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.”
It has taken Marja and Bo time and ingenuity to establish systems that overcome the landscape, remoteness, and weather in Farragut Bay. Today Farrugut Farm produces over forty varieties of vegetables that are sold primarily in Petersburg. They are also able to sell produce directly to specialty cruise ships that pass through Frederick Sound, like the Catalyst pictured.
Across Alaska, many of us dread trips to the grocery store. Sometimes it feels like we need to refinance our homes in order to afford the luxury of fresh bell peppers or homemade guacamole. Food is expensive and the inflated prices that leave us shaking our heads are partly to do with the high cost of shipping food into our remote state.
A 2014 report commissioned by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services estimates that a startling 95% of our food is shipped in from out-of-state. While cultivating Alaskan avocados may remain a pipe-dream, farmers are revealing ample untapped opportunities for growing vegetables and raising livestock locally. The benefits are big. Replacing imported food improves access to a more reliable supply of affordable, fresher, healthier product. It also boosts local economies by keeping more cash circulating across the pockets of Alaskans. In fact, if Southeast Alaska alone could replace a mere 1% of imported foods with food cultivated in-state, we could keep a whopping twenty million dollars circulating regionally.
Of course, there are challenges to raising crops and livestock in Alaska. Between bears and ravens, expensive shipping costs, access to land and an unfavorable climate, the obstacles are discouraging. Alaskans however, prove time and time again that no challenge is too great. In the island-clad rainforest of Southeast Alaska, a growing coalition of farmers are beating the odds, innovating and breaking new ground.
The Sawmill Farm: Dumpster Diving with Bobbi Daniels
Bobbi Daniels prepares to feed her pigs and poultry food waste from the local grocery store and spent grains from the local brewery. She is turning trash into treasure: fresh meat for Alaskans.
The US Department of Agriculture estimates that between 30-40% of all food in the United States ends up in landfills. Waste happens at all steps in the process from grower to storage, processor to grocery store, grocery store to consumer, and dinner plate to trash bin. In Alaska, wasting food isn’t just irresponsible, it’s costly.
Sitka is a rural community of nearly ten thousand residents located on Baranof Island. Like the majority of Southeastern communities, Sitka is only accessible by air or by sea. Without an incinerator or local landfill, the community pays a high price to barge its trash to Washington. The City of Sitka estimates that it loads over eight thousand tons onto barges every year. At one hundred and seventy four dollars per ton, that’s nearly one and a half million dollars floating out of town annually. What’s more, the City estimates that almost a quarter of that trash is food waste.
What if we could turn some of that outcast food back into nutrition? Trash into cash? Maybe even, garbage into bacon? Meet Bobbi Daniels.
“All of the produce that can’t be sold, all of the outdated bread, all of the restaurant foods and school food, all of the scraps that are thrown away are barged out of here. It is just that insane. That food that is being thrown away is absolutely perfect food for pigs and poultry,” says Daniels
Bobbi grew up working on farms in Indiana. She has a contagious laugh and a no-nonsense sense of humor to match. She’s persistent, driven and at ease with dirt under her nails and manure underfoot. Every morning, she hops into her truck to make the rounds. Starting at Sea Mart Quality Foods, Bobbi winds through town, stopping at schools and businesses to relieve them of their most nutritious garbage. At Baranof Island Brewing Co. she helps heave 500-pound bins of spent grains on board. Once the truck is brimming with waste Daniels heads south. It’s time to feed the beasts.
Beside Silver Bay, in the company of mountains and off the paved road is Sitka’s furthermost address—the Sawmill Farm. Here on 1.3 acres of land, Daniels rears ducks, geese, quail, broiler chickens, turkeys, meat rabbits, egg-laying chickens, goats, and pigs. After pulling in, she sorts through the truck bed, parsing out troughs of food while being careful to balance the animals’ diets. Heaps of cottage cheese and yogurt are plopped onto piles of spent brewery grains and lowered into an eager riot of chickens. She dishes out collard greens, apples, spinach and cilantro to the rabbits.
