Written by Peter Forbes
Imagine a long-distance runner, without a watch, crossing mountain ranges, passing through villages, people occasionally cheering them along, but mostly alone confronting obstacles on the ground and in their mind, always running toward an important goal. I believe Sustainable Southeast Partnership is that runner, and I offer up this essay to help the world recognize the importance of your cross-country journey and the magnitude of your goal. This essay was supported by the Sustainable Southeast Partnership as a tool to help illustrate the significance and complexity of their work to share with practitioners, investors, community leaders, movers and shakers.
Kurt Hahn, the Scottish innovator who made popular outdoor education and who founded Outward Bound said, “If you’re lucky, once in your life you’ll be associated with a truly great idea.” My greatest hope is that this essay helps all the partners and community members working together within SSP to see that they are manifesting a truly great idea: a collaboration that heals and moves forward a very important place in this world.
Written by Peter Bradley and Desiree Lawson with editing from Kyle Rosendale and Tara Racine
Harvey Kitka and Desiree Lawson explore herring habitat in Sitka Sound
On June 21st, Sitkans were treated to “Herring Without Borders,” a presentation by Desiree Lawson of the Heiltsuk Nation of British Columbia, Canada. Desiree works with Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air, & Water (RELAW), an initiative helping Indigenous people apply “their ancestral laws to contemporary environmental challenges.” She was hosted by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, with support from The Nature Conservancy’s Emerald Edge program, in order to cultivate an exchange between two tribal governments advocating for more ecologically and culturally responsible management of Pacific herring.
The exchange highlighted the similarities and differences between Sitka Tribe of Alaska and Heiltsuk Nation; their histories, cultures, ecologies, and perspectives on stewardship of natural resources. Like the Tlingit people of Sitka and Southeast Alaska, the Heiltsuk of the Central Coast of British Columbia have a deeply rooted connection to herring going back generations– at least 14,000 years. Heiltsuk Nation’s relationship with herring is grounded in Gvíļas, or Heiltsuk laws and values. A foundational principle of Gvíļas is a respect for all living things. For Desiree, it’s clear her people have relied on herring since the beginning: “We know that our main diet on [Triquet Island] for the first 4,000 years of occupation was herring.” But, since the advent of reduction fisheries in the 1800’s, there have been large shifts in herring abundance, population, and distribution along the Emerald Edge; according to traditional knowledge.
Many Indigenous groups, including Sitka Tribe of Alaska and Heiltsuk Nation, advocate for more conservative management of this ecological and cultural keystone species. The “Herring Without Borders” exchange allowed Sitka Tribe of Alaska and Heiltsuk Nation to share lessons learned during past herring conservation work, and to discuss future ideas.
Desiree’s presentation combined lessons from Heiltsuk stories to Canadian case law, mimicking what Heiltsuk Nation did when they advocated for better management of the herring sac roe fishery. The Heiltsuk story “Raven Obtains the Herring” is an example of how legal principles are found within oral histories. As Desiree pointed out, The Kiks.ádi “Herring Rock” story does the same.
The 1990 Sparrow Decision expanded Aboriginal rights in Canada, which later constitutionally protected “Heiltsuk exclusive rights to fish for herring spawn on kelp for commercial purposes,” in the 1996 Gladstone Case. Then, Heiltsuk oral testimony and Gvíļas principles became admissible in Canadian courts after the 1997 Delgamuukw decision. However, these gains were not easily won. The Gladstone Case was in court for ten years. “They lost twice in BC courts, and then went to the Supreme Court of Canada and won the rights.”
Using the foundations built by Sparrow, Gladstone, and Delgamuukw, Heiltsuk Nation successfully negotiated a ten-year moratorium on the sac roe fishery in late 2005. However, by 2014 herring controversy came to a head when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) opened the sac roe fishery before the end of the moratorium, without consulting Heiltsuk Nation. So, Heiltsuk Nation organized workshops for nonviolent protesting and protesters’ rights. When DFO neglected to send authorized representatives to negotiate, members of Heiltsuk Nation occupied the DFO office until appropriate negotiators arrived.
