Written for Alaska’s Capital City Weekly & Juneau Empire
Public lands surround Southeast Alaskans. The 17 million acre Tongass National Forest is where residents go to hike, camp, fish, and gather food to nourish their families and wood to warm their homes. It’s where kids hunt their first buck and where friends gossip while munching on succulent salmon berries.
There are other integral values that Southeast Alaskans derive from public lands too: economic values. Tourists flock to soak in vast untrammeled Alaskan views and the majority of salmon begin their lives in streams among the trees. There is untapped economic opportunity as well and in Sitka, the United States Forest Service (USFS) and local entrepreneurs are exploring options for cultivating small businesses using resources on public lands.
Salvaging a business on the Tongass
Zach LaPerriere grew up in Ketchikan but has since built his home and raised his family in Sitka. He’s always gravitated toward the woods.
“From boat building to construction, woodworking has always paid the bills for me,” LaPerriere said.
He runs a business out of his humble one-room home nestled in the forest. In his open studio overlooking Silver Bay, he turns bowls from dead trees that he salvages from the Tongass National Forest.
“Making bowls satisfied something in me because I was involved at every single step in the process from selecting and harvesting the raw material in the forest right to handing a customer a finished bowl. That really attracted me,” LaPerriere said.
“Making bowls satisfied something in me because I was involved at every single step in the process from selecting and harvesting the raw material in the forest right to handing a customer a finished bowl. That really attracted me,” LaPerriere said.
He’s building his business from the ground up, literally. Wandering through the temperate rainforest, LaPerriere seeks out ideal dead trees, applies for the necessary permits, turns the bowls on his lathe, grows his business and hones his technique as he goes. His family partakes in the process and his wife Jenn Lawlor supports with marketing.
“Local woods are harder to turn and they take more skill but we live a deliberate life here where we try to live as local as we can and stay connected to this vast place. We don’t buy meat, we don’t buy fish; it all comes from the forest and ocean here,” he said.
LaPerriere is also deliberate about his choice to salvage wood on public lands.
“Public lands are getting used here and are providing jobs in huge ways with tourism and fishing for example but there is tremendous untapped potential and that is part of the reason I pursued getting wood off of public land versus private. I really felt like why not be an example for what can be done here,” LaPerriere said. “I’m not getting rich off of a new business making bowls but it is something and it is contributing to my family’s livelihood and it’s growing. It takes a few people to show what change can be done on the Tongass.”
And his customers love it too. “It’s a way for me to show people, like this gentleman in Ohio who just bought a couple of my bowls for example, his public lands. That wood came from his forest and that’s amazing. Even if he never comes to Alaska, he is going to have a little piece of a tree on the Tongass that he and more than 300 million other Americans share,” he said. “It’s meaningful.”
Spruce tips, mushrooms, berries and more
LaPerriere isn’t the only individual hoping to catalyze small business exploration on public lands. The Sitka Ranger District (SRD) is making headway in the region.
“Right now, we have the first special forest product permit issued on the Tongass ever to my knowledge and it was for 150 pounds of spruce tips this year,” SRD District Ranger Perry Edwards said.
Special forest product permits are issued for the commercial use of forest resources like berries, spruce tips and mushrooms. This particular permit is being used to explore selling spruce tips to home beer brewers across online markets.
Harvesting resources like spruce tips and berries requires a public review process. The Forest Service adheres to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process to ensure that commercial activity on public lands does not harm the environment and is done so sustainably, responsibly and in the best interest of the many stakeholders who share rights to these forest resources.
“We have NEPA — cleared up to 10,000 pounds of spruce tips from the Sitka Ranger District. We worked with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, community members, and our silviculturist and biologists to look at every possible angle to ensure proper management. There are caveats on where you can collect them and how. You can’t collect them from trees of a certain height for instance and you need to tell us where you are getting them from so that we can monitor use and learn about the impacts,” Edwards said.