Occasionally, the Sawmill Farm supplements with traditional feed, but the great majority of these animals’ diets is taken directly out of Sitka’s waste stream. Given the extremely high cost of barging heavy hay and grain into rural Alaska, identifying this local food source was a watershed moment. “If that food goes away, we go away. The only thing that makes this feasible is that outcast food stream,” says Daniels. With the addition of a pasteurization system to treat plated food, Daniels will soon be able to incorporate restaurant and school waste into the rotation. Also, she has summer plans to ramp up the amount of town landscape waste she dishes out to her goats and rabbits.
“Boy, when I open up a dumpster in this town and there is a bunch of grass clippings in there, it just hurts my heart because that’s being barged out of here as expensive garbage and we can be raising our own food on it,” says Daniels.
Bobbi Daniels is more than Sitka’s favorite dumpster diver. With the support of her community, she is breaking new ground, responding to a broken system and producing top-quality meat, milk and eggs in impressive quantities. “We have six hundred chickens and we should be butchering at least two hundred meat chickens every four weeks for the rest of the year,” says Daniels. “We intend to sell at least eight hundred rabbits by the end of the year, too. We have six goats to milk, two are due to deliver baby goats any moment.”
By summer, eggs can be purchased in local shops, and by autumn people who purchase pig-shares can stock their fridge with locally smoked bacon. Restaurants as far away as Juneau are pre-purchasing meat from Bobbi and even if you never buy a single product from the Sawmill Farm, she’s still helping reduce the waste stream and saving money for the entire community.
Getting to this point hasn’t been a walk in the park. After identifying an affordable food source for her livestock, she spent years hunting for appropriate land. In February of this year, she acquired her current lot on lease from the City and is still in the process of moving her livestock from temporary homes in yards scattered throughout Sitka. She is constantly troubleshooting. Along the way, she’s learned how to navigate complex state and federal regulations, stay ahead of hoof rot, stave off hungry bears, and mitigate against a long list of other Alaskan predators—ravens and politicians being the trickiest.
These bruised tomatoes were slated for the garbage at the local grocery store, Seamart Grocery. Seamart is thrilled to pass outcast and outdated food that can’t be sold to humans over to the Sawmill Farm.
“In other parts of the country where agriculture is more mainstream, all those challenges you are going to face, somebody else has conquered generations ago. All you have to do is ask somebody. Here, we’ve got nobody to ask. We are breaking new ground and there is a lot of trial and error,” says Daniels. “There’s a reason why we don’t have many farms in Southeast Alaska. You have to want it pretty bad.”
Daniels wants it bad and she’s collaborating with a burgeoning group of farmers across Alaska who want it too. As she grows her local knowledge, Daniels regularly shares best practices with other producers in the region. Advice and encouragement aren’t all the group shares.
“I’m getting ready to ship three rabbits to Petersburg to be bred,” says Daniels. “Just maintaining a deep gene pool with enough diversity is super expensive. The farms in the Southeast, now that there are more of us, are starting to work together. But still, nobody in the lower forty-eight has to deal with shipping rabbits and goats on a float plane,” Daniels laughs.
The local opportunity is huge for Sitka, but the benefits permeate across the state. Animals, resources, and trade secrets are circulating throughout Alaska. Sitka isn’t the only community that pays top-dollar to barge perfectly nutritious food waste to landfills in the lower forty-eight. “Even if every single thing we produce was sold here in Sitka we could never satisfy demand, and just about every place in Southeast Alaska has this same waste issue. Our goal is to support equivalent farms all over Southeast Alaska. Juneau can be raising its own livestock and same with Ketchikan and a bunch of the smaller villages. This plan works pretty much at any volume level,” says Daniels.
Daniels built her farm around trash. Her animals eat cast-off food and she’s been thinking about waste on the other end, too. “We have found a potential market for everything that is going to be a waste product from us except the feathers. That’s the only thing we end up composting. Of course, the compost has a commercial value too.”