In 2015, after months of protesting, DFO elected to not open the sac roe herring fishery. They also agreed to a joint management plan with Heiltsuk Nation. When the two were unable to come to an management agreement for the 2018 commercial sac roe fishery, DFO elected to close the fishery. This marked the first time the Canadian government took Heiltsuk traditional knowledge into account when making management decisions.
Photo Credit: KCAW/Rachel Cassandra Desiree Lawson of Heiltsuk Nation and RELAW took part Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s “Herring Without Borders” exchange on June 21, 2018.
For Tammy Young, a Chookanshaa (Chookan’eidi woman) of Hoonah, the event was an important one. “Although there are borders between Canada and Alaska, those borders have been pretty fluid in terms of relationships. From time to time we don’t agree with what’s happening in Canada, and vice versa, but we’re all looking in the same direction. We’re making sure that these resources are still available for our grandchildren and those not yet born.” Tammy was encouraged by the cultural backing used in the Heiltsuk Nation’s case. She recognized that the case stands out because it allowed traditional stories and practices in court. “For Desiree and Heiltsuk Nation to come and share how they were able to move their government… it offers us encouragement and lights a path that we didn’t know existed until she came to tell us.”
After her talk, an audience member asked Desiree how Heiltsuk Nation reached consensus when determining proper course of action. Desiree’s response was, “We have our own set of laws that guide how we’re supposed to act. We understand that herring have the right to live and grow and reproduce in the ocean, and it’s our responsibility to uphold that law for the herring. Anything we needed to do to protect that right is what we did.”
Although the ultimate goal of Desiree’s Sitka trip was the “Herring Without Borders” exchange, she also spent time with Sitka’s community advocates. While boating through Sitka Sound with Elders, they discussed changes to herring abundance and distribution in Southeast Alaska. Several times during her trip Desiree remarked on how much Sitka looked like her home, reinforcing the similarities faced by Indigenous people all along the Pacific coast, regardless of borders. But, she noticed differences as well. She commented on the stark differences between Indigenous rights in British Columbia and in Alaska. A lot still needs to be done in respect to Indigenous rights in Alaska, but hopefully this cross-border exchange marks the beginning of greater herring conservation collaboration between Heiltsuk Nation and Sitka Tribe of Alaska.
Following her visit to Sitka, Desiree passed along this poem by her friend Caroline Humchitt of the Heiltsuk Nation, as inspiration for Sitkans and all other people working to protect and foster relationships of reciprocal care with all of the life around us for many generations to come:
My children, and all other children who have been into the pristine forests, Know what the future has in store for them.
The people who have never been there have never realized the importance of nature.
They have never seen a bear, or any other animal for that matter.
They have never witnessed the joy that the animals bring to the children while out in the wilderness.
Neither the children nor the forests have a voice. And both are dependent on others to take care of them.
Both are beautiful and deserve the right to be left alone to grow in their own beauty and identity.
It is no longer about what is yours and what is ours.
It is about what is living in the forest and how we can keep it safe.
Why do people always have to envision money in everything?
Lives are at stake here, and life is far more important than profit.
Is it possible to either make money elsewhere or live without money?
Ask my ancestors. They were wealthy and they did not own a cent.
* Caroline Humchitt, Land Use Plan Executive Summary 2007
Written by The Nature Conservancy, Sarah Dybdahl, and Tis Peterman
Focussing on youth leadership in Southeast Alaska, First Alaskans Institute assisted in facilitating our time together by creating a space for youth, community leaders, local and regional organizations to share and discuss opportunities to address the wants and needs of youth, their communities and the surrounding region with special emphasis on catalyzing leadership behaviour.
Youth and communities leaders (or organizational representatives) participated from the communities of Kake, Hoonah, Kasaan, Juneau, Yakutat, Wrangell and Klawock.