Since SRD has now received NEPA clearance for up to 10,000 pounds of spruce tips to start, interested individuals can apply for commercial spruce tip picking permits in the district without having to go through the entire public review process from the beginning.
“I’d just love to get the NEPA done for more of these forest resources. Down south there are a lot of entire forests that have a special forest product plan in place for the whole forest,” Edwards said. “For example, on the forests that have big fires, whole tent-towns spring up to harvest morel mushrooms and they make hundreds of thousands of dollars doing that,” Edwards said.
“We might not have the mushroom thing in that quantity but jeez, I look outside and I see spruce tips and I see blueberries and I don’t know how we could ever pick out the blueberry crop,” Edwards said.
The permit process looks different depending on the request, the size of the harvest, the type of resource, the location etc. For example, LaPerriere’s permits for salvaging dead trees was processed as a timber permit and did not require a public review process in part due to the quantity and nature of his request (only a handful of dead trees a year). The recent spruce tip forest product permit for 150 pounds in Sitka did not need to go through public review because the SRD had already NEPA cleared 10,000 pounds.
There is opportunity to be creative. Groups of harvesters could combine efforts and apply for a permit to pick berries to sell wholesale, for example. Edwards explained that tribal governments or organizations could even apply for permits to pick, say 10,000 pounds of blueberries and administer smaller permits among tribal and non-tribal citizens. The most efficient and appropriate required permit and process will differ based on the resource you seek and your plan but the USFS is more than just receptive to the idea, they are encouraging, excited to work with more Alaskans to develop business plans based on public lands.
“I would love to see more of these and see more people come in. Like with Zach’s stuff, I never would have thought of that business in a million years. I keep going to my typical berries and chanterelle mushroom examples but spruce tips too,” Edwards said. “I never would have thought of that.”
If you are interested, develop a business plan and start crunching some numbers.
“Come to us early on and say ‘Hey I have this idea, how can we make this happen.’ Don’t come to us and say, ‘Hey, I need this and this needs to happen tomorrow or this month,” Edwards said. “Depending on the proposal it could take 5-6 months maybe less, maybe more.”
The cost for the permit is determined by the resource, the amount, whether you intend to sell wholesale or retail. It’s all determined case by case. If you have an idea, Edwards recommends you call your local Forest Service office and start the conversation and begin to research.
“We would be happy to work with you. We are absolutely open to it. I love the idea of people coming to me with new ideas, I’m waiting. I’m here with the government and I’m waiting to help,” Edwards said.
A country founded on small business
Back at the lathe, LaPerriere is busy churning out between 150-200 wooden bowls a year and he’s seeing growth and encouraging others to explore their own ideas.
“If anyone is interested in this, fire it up, try it out. If you like making jam, try making a bigger batch, talk to the Forest Service about harvesting off public lands. Start small and scale up,” LaPerriere advised.
“The Forest Service has gone from adversarial to small businesses to wide open arms. I could not ask for a more encouraging agency to help make the process as simple as possible. They see the value in small industry because our country was founded on small business! Some things come and some things go but small business will always be here,” LaPerriere said.
Written and photographed by Bethany Goodrich for Alaska’s Capital City Weekly
Katlian Street in Sitka is a bustling cultural and fishing hub. Along this winding harbor-side road, tightly squeezed between fishing gear shops, processing plants, and docks crowded with scavenging gulls, is the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s (STA) Resource Protection Department building.
While the building’s salt-worn front doors look unassuming, behind its modest exterior is a state of the art laboratory dedicated to harmful algae bloom monitoring and shellfish research. This year, the lab will add ocean acidification monitoring to its impressive coastal monitoring toolkit.
The Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research partnership (SEATOR) was formed by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska in 2013 as a network of tribal governments, universities, and nonprofits to monitor harmful algae blooms in the state.
“Alaska is the only state where people still die of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning,” explained Chris Whitehead who is the Environmental Program Manager at STA. “Alaska was the only state that didn’t have a monitoring program in place and we have such huge levels of toxins so it was very disconcerting.”
