center, but the historical and emotional center of the village. It’s the biggest item of pride that we have and so it’s very important for that reason.
Walls are down in Náay I’waans, the oldest surviving example of traditional northern Haida architecture in the United States. The project is in the final stages of restoration and the rededication ceremony is set for September 3rd, 2016.
What have been some of the challenges?
HBH: It’s an exhausting job most days, the infrastructure here is crazy. This job has never once been as simple as “restoring a longhouse.” From the very start, me, Eric and Stormy went out there and had this very definitive and exact way that we were going to do it. We got there for the first day and realized that one of the corner posts was protruding out the side of the building and was completely rotted. It changed everything immediately. The biggest challenge became the actual physical challenge of doing it because Kavilco and OVK agreed in consensus that we can never fully demolish Náay I’waans, that we had to keep it standing. So physically, that was a challenge and we have had to do things creatively and differently than probably any other building project, maybe, in the history of man.
Carver Eric Hamar applies final touches to the head of a figure that has since been returned to the central pole in Náay I’waans. Photo B.Goodrich
The scope of the restoration work includes the physical building as well as the totem poles around and within the site. In the shed, Eric applies final touches to the head of a figure he has carved to replace a missing piece of an original Náay I’waans pole. This particular pole was moved from Old Kasaan to Náay I’waans in 1880 and sits in the center of the Whale House. I ask the obvious question: what creature’s head is he working on?
EH: Not completely sure what it is. But given the very interesting nature of the pole, my dad and I have had many talks about it. Whatever it is, I think it’s very powerful. People seem to try and boil down all of the stuff that was portrayed on these poles simply as, ‘Oh it’s a bear, oh it’s a this, oh it’s a that.’ But there are a lot of things that are more complex and natural that aren’t necessarily acceptable in today’s modern American culture to talk about.
So what do you think the figure is depicting then?
EH: The culture that created this pole was very different to the one we live in today. So considering that, I think it is a depiction of birth. Like this here [points to face encircled by the tail of the figure whose head he is carving; see images at right], is maybe a child within a representation of the innards. It’s kind of made me wonder if it isn’t even a depiction of birth from the inside looking out at the doctor and world, which might sound kind of weird and funny now, but at the time that would have been a very serious thing.
As the centerpiece of the longhouse, it makes a lot of sense to me for it to symbolize birth, which is why I think this figure, whatever it is, is female. Of course, nobody will ever know and that’s the greatest part, that it can be so open to interpretation.
There have been people who come in here (who) will be like ‘Oh wow, that is a beautiful eagle, or is that a raven? Or a wolf?’ It is definitely a subject of discussion. Which is what I want to see more of — undefined things. Art beyond just ‘spirit this, raven transformation that, here’s another that, here’s a bunch of ovoids’ — meaning that (it) isn’t easily explainable. This art-form took the entirety of our existence to come up with. You aren’t going to be able to explain it with something as topical as, ‘Oh, it’s a bear.’
Harley Bell-Holter, Eric Hamar, Justin Henricks and Stormy Hamar stand beside the central pole in Náay I’waans to celebrate the returning of the missing face. Eric carved the replacement. What creature is it? Not sure. Hamar appreciates the mystery (as described).
Open interpretation and active dialogue keeps this traditional art form alive and modern. The carving shed acts as a central hub for discussion. An endless rotation of visiting community members and tourists pass through. Visitors practice carving and transfixed kids work on ongoing projects. An additional goal of the project is to strengthen enthusiasm for this craft. The warm atmosphere of the shed makes it clear that this objective is being met on a daily basis.
The energy Eric and Harley have for their work is contagious.
HBH: I would implore anybody to pick up an adze and try it. I wouldn’t try and push our profession on people but it would be really cool to give everyone the opportunity to try it. I think it is important that we remain teachers. I have already seen my 12-year old student, Donny Savage, starting to teach his peers because he now has enough confidence to teach it himself. That fills me with pride and that also means that my culture will live on, regardless of Donny’s ethnicity.
The Náay I’waans Restoration Project has entered the final stages and is set to be completed this winter. A second leg of the project is to begin a continual maintenance program for the site. Once complete, the building will be used as a place to visit and tour as well as serve as a facility for community events.The official Rededication Ceremony will be held Sept. 3, 2016, and Kasaan is seeking additional funding to support the event. Visit www.kasaan.org or call (907) 542-2230 for details.
The impacts of Climate Change are vast and far reaching. Many of these impacts are being disproportionately felt by small coastal native communities. Carrie Sykes of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership and Organized Village of Kasaan and Tlingit Juneau high school student Sierra Ezrré joined Alaska Natives, Native Americans and Native Hawaiians at the Inter-Tribal Youth Climate Leaders Congress (Native CCC) this summer to discuss these impacts. The Native CCC brings together high school students from across the country for a week of peer-to-peer training and education about the impacts of climate change on tribal communities. The U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Environmental Protection Agency partnered to host the Inter-Tribal Youth Climate Leaders Congress (Native CCC) in Shepherdstown, West Virginia the week of June 28 – July 3, 2015.