Organizations in Attendance:
- Alaska Crossing
- Discovery Southeast
- Forest Service – Tongas National Forest
- Goldbelt Heritage Foundation
- Hoonah City Schools
- Huna Heritage Foundation
- Organized Village of Kake
- Organized Village of Kasaan
- Sealaska Corporation
- Sitka Science Centre
- Southeast Regional Health Consortium, Kake
- Southeast Sustainable Partnership
- State of Alaska Community Economic Development
- Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards (SEAS)
- The Nature Conservancy
- Yakutat Tlingit Tribe
The first day of our time together we had the opportunity to have a series of catalyzing presentations. To start, the community of Kake outlined the years of work they’ve spent developing and creating their Annual Culture Camp. Another catalyzer presentation was provided by the Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards (SEAS) program based out of British Columbia. The intent of these catalyzer presentations was to educate participants of current programs that exist to provide leadership development opportunities and generate thoughts, ideas and conversations
What is important for our young people?
The adults and elders representing their communities and organizations discussed amongst ourselves questions including:
- What is important for our young people to know?
- What would we like to see in our youth?
- What could adults do to assist in the success of our youth?
Key takeaways included the need for more opportunities for youth to get outside, connect with elders and community members, and learn about their culture.
Developing Leadership Programs over the next 40+ years
The youth then had the opportunity to spend time together thinking about and sharing their ideas amongst themselves, lead by First Alaskans Institute’s guiding questions. The start of their conversation was looking ahead into the future forty years and discussing where they would like to see opportunities for leadership development.
Key takeaways included the desire to see more opportunities to learn about culture in school (tools, names, language), the preservation of traditional language and practices taught by elders and more consistent opportunities for cultural events like trips, native activities and dance group practices. These types of immersive learning opportunity allow the youth to connect with each other informally in the region.
How do we make that happen?
The youth were encouraged to share their ideas and thoughts on activities and actions that would need to take place to make their vision of 40 years from now come to reality.
Key takeaways included broadening the youth’s support system by allowing for time to visit elders and involve language instructors to assist in all aspects of culture. From learning stories, purpose and pronunciations to preparing foods and understanding the words of songs and practicing dance, learning their culture in context help the youth feel empowered and whole; confident in passing on their learnings to the next generations.
What is possible?
Participants were divided into groups to identify what methods of developing leadership programs resonated as most possible, with one youth leading the smaller group discussions. Providing the youth an opportunity to have a voice in what happens in the region ______
Key takeaways included regional cultural camps to bring youth together from their expanded regions (ex: British Columbia), providing structure to the educational experience by replacing existing SEAS curriculum to allow for more active engagement in school and time with elders (through the outdoors or specialized projects), and the creation of safe space/networks for students leaving community for post-secondary education.
Circle within a Circle – Adults working with Youth
A select group of adults who represented their communities or organizations were asked to sit in a circle with the remaining participants surrounding them on the outside. Those on the outside were to be active listeners while those in the middle shared their thoughts and ideas. Those sharing imparted many barriers both personally and professionally, along with reasons they are dedicated the youth leadership in their communities.
Key takeaways included an appreciation and sense of pride towards the youth that have stepped up into leadership roles to help the community and strengthen traditions and language. By providing the opportunities for the youth to work with elders to bridge the gap of knowledge from the past trauma, helps them appreciate things happening in the community – the more communities are connected, the better. Listen – Learn – Do.
Reflections of Leadership Development Lists
Participants were asked to take some time to review all the thoughts and ideas captured regarding youth leadership. Below are thoughts shared after having time to absorb and process what had been shared collectively up to this given point.
Key takeaways included more programs in school and jobs in the community with an emphasis on sharing among tribes, mentorship/apprenticeship opportunities to bring elders and youth together, diversification and support for the leadership in the community and motivating the youth by recognizing their achievements within the community.
How can we move forward?
The last activity of our two days together was to share what each participant could do now to ensure the thoughts and ideas would become a reality. What would each of us commit to within our communities and organizations, both personally and professionally.
Key takeaways included opportunities for youth to connect with each other informally at culture camps or other events in the region by creating events for them to connect with each other, opportunities for youth to have a voice in what happens in the region and more consistent opportunities for youth to get outside, connecting with elders and community members, and learn about their culture (year-round). The collective group continually returned to cultural connection as the heart of what they wanted to focus on. Getting youth outdoors, involved in science, or on career development paths wasn’t enough – this must always be integrated into the idea of cultural connection as a whole.