Before heading to Sitka to work with STA, Whitehead spent years working in Washington with tribes and researchers monitoring shellfish populations for toxins. So, when a group of community members and local elders inquired about setting up harmful algae testing in Sitka, Whitehead stepped in.
“It was just good timing. There was a need, and I was able to bring up experts I had met in Washington to help set something up locally. Then we went to work writing grants and securing funding,” Whitehead said.
Today, the lab monitors plankton samples under the microscope, tests for harmful toxins and sends out warnings when toxin levels are too high for safe foraging.
“We want to be as proactive as possible to catch a toxic event before anyone gets sick. That means every week, we collect plankton and water samples to make sure there are no active harmful blooms. In addition, we collect blue mussel samples every one to two weeks since they are the first species to pick up toxins and are not widely consumed. If we see any indication that toxins or harmful plankton are rising, we preemptively issue a community advisory, increase our sampling frequency, and start testing all shellfish species,” said Esther Kennedy.
Kennedy was born and bred in Alaska. She returned after receiving a BA in Earth and Planetary Sciences from Harvard University to work with Sitka Tribe and can often be found pulling plankton nets through Sitka’s shoreline.
Of course, Sitka is not the only community where avid shellfish harvesters punch rusty shovels into sand and grit in pursuit of delicious bivalves. Fifteen other tribes in Southeast Alaska also employ specialists who peer through microscopes for dangerous plankton and send water samples to STA for toxin tests every week.
Carrie Davis fills this role for the Organized Village of Kake. She shares updated information about shellfish safety for this community of 600.
That information has given Kake resident John Williams Sr. greater confidence when harvesting this important cultural resource. Williams, 65, has been setting out by boat or by foot to dig for clams and picnic with loved ones for as long as he can remember.
“I’m always talking to Carrie and she posts it on the community board there, to show us where it’s safe and it’s useful because we know where to go and where to stay away from,” said Williams who can now share his chowder and cockles with less worry.
Climate change’s under-recognized twin: ocean acidification
Since the lab began monitoring efforts in 2013, nobody has become ill or died from Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning on any of the studied beaches. Success, one might say, has spread like a sunlit plankton bloom.
“When it first started, it was just six to eight tribes and now it’s 15 tribes in Southeast, four sites in Kachemak Bay and a handful of tribes in Kodiak that are starting up,” Whitehead said.
And the network isn’t just growing geographically.
“When this all started, the tribes hadn’t worked together in this capacity regionally before. Once this began, it really opened the door for the tribes to ask, ‘What else do we have common concerns about, what else can we work together on?’ and climate change was at the very very top,” Whitehead said.
That comes as no surprise. Alaska is warming faster than any other state.
“Ocean acidification, global warming’s under-recognized twin, is also affecting Alaskan waters faster than any other state,” said Kennedy.
“As carbon dioxide dissolves into the ocean, it becomes more acidic. It’s a global problem, but colder Arctic waters absorb more CO2 so it’s hitting us especially hard. Acidification makes it difficult or impossible for creatures like shellfish, crustaceans, and pteropods to make shells. This is bad news because it decimates the foundation of the marine food web,” Kennedy said. “We depend on the sea for everything in Southeast Alaska. It’s hard to imagine that we will be unaffected by ocean acidification.”
So the SEATOR team went to work figuring out how to tackle a challenge as far-reaching and daunting as ocean acidification. That’s where the “Burke-o-Lator,” a scientific instrument which Chris Whitehead called the global standard for measuring ocean acidification, comes in. Burke Hales, the scientist who created it, will be headed to the Sitka lab in mid-May to help install this new addition. He’s excited for what this data set and network will mean for ocean acidification research globally. With more than fifteen tribal governments across the region contributing to the monitoring efforts, SEATOR will paint a representative image of how ocean acidification is impacting a large geographic area.
Chris Whitehead and the entire SEATOR network are excited for what the data set will also mean locally.
“There is not a lot of ocean acidification work being done in the Southeast,” Whitehead said.