The Native CCC was an outcome of the President’s Priority Agenda – Enhancing Climate Resilience of America’s Natural Resources and Generation Indigenous initiative. The participants produced an eight minute video on the impacts of climate change on their traditional lands (see below).
The students’ stories are profound revealing how climate induced changes are impacting the land, the water, the wildlife, and traditional cultures. The parting message is hopeful as one hears the voices of the students assert, “…education is the seed for planting a brighter future … the more you know, the more you grow.”
The Alaska Region of the Forest Service sponsored two participants Ezrré and Sykes and both contributed greatly to the Congress. Over the next several months they will be sharing their experiences with the Alaska Tribal Leaders Committee and with Forest Service employees in the Regional Office.
Reflections from Sierra Ezreé, Tlingit High School Student
I just wanted to give thanks for this amazing opportunity to travel to Shepherdstown, WV and attend the Inter-Tribal Youth Climate Change Leadership Congress (Native CCC). The week I spent back east was by far, the best week of my entire life. It was so amazing to be around people who thought the same way that I do – – about how important the land is and how important it is to take care of the land.
It was great to be around people who were raised and taught similarly to how I was. The land has always provided for us, but we are now neglecting our way of life and harming the land.
For example, as a kid I went to gatherings after a single seal was killed to thank the seal for what it would be providing. Now we are harming the land in such a way that soon it will not be able to provide us with certain things that are vital.
It was thought-provoking to see that climate change was affecting every represented Tribe at the Native CCC. Every single place had an issue due to climate change. It was sad to see that people on some reservations do not even have clean drinking water because the water has been contaminated by oil companies. Native people, to try to stop further contamination, sat along the road to stop the trucks from going by. The power of the people with their caring for the land could stop big industry. This is amazing.
Everyone had so much faith in each other. I felt so empowered when we all came together. I felt that we could all change the world because we were all so motivated to do so. We know how our traditional ways are being affected due to climate change. We all want to keep our traditional ways and this can only happen if we come together for this common cause. The future belongs to us and we are the ones who can change what is happening.
Growing up, the number one rule I was taught was respect. It seemed that all of the other Tribes had similar values. Everyone was respectful to the land, one another, and all of the adults. Like me, the 100 or so students at the Native CCC were able to listen and respect when a person was talking and sharing ideas. Students maintained silence and were attentive. I wish this level of respect was practiced everywhere. If this could happen, the world would be a better place.
I am so grateful for the opportunity to have people around me who thought the same way that I did and wanted to do similar things in the world. The experience I had will help me to spread my new knowledge about climate change to my community so people can become more aware of how much climate affects everyone and how we affect the climate. Gunalchéesh.
Reflections from Carrie Sykes, Haida Culture Bearer
I was very honored to be selected as a Haida culture bearer to escort Sierra Ezrré to Shepardstown, WV to participate in the first Inter-Tribal Youth Climate Leadership Congress. It was a fantastic opportunity to gather together with the 100 Tribal youth from more than 20 Tribes that were present from all over the United States to talk about climate change. In addition, there was a lot to be learned from the many indigenous federal government personnel and Tribal chaperones that joined in the conversation.
The first day was spent utilizing an “Open Space Meeting Process,” during which students were asked the question, “As a youth leader, how can you help your school and community meet the challenges of climate change?” Gathered outside in the Commons Area, all were provided index cards and encouraged to get on the stage and share their ideas with the Congress. The students then categorized their ideas into ten areas, which were used to set the Congress topics. It was a great way to assure that the ideas developed were from the students. During the week, the students each selected a topic and were asked to work together to come up with a climate change project, which would be presented at the end of the week. The student’s interaction with each other and brainstorming about solutions was impressive.
The objectives set for the students were far exceeded. By the end of the week, they were able to identify at least three major climate-related issues facing their specific communities, the United States and the world. They heard fantastic speakers from various agencies and knowledgeable Tribal members, many of which have made the care of Mother Earth their focus through research/restoration projects, indigenous stewardship and traditional ecological knowledge. They actively participated in the larger network of like-minded people addressing the issues. In addition to all the information about climate change, they were also exposed to researching, developing a presentation and presenting it to a large group. All of which, provided them with the knowledge to make specific recommendations for actions that the federal government and tribal communities can take to address climate change and its impacts.
Through their presentations, they demonstrated leadership and showed that they have the communications skills to engage with their peers and others about climate change and natural resource conservation in their home communities. They did a great job, especially since most of them had not previously had experience with public speaking.
There were also many fun events that provided an opportunity for the students to get to know each other, such as the community service work done on a campus trail and removing invasive plants, and the river trip where they were able to experience the great outdoors and develop and demonstrate teamwork. And there was the wonderful musical performance by Frank Waln and the Sampson Brothers, who through their music left a great impression on the students about what they can do to make a difference in the world. And the Pow Wow at the end of the week was also a fantastic opportunity for all to share about their traditional culture.
Háw’aa (thank you) to all the agencies that made the Congress possible and to those that provided for the representatives from southeast Alaska to attend. We were both very impressed by the event and we were able to network with people with whom we can continue to work on climate change. I look forward to working further with the U.S. Forest Service, the Pacific Northwest Research Station and others on these resource management issues to ensure we have a sustainable environment and world for future generations.