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 by Sienna Reid for Capital City Weekly
As a lifelong Sitkan I have grown close to our coastal rainforest. As I head off to my first year of college this fall, I know I will miss this place. However, I can’t help but wonder — how much will it change?
Having just graduated from Mt. Edgecumbe High School, a boarding school that serves students across Alaska, I have heard many stories of successful hunts and summers spent at fish camp, but I also hear stories of quickly changing ecosystems. Every community in Southeast Alaska depends on natural resources in some way. Whether it’s harvesting wild foods or building homes out of local wood, our people depend on the land. In order to maintain our unique way of life, it is important that rural Alaskans have opportunities to pursue meaningful careers that promote sustainable living and wise management of these resources.
Today, many Southeast Alaskan communities are home to a variety of youth workforce development programs. These programs help prepare the next generation of Alaska’s scientists, field crews, and resource managers with the experiences, drive, and skills to pursue careers in their backyards, whether on the water or in the woods. This summer I visited three of these programs — in Sitka, Klawock, and Kake — to get an inside perspective on the impact they are having on our region.
Ocean Acidification Mentorship
On a drizzly Sunday morning I hopped in the car with three girls and a tote full of water sampling equipment. We made our way from the Sitka Sound Science Center to the sampling site, walked down a slippery dock, and got to work.
The team used a niskin bottle to collect water samples at five feet, both from the surface and at the ocean floor since acidity can vary throughout different depths. After transferring the water into a tinted bottle to lessen light exposure, the water temperature was recorded and mercury was added to poison the sample. Mercury kills all of the living organisms in the water to preserve the exact conditions at the time of collection; for example, it would stop processes like photosynthesis which could potentially alter the results of the test.
Through this mentorship program with the Sitka Sound Science Center, Lily Hood, Muriel Reid, Gabrielle Barber and I had been testing Sitka’s waters to get baseline information on the acidity of our ocean. High acidity poses a threat to the marine food chain, putting our fisheries at risk. Later this fall, the team will process their samples, interview local fishermen, and present their findings at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium.
Muriel Reid, 16, appreciated the chance to learn through fieldwork this summer.
“In classrooms…whenever you’re confused the teacher is right there to help you, and so it’s a good thing for a learning environment, but it’s not necessarily good for jobs — learning how to be good in a job,” Reid said.
She said her favorite day was learning about calcium carbonate chemistry with mentors Lauren Bell and Esther Kennedy.
“That really shined (a) light on a lot of things that people don’t touch on in regular schools,” she said. “It’s definitely important to have connections to scientists in your area so that you can learn more easily, and not just be confused by a bunch of numbers on a page.”
By speaking with the participants, it was made clear that programs that get kids out of the classroom and into the field make the lessons learned in school more tangible. When science is applied, carbon chemistry is no longer a question on a test, it is a challenge that may affect the fisheries that feed our families. The opportunities this mentorship provides make science more relevant to the next generation of homegrown Alaska scientists.
Training Rural Alaskan Youth Leaders & Students
South of Sitka by 134 miles, I had the privilege of meeting a team of seven young Alaskans who were spending their summer in Klawock learning to work outdoors in the challenging conditions of the temperate rainforest. These hardworking teens and young adults were part of the Training Rural Alaskan Youth Leaders & Students (TRAYLS) program.
Founded to help youth learn workforce skills, many partners were involved in making TRAYLS a success. Bob Girt, environmental compliance and liaison specialist with Sealaska Timber Company, as well as one of the founders of TRAYLS, considers partners as those who donated resources, offered access to land for work, or in some way “provided major thrust for the program.”
Those partners include native organizations such as the Bureau of Indian affairs, Native American Fish & Wildlife Society, Organized Village of Kasaan, Sealaska Corporation, Sealaska Timber Company, LLC, Klawock Cooperative Association, Organized Village of Kake, and Kake Tribal Corporation; as well as other groups such as the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, The Nature Conservancy, USFS Ranger Districts Petersburg & Prince of Wales Is., State of Alaska – Division of Economic Development, City of Thorne Bay, and the City of Hydaburg.
This year marked the launch of the pilot program, one that partners and participants hope will continue for years into the future. The five crew members, aged 16-22, and their two crew leaders whisked me up a mountain to show off their hard work on the newly revitalized One Duke Trail. They pointed out the work they had done along the way.