“We will have a good data set in Sitka and these other communities across the Southeast will submit their samples and it will all contribute to a robust local picture. And here, we have 15 tribes working together to provide this big data set and not a lot of people are doing that nationally.”
Geoducks and upcoming scientists
Climate Change monitoring is not the only new addition to SEATOR. The lab is working on getting FDA approval to administer PSP testing to Southeast Alaska’s commercial dive fisheries. For geoduck fishermen, this will mean more streamlined and local testing opportunities and a longer harvesting window.
The lab is also dedicated to building capacity among Southeast Alaska’s upcoming scientific leaders. On Thursdays this spring, several Mount Edgecumbe High School students filed into the lab, donned authoritative white lab coats, pulled mussel cages, homogenized tissue, ran genetic testing, peered through microscopes, and analyzed results. They were part of an internship program aimed at preparing the next generation of scientists for meaningful careers in applied research. Sienna Reid, who is both one of those students as well as a member of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, is heading to Western Washington University this fall to pursue a degree in science.
Energy is building for these programs, and not just among the tribal governments who are actively participating.
“Senator Lisa Murkowski, Sullivan and Don Young too have all been very supportive of ocean acidification work. It’s a bipartisan issue, regardless of your views on climate change, it is clear that the oceans are acidifying and that is going to affect Alaska’s fisheries, so when we have spoken to those offices they have been really excited about doing this work,” said Whitehead.
Of course, like all grant-funded efforts, there is uncertainty.
‘“We are in the same boat as everyone else, waiting to see what happens for Fiscal Year 2018. EPA dollars are the backbone for this. We have other funding in Sitka but the tribes across the region who are doing the consistent weekly work are almost 100 percent funded by EPA dollars,” said Whitehead. “So we are hoping that these programs don’t get targeted.”
SEATOR started as an idea four years ago. Today, it’s helping to not only provide safe access to an important subsistence resource, but is also leading the way in ocean acidification research. All the while, this humble beach-side laboratory is providing opportunities and building capacity for the future stewards of Alaska’s coastal health. In a state that depends on coastal resources for everything, that is certainly something to celebrate with a community clam-dig.
Visit http://www.seator.org/ for more
Written by Chandler O’Connell
In Sitka, Alaska a favorite coffee shop among locals called the Backdoor Café did a little renovating this season. Alana Peterson, who is both the owner of the Backdoor Cafe and the program director of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership installed brand new benches using locally sourced red alder wood. By sourcing local, Peterson supported local businesses, kept more money in the region, and showcased environmentally sustainable timber. The Backdoor Cafe is also modeling what a market for young-growth products looks like in Southeast Alaska, as the Forest Service moves to shift focus from old growth to young growth timber harvests.
The Tongass Transition, announced by the Department of Agriculture in 2011, is meant to bring an end to unsustainable old-growth logging and implement a more holistic management plan that focuses on young-growth trees that grow after clear-cuts, as well as integrating and valuing non-timber forest outputs. The Tongass Transition will ensure that the remaining old growth forests on the Tongass stay standing to provide wildlife habitat, sequester carbon, support subsistence lifestyles and recreation, and produce prodigious quantities of salmon. The transition also provides opportunities to develop new timber products.
Click through the posters that the Sitka Conservation Society created to hang in the Backdoor Cafe along with a local youth wood arts project to inform customers about the significance of these new benches.
“Mills and entrepreneurs have successfully experimented with young growth forest products over the last few years since the transition was announced,” said Beth Pendleton, Regional Forester, Alaska Region-Forest Service. “They have found that there are applications for young growth wood products from the Tongass and that local utilization and manufacturing can be part of our regional economy. Red Alder is one of the Tongass Young Growth products that has a lot of potential for value-added applications,” she added.