She hopes that the Sawmill Farm will catalyze complementary spin-off businesses. Rabbit and chicken innards make good crab bait and she’ll have plenty of chicken feet that can be boiled into stock. Other byproducts would make gourmet pet food and she anticipates producing a hundred rabbit hides each month. “We just don’t have the time, the Sawmill Farm is maxed out. But what we are doing is creating opportunities for other businesses to start up.” While she hates to admit it, Bobbi Daniels is an innovator. She’s turning trash into treasure and she’s urging others across Alaska to do the same.
Off the Grid and on to Plates
Marja pushes a cart full of freshly picked cabbages. The cart is made of old mountain bike tires and is good for pushing vegetables and materials around the farm’s (sometimes rough) pathways.
Jagged shorelines lined with alders, dense evergreen forests, and muddy tidal flats define the coastline of Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage. Tuck into Farragut Bay, and you’ll find something else. About 35 miles by boat north of the town of Petersburg, up a windy slough, is a remote piece of land nurtured and cultivated to grow plants not typically found in the Southeast Alaska rainforest.
Farragut Farm is on an old river delta in the foreland of the expansive Stikine ice field. Here, meadows have risen up from tidal flats yet to be forested. There’s evidence of an old homestead, likely from the 1920s, but until recently there has been little or no agriculture. Over a number of years, Marja Smets and Bo Varsano have transitioned from a large home garden to a small but prolific vegetable farm. “We realized that we enjoyed being in Farragut Bay and growing food and it seemed like a nice challenge to combine that, stay here, and bump up to a farm,” says Marja.
It has taken Marja and Bo time and ingenuity to establish systems that overcome the landscape, remoteness, and weather in Farragut Bay. Today the farm produces over forty varieties of vegetables that are sold primarily in Petersburg. “Alaskans eat a lot of things that are harvested close to home, but for vegetables that is typically not the case. Everyone in Petersburg who goes to the store is eating vegetables that are barged in,” says Varsano.
Farragut Farm is providing an alternative for Petersburg residents: better quality, fresher, locally grown vegetables. “We do try to stick to things that grow well in our climate and don’t need a whole lot of extra coddling. We grow a few things that are given special attention, but they are in such demand that it is commercially viable,” explains Marja.
Producing vegetables commercially in Southeast Alaska is not a straightforward undertaking. “It has been interesting and tricky to figure out different ways of approaching growing vegetables on a commercial scale in this climate,” says Marja. The farm has four unheated greenhouses, one greenhouse that is heated with a woodstove, and numerous raised garden beds. Most of the greenhouses are moveable and slide on tracks to cover different portions of the farm throughout the season. By using moveable greenhouses, they are able to extend their season and increase vegetable production. “Anything that requires heat is going to benefit, and there’s so few naturally warm days in Southeast that it’s important to create a microclimate,” explains Varsano.
The limited arable land, pests, short growing season, and wet summers are among the factors that pose significant hurdles to many farmers. Marja and Bo are faced with yet another: Farragut Farm is completely off the grid. The remoteness of the farm adds some interesting complexity to the mix, and what’s more, they take extra care not to rely on fossil fuel intensive sources of energy. “The electricity, water, roads, an easy way to get from there to here, all the basic necessities of life we take care of for ourselves,” explains Marja.
Farragut Farm creates its own electricity with a small array of solar panels. Most of the farm work is completed by hand. “We are using some plastic and fuel, and a lot of things we can’t produce ourselves, but we are working to get away from that as much as we can, or at least minimize it,” says Bo. They use creative inventions and cleverly modified solar powered tools to maximize the efficiency of growing, harvesting, cleaning, and transporting vegetables.
Greenhouses at Farragut Farm slide along a track to cover three different plots of land. The greenhouse can be moved over different crops throughout the season to maximize the use of a single piece of infrastructure.