“We want it to be friendly to everyone that wants to go on the trail,” explained crew leader, Talia Davis, 19, from Kake.
Although they were proud of the work they had done, Davis admitted that the labor was difficult in the beginning.
“You’re working in the mud in Southeast weather and you’re just questioning it all. But you know, if you make it through the first couple weeks it’s really rewarding… I’ve definitely decided that I want to work outdoors after this summer.”
The entire crew agreed that working outdoors was important to them. Crew member Yahaaira Ponce, 17, from Klawock, commented that TRAYLS had changed the way she saw her future.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted, going into college, to study something to do (with) outdoors or not, because I was kind of in-between. But after this, I think I’m definitely looking to a career outdoors.”
This was exactly what Girt hoped the students would gain from the experience. Getting the young participants involved and excited about the work can have long lasting benefits for the towns they live in, explained Girt.
“I think it’s important that communities stay resilient, and the way they stay resilient, one of the ways is, they keep talented people that have some passion and ambition, and those people don’t go away and live in some other state or some other country,” Girt said. “They might go away for a while to get their training and get their skills, but they eventually will come back and…help their communities.”
Resilient communities need sustainable resources and a local workforce to manage those resources. But pursuing a career outdoors in Southeast Alaska can be daunting and folks are often unsure whether they would actually enjoy being out in the elements all day. As Girt and the students explained to me throughout the visit, programs like TRAYLS provide students a unique opportunity to try out these professions, all while gaining experience and valuable life skills that will benefit them no matter what career path they go down.
Sea Otter Research
Sonia Ibarra is a Ph.D. student originally from California, but has been living in Alaska for the past five years. Through the University of Alaska Fairbanks, she has been working in the rural villages of Southeast to study the effects of sea otter predation on shellfish. I visited Kake on a low-tide week so I could follow Ibarra and her three field assistants, who were recruited from rural Southeast villages, through the data collection process.
At 4:30 a.m. the first morning, we headed to the harbor with buckets and yawns. From the boat we scouted out a good sample location. Moving quickly down the zero tideline, quadrats were laid out, holes were dug, and clams were sifted into buckets. When we returned to Ibarra’s house it was time to sort and measure the clams and shells. It took a lot of work, but it also made great field experience.
Sarah Peele, 19, from Hydaburg, said the chance to get real-world research experience got her interested in this job.
“Working with Sonia, she’s showing me how to pair traditional knowledge with science,” she said.
I noticed the emphasis put on this idea while I was in Kake. In the living room of Ibarra’s house, where the floor was covered with medicinal plants laid out to dry, Ibarra explained how she had been criticized on her work; people had told her that speaking with locals wasn’t ‘real science.’ However, not only has she been gathering different perspectives, she has been backing them up with data collection.
“A lot of research in rural communities, and specifically native communities, you have a researcher come in, get their data, and leave,” Ibarra said. “And to me it’s very disrespectful to live life that way, or to do research that way.….I do research together with people in the community.”
By hiring these students from rural Southeast, she is keeping the work local and inspiring them as well. Shawaan Jackson-Gamble, 19 from Kake, has been working with Ibarra for the past three years.
“I wasn’t really looking for a biology job,” he said, “but it opened my eyes a little more, and by my next year working with her it’s what I wanted to do.”
With his family roots in Kake and growing up with a traditional lifestyle, he hopes to return to Southeast after college to work for his tribe with a focus on subsistence. Programs like Ibarra’s are encouraging local students like Jackson-Gamble to see how science can be a tool in answering questions that are important to their culture, families, and communities.
After a summer spent traveling around Southeast Alaska, I was reminded of how fortunate we are to live surrounded by natural resources. I also discovered the significance of this human resource; young, eager learners who are preparing themselves to take on the challenges of managing these lands and waters. These programs require time, money, and the dedication of everyone involved. However, the opinions of the young participants indicates the work is well worth the effort. Youth workforce development programs like the ones I visited this year are more than just a summer job. They are an investment for the future of Southeast Alaska.
Written and published with Edible Alaska Magazine
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.