The Backdoor Café worked with Icy Straits Lumber & Milling out of Hoonah, Alaska to source their red alder. Icy Straits is part of a cohort of local mills, including Tenakee Logging Company, TM Construction and Good Faith Lumber that offer a diverse range of second growth products. Local businesses and individuals planning their next construction project should check out these sourcing options – they may be surprised by the high quality and competitive pricing that is available right here at home. And they’ll enjoy the added benefit of knowing that by buying local they’ve kept more money circulating in the Southeast economy.
From Forest to Café: Art Display Inspired by Second Growth Benches
The red alder benches served as inspiration for a storytelling and art display currently showing at the Backdoor Café. The display, a project of the Sitka Conservation Society and the Alaskan Way of Life 4H Club, highlights the benefits of choosing local young growth products, and tracks the benches from forest to café, sharing stakeholder reflections at each step: management, harvest, construction and purchase. The 4H students contributed relief prints made from “cookie” cross sections of fallen trees and short stories on life as a tree on the Tongass.
Written for Alaska’s Capital City Weekly
Over the last few months, people and organizations across the state hosted community events in support of the Standing Rock Reservation. In Sitka, locals in November hosted the ‘Sitka Stands with Standing Rock’ solidarity event, welcoming more than one hundred and fifty people to Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi community house. Indigenous leaders spoke in support of those at Standing Rock; local artists offered art and gifts for a fundraising auction, and the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Dancers moved participants with songs and dances set to the pulse of a powerful box drum. Organizers collected more than two hundred letters that asked state and federal politicians to oppose the militarized efforts of North Dakota police. They also gathered more than 30 jars of wild foods to feed the water protectors in Standing Rock. Donors also wrote cards explaining the origins, process and significance of their locally harvested foods.
These donations reflect a unique bond between Southeast Alaskans and the Standing Rock Reservation — a deeply personal and powerful relationship to the land. In total, the event raised more than $5,000 for Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council and Water Protector Legal Collective.
In North Dakota the first week of December, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it will not support the existing building plans for the final leg of the Dakota Access Pipeline. While water protectors in Standing Rock celebrate this initial victory, the conversation erupting across the nation may change, but is not over. In Alaska, the discussion of human rights, environmental justice and indigenous sovereignty is particularly close to home. As such, the story unfolding in the Great Plains moved many Alaskans to either travel to North Dakota or to take local action.
Lakota Harden helped organize the event and additional gatherings of prayer and solidarity held during the past several months for the Standing Rock Reservation. She grew up between her homeland of South Dakota and the island community of Sitka. Her family has been in Oceti Sakowin Camp since its beginning, and she traveled to join them in September and October.
“People won’t acknowledge or accept the ongoing injustice and it’s a genocidal form of racism. It’s difficult to face the atrocities of how this country was stolen here, to look at our own dirt, our own laundry, our own backyard and say, ‘How is it here?’ That was one of the first things we decided with this event, was that we need to acknowledge these difficult topics,” says Harden.
Louise Brady and Dionne Brady-Howard of the Kiks.adi Clan of the Tlingit nation pointed the conversation locally. They opened with a familiar string of words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Brady-Howard said, quoting the Declaration of Independence before pausing. “Those are great words but, that is just what they are. They are only words on paper. It has taken an awful lot of work to make those words a little more of a reality for more than just the white landholding man that they originally applied to in our nation’s founding. It took constitutional amendments, it took marches, sit-ins and Supreme Court decisions. It required people’s hard work, and that is what democracy is. It is hard work.”
That hard work is not over. Louise Brady pointed to the harbor-front property on which participants stood, reminding the audience that Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi rests on land taken from the Kiks.adi people. As recently as the 1970s the Kiks.adi Tlingit had to fight hard legal battles for the tiny parcel of land where the community house was erected to be returned to Sitka Tribe, rather than allowing a shift in land ownership from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the City of Sitka. During the Alaska Day parade in Sitka this year [http://www.kcaw.org/2016/10/26/alaska-day-dilemma-celebrating-history-without-colonialism/ ], local discussions of the repercussions of colonialism resurfaced when a sign held by Paulette Moreno thanking Sheet’la Kwaan for their care of Tlingit land was received by an organizer as a threat. At the Standing Rock event, participants acknowledged and supported those working in sub-zero temperatures to protect sacred spaces in North Dakota, while reminding us we must also make changes and look locally.