The farm is continually looking at ways to increase efficiency. “We’re realizing more and more how important planning is for cutting down our labor.” An intricate system of planning multiple years in advance for crop rotation and the appropriate nutrients that specific vegetables will need is an example of the preparation and forethought necessary to keep things moving smoothly and efficiently. As soon as a vegetable is harvested for market another seedling is ready to plant in its spot.
Arguably even more arduous is planning their farm operations around the tides. Rather than a road for transport, Farragut Farm uses a slough that only fills with water on especially high tides to ferry materials and vegetables to and from the farm. “Once a vegetable is harvested, we need to wait until we have a high tide that is at least 15 to 15.5 feet high to have enough water to float the skiff. We then unload all of the vegetables onto the skiff and float them down our slough about half a mile to our sailboat. Then we transfer the coolers of vegetables from the skiff to our sailboat. Sometimes we have to do that in the middle of the night if that’s when there’s a high tide. Then, we sail or motor to town which generally takes four to five hours,” Marja explains.
Rain or shine, in rough seas and stormy Southeast Alaskan weather, Marja and Bo stay close to the elements as they move their produce from farm to market. Once in Petersburg, coolers are unloaded from the boat and onto a truck before being unloaded at the market to an eager crowd of lip-licking customers.
These farmers are constantly learning the best ways to operate in Southeast Alaska’s specific environmental conditions while improving efficiency to not waste time, energy, or space. “Every day we are thinking about how we can do this more effectively and efficiently to make this a more sustainable venture for us,” Marja explains.
In addition to focusing energies on their farm, Marja and Bo are actively working to empower other farmers and future farmers of the region to help them prosper “It has become a goal for us to help promote farming in the region, to do anything we can to move it along a little bit,” Varsano says. Last year Farragut Farm hosted the inaugural Southeast Alaska Commercial Growers Conference, which brought together agricultural producers from all stretches of the region. Marja added, “So many lessons have to be learned on your own terms and in your own time, but there’s a lot to be said for talking to someone who has already done something you are looking to pursue.”
Farragut Farm is working gracefully against the odds and it’s taken some true passion and creativity to sustain and grow this farm. “We feel like we’re contributing to our little corner of the world. Not only being able to grow high quality food that feeds the community, but we are taking care of our piece of land and hopefully making it a good place for lots of critters, plants, and animals into the future,” says Marja.
Ultimately it’s a fairly simple equation: good farming + good food = good for everybody.
Farragut Farm is providing an alternative for Petersburg residents: better quality, fresher, locally grown vegetables.
SITKA — In early spring, the forests and estuaries begin to thaw. With the softer earth and longer days, Sitka’s residents thaw too. We stretch our arms and arch our backs, padded with a little extra winter weight, toward the increasing sunlight. We look to our coastline for the return of the herring.
In Sitka Sound, herring have always been harbingers of spring. As they return en masse each year they carry on their iridescent backs the promise of warmer weather and seasons of subsistence. Seabirds, sea lions and fishermen compete aggressively for this plentiful food source. Hoards of humpback whales return from Hawaiian waters in pursuit of these silvery fish. Hunting in packs like wolves, they dive deep, flukes slipping into the sea. Our waters erupt with life.
Back in town, Sitka clamors with activity too. Our harbors flood with visiting seiners and tenders awaiting the commercial herring sac roe fishery. Locals prep their skiffs and begin eyeing young hemlock trees in preparation for the subsistence harvest. Wade Martin, 51, is a Chilkat Tlingit who has been harvesting herring eggs locally for 40 years.
“During herring season, there is no place better than Sitka. It’s a really happy time of year for animals, for us,” Martin said. “Just to be part of it all is a privilege. It’s more than cultural, it’s in my blood and I could not imagine not doing this. I’d go crazy.”
From his 18-foot aluminum skiff named Raven, Martin hustles through the Sitka Sound island chains with his eye to the water and his ear to local chatter. This year, he promised more than a half-ton of roe to friends and family around the region.
Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi: Blessing of the rock
The season begins at the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Tribal Community House, when community members join the Sitka Tribe of Alaska in prayer.
“We are especially thankful for our culture for our people and our ways that you have taught us as we celebrate the herring run, its history,” says John Duncan while Roby Littlefield pours channel water over the herring rock.
News Lawson explains the significance of this rock and the herring season.
“The herring rock has a very long history among our people. Very significant. The days of long ago, the herring would come to our homeland and the first place the herring would spawn would be at the herring rock and this time of year was very significant to our people, the arrival of the herring on our shores that meant the arrival of new food, new food for our homes and the end of the old foods that sustained us through the winter months.”
The timbre of the prayer is calm and steady. Out on the water, the pace is entirely different.
Defined by patience
Seiners strategize their position and await the Alaska Department of Fish and Game countdown.
The rodeo begins.
Sitka’s sac roe commercial fishery is legendary for cutthroat hustle. Spotter planes scope fish movement from above and dozens of seiners narrowly avoid one another, dodging rocks and whales as they compete for masses of herring.
This year, seiners harvested 9,758 tons of herring, about 66 percent of the quota. Fishermen target the golden herring egg sacks, or skeins, coveted in Japan as a traditional delicacy called kazunoko. Fish and Game estimates that 10.7 percent of the nearly 10,000 tons of herring pulled from Sitka Sound this season was the target mature roe. The subsistence harvest stands in stark comparison. Participants still target herring eggs, but the technique for accessing these eggs will leave the fish breathing. It’s a methodology defined by patience.
In quiet coves foaming with turquoise milt, participants lower hemlocks from small boats, anchoring them into the spawn. Days later, they return to pull in branches, hoping that thick layers of eggs coat the limbs. While the process sounds idyllic, the reality isn’t always quiet and serene. Like the commercial sac roe fishery, locals are in hot pursuit of this sacred resource.
Sitka at heart of harvest
Martin and I pull the Raven up to a wooden troller anchored in a protected cove of Middle Island. The F/V Shirley N travels annually to Sitka from Hoonah.
Located on Chichagof Island, Hoonah is the largest Tlingit community in Alaska. Martin grew up in Hoonah and spent herring season traveling to Sitka on local trollers, gathering eggs. Today, Hoonah residents depend on Vernon Hill, a veteran troller with a local crew, to return with a hull weighed down by eggs on branches. The Hoonah Indian Association and community members contribute funds each year to support their travel. Martin reconnects with his hometown friends in the wheelhouse, while on deck Brandon Hill explains how a triumphant return to town looks.
“It’s crazy when we get back to Hoonah. Usually, we pull up to the dock and there’s about 200 people out there and we lay the eggs out on a tarp and watch people like seagulls fighting over this stuff. It’s just madness. It is really rewarding and it means a lot to a lot of people, especially elders,” Hill says.
Some people describe herring eggs poetically as the most culturally revered subsistence food after salmon. Others use a more crass nomenclature: Indian Viagra. Some people prefer to munch on egg-coated kelp pulled directly from the sea. Some blanch them, dress them with soy sauce or cook them in seal oil. Others kindly refuse.
Whether you like herring eggs or not, they are in demand across Alaska and Sitka is the beating heart of the harvest. Participants spend weeks gathering eggs, packaging and pumping thousands of pounds of this treat by boat or by box along airline arteries to eager families from Metlakatla to Barrow. Martin alone ships his bounty to Yakutat, Kake, Hoonah, Juneau and Angoon.
Atypical Easter egg hunt
It’s Easter. While little girls in Sunday dresses play hide and seek with colorful eggs, I sip thick coffee and talk herring with the crew aboard the F/V Shirley N. Days earlier, we anchored branches in coves across Sitka Sound. Today, we hop on skiffs for a different kind of egg hunt.
Cutting through a cold sharp rain, Martin and I race to Crow Pass, an epicenter for herring egg subsistence. The turquoise foamy spawn has subsided, the water fading to a more familiar and less tropical shade. Peering past the