So what’s next? While those in Standing Rock celebrate the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision with concern for what the incoming Trump administration may mean for their efforts, what can people do locally?
According to Harden, the first step is having a conversation. “There’s people all over the country now who are thinking about this and we need to talk about it. It’s time. And, things are never going to go right if you don’t acknowledge what you’ve done wrong, you are never going to be in balance.”
Organizers stressed that having difficult conversations about land sovereignty, racism, environmental justice and a long history of local colonialism must not lead to division.
“This is a time to come together. This is a time for open dialogue. This is a time for healing,” said Louise Brady.
Written and photographed by Bethany Goodrich
Indigenous leaders from across our planet united in O’ahu this September. Foreheads together, they shared a breath during an opening ceremony for the E Alu Pu Gathering. E Alu Pu translates in Hawaiian to Move Forward together and this gathering was hosted by Kua Hawaii prior to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Conservation Congress to do just that. This intimate traditional Hawaiian greeting called ‘Honi’, helped introduce over 150 people from around the world together at this pre-gathering.
I traveled south to participate in both the E Alu Pu Gathering and IUCN World Conservation Congress as a representative of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership and Sitka Conservation Society. The World Conservation Congress is an IUCN event held every four years to bring together leaders from around the globe to map a course forward for our peoples and planet. I joined a delegation of indigenous leaders and environmental advocates from Alaska, British Columbia and Washington. This cross-boundary collaboration was funded by the Nature Conservancy’s Emerald Edge program.
The north shore of O’ahu shares many similarities with the rural island communities where we work across Southeast Alaska. The cultures, the languages, the faces and customs differ of course, but the thick ties to land and ocean are common. We fill our bellies with food pulled from the sea and gather nutrition from the forest. We live vibrant lives connected to the health of our coastline in everyday ways. Sadly, this lifestyle and way of being in intimate balance with the seasons of a local landscape is disappearing across the globe. It has not been completely eradicated though and this gathering brought together people from Papua New Guinea and Malawi to Alaska and Molokai, who share environmentally grounded lifestyles and rich cultural histories.
For days, the group talked climate and how changing seasons are shaking century-old traditions off kilter. We shared fears. The first US school to be swallowed by the impacts of climate change happened last month in Northern Alaska. Uncle Leimana from Molokai expressed his concerns for poached mollusks on his coastline. Deli from Vanuatu explained the exhaustion of her work and the apathy of her country’s youth. We share successes. A woman from Rappeneau (Easter Island) announced that soon, her people will have full management of their traditional lands returned to them. Obama designated the largest marine protected area on earth during the week leading up to the conference: the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Many participants share chants and songs passed on from ancestors, parents, and tribes. We learn the process of traditional Hawaiian home building using knots, rope and branches and are taught about local resource management. We help in the restoration of fish ponds, a customary Hawaiian fishing practice, by heaving stones and building fish rearing structures.
During the E Alu Pu gathering and over the course of four days, the group built a multinational community founded on living in balance with island earth. We left feeling humbled, motivated, and inspired by our international neighbors and were prepared to attend the IUCN World Conservation Congress with restored strength and momentum.
The IUCN World Conservation Congress
The Conservation Congress in Honolulu brought together more than 9,000 people from 190 different nations. Politicians, entrepreneurs, environmental advocates, scientists, and indigenous leaders shared inspiration and grounded examples of success and challenges alongside E.O. Wilson, Sylvia Earle, Jane Goodall. The 2 week event culminated in the ‘Hawaiian Commitments’, a series of international agreements that help guide the way we as individuals, communities, private institutions, public institutions and nations prioritize sustainability efforts moving forward.
The Congress’s theme this year was ‘Planet at the Crossroads’ in recognition of the harsh decisions that need to be made if we hope to prosper as a civilization on a finite planet in the long term. The commitments stressed seven key areas. Many of which have direct relevancy to our work in Southeast Alaska. To read the commitments please check out the link here.
Key Take Homes for the Southeast
Overall, a key take-home from the conference and gathering was the power of local grassroots community organizations and indigenous leadership in charting a sustainable path forward for our planet. Rooted to local rural communities, our SSP partners are on the frontline of environmental challenges and can therefore adapt and respond in ways that national and international institutions cannot. Localized resource management, community visioning, land-use planning, energy efficiency measures and sustainable subsistence practices are all examples of community actions that can positively impact our world and climate.
Thanks to the work of so many dedicated partners, there are plenty of success stories to call upon in these areas. Southeast Alaska is a region rich with opportunity in ways not present in many other places across the globe. We boast large expanses of intact ecosystems, natural resources, renewable energy options, a vibrant and hardy culture and resourceful residents. In Hoonah, the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership is integrating traditional knowledge and employing a local work crew to study, monitor and direct the management of the local landscape. Hydaburg Cooperative Association, the tribe in the largest Haida community in Alaska, monitors and records important anadromous stream habitat to direct local development in a way that protects and prioritizes salmon. The Sitka Tribe is integrating subsistence practices and western science to manage shellfish harvesting, understand PSP and encourage healthy safe gathering. The Sitka Conservation Society and Nature Conservancy are working to help transition regional timber management to a sustainable industry that maximizes benefits to our communities and ecosystems in the long-term.
Of course, there is plenty of untapped opportunity too. In our neighbor across the border, British Columbia, all First Nation communities boast Marine Plans that outline local resource management activities. The Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards Program (SEAS) in British Columbia, exposes youth to traditional resource stewardship at an early age by integrating stewardship activities directly into classroom curricula. The IUCN Congress also examined looming threats to natural resources. The United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work group expressed concerns about mineral mines in Canada threatening Southeast Alaska’s salmon stocks. To be sustainable in the long-term, our communities need to become more self-sufficient. We need to localize our energy and food systems and support diverse and robust economies. There is still work to be done.
The IUCN World Conservation Congress and the E Alu Pu Gathering helped chart a path forward for our planet. Of course, there are many uncertainties with that path but it’s a solid start. When thinking about that path I keep thinking back to the Hawaiian greeting that began my trip. Foreheads together, we must approach one another as partners with eyes open, acknowledging the work to be done. We must face our challenges together, step outside our comfort zone and acknowledge the work head-on. We share this planet, and by building lasting relationships and by pausing to take a breath together, we can move forward in solidarity toward a more prosperous and sustainable way of life.
Written and photographed by Bethany Goodrich for the Salmon Project
In a large, old, wooden building on the waterfront at Sitka Sound Science Center, a group of women gathers around a central table. A spotlight leans over their shoulders, lending light to a delicate creative process. Dressed in bright pink, Audrey Armstrong strains her eyes and carefully aligns mind, material and dexterity as she pierces a tiny needle through glittering scales.
Audrey, who is Athabaskan, is teaching a new generation of creatives the ancient technique of fish skin sewing. She has been sharing her skills and knowledge for over a decade, and this is her fifth summer teaching this particular course in Sitka— after four at Sheldon Jackson Museum this is her first year at the Sitka Arts & Science Festival.
As Audrey tells it, almost any Alaskan fish skin can be used for this craft, but she favors salmon. Salmon is the fish that sustains her family and culture, and it was a silver salmon that inspired her, 15 years ago, to learn this utilitarian art form.
“It was cloudy on the stream in early September, and I caught my first one for the day. It was all soft and gushy so I let it go. Then I caught my second one and the sun was starting to come out and it just shined on the salmon, and all these gorgeous purples, pinks, and dark colors were revealed and I just fell in love.”
This late Coho run inspired Audrey’s interest in fish-skin sewing. “I said, ‘Wow, I know my ancestors such a long, long time ago probably used fish skin,’ but there was nothing written on it.”
She got to work and started researching. She went to the Smithsonian in Anchorage with others interested in skin sewing and found that while the Yupik were more prolific in their technique, the Athabaskan also made use of fish skin. “The only Athabaskan things I saw were made in 1849: a pair of gloves and a little purse made out of fish skin from our region.” Audrey expanded her research and studied different techniques. “Then I just started experimenting with it and doing different things and that’s how I started, trial and error.”
In 2009, Audrey took her interest to the next level. In Kasitna Bay, Audrey and a group of 13 attended Fran Reed’s first and only class. Reed was a prolific skin-sewer famous for her revitalization efforts in the field as well as for her baskets that include seal gut, salmon skins, fins, ferns and more.
“She had terminal cancer and she was very adamant that this continued. I took her first class and it was her last class even though she had been studying it for 25 years,” says Armstrong.
“When she was teaching us she was very ill, so we would set up a big chair for her and we called it ‘the queens chair’. She would sit and talk to us and we would bring things up to her and she would tell us what to do next. Kind of like what I’m doing right now in this class,” laughs Armstrong as she turns to offer advice and to tie beads onto one of her student’s pieces.
“In that same year, Fran died and we promised her before she died, that the following year after the class that all 13 of us would have an exhibit in her honor. We would show all different kinds of fish skin works: masks, capes, necklaces. And, we did. I made a big berry bucket,” recalls Audrey.
The women pause and admire each other’s works, sharing insight and grinning proudly over their pieces. “I’ve been working with it for 14 years now and I’m constantly learning from other people. I’m never going to be the expert on it but I love what I’m doing and I love sharing this with others who are interested.”
The students in this classroom are from all different backgrounds and experiences. One woman is visiting from England, another is taking Audrey’s class for a second year in a row. Some of Audrey’s students have taken their newfound skills and shared them back home with their Yupik villages. As such, these re-awakened ancient skills have moved from Fran to Audrey to her students to new students. “The reward is just knowing that I am passing on something, and now I have two young ladies who are actually teaching it. So it’s just spreading out there and that’s what it’s about.”
“Let me show you something!” beckons Audrey. She displays a large open basket with a proud smile. “This is my Chief’s basket.” The basket is trimmed with moose skin, shells and small orange beads to symbolize salmon roe.
“Salmon skin work is a lot of work, just scraping, scraping, scraping; getting the flesh totally clean and preparing it; it is a lot of work. But when you are done with your work and your creation, it’s worth it.” She holds up her Chief’s Basket again. “One night, I dreamt about my Athabaskan chiefs all sitting all around a table making decisions while passing food around in this, my Chief’s basket. So I presented to my board and they were in awe. Afterward, each one came up and thanked me for giving the speech and for what it all meant.” Her dream was realized.
Teaching and skin sewing are undoubtedly passions of Audrey’s, but she’s quick to tell anyone who asks that her first love is for fishing: “I love to fish, I’ll stand in the water for 8-10 hours a day just to get one fish!”
As the morning passes, Audrey begins to get antsy. As soon as her student’s questions start to calm and they seem focused and directed on their sewing, Audrey slips out of the dark woodshed into the bright Sitka day. She rushes down the rock steps beside the Science Center and meets her husband, who is hard at work snagging pink salmon where Indian River meets the sea.
Her husband has been pulling salmon ashore to eat and so that Audrey can share skins with her students for future projects. “If you ask any Native person for their fish skin, they don’t give it out because they smoke it with the skin on because all of the richness is in the skin. So none of my Native people want to give me skins,” she laughs. “We have to get our own!” She takes over the rod and gets to work. Reeling fast and diligently, she giggles and smiles.
“Salmon gives us everything. I use it all: the only thing I don’t use is the male sperm and the guts!” She smiles as she pulls her third pink onto the beach and points. “This is what binds us and helps us and our families get through the winter. I’ve always considered salmon as my gold. It is my gold, g-o-l-d. It is our gold, all of the people who live off salmon. Money will come and go but salmon..! Your resources are your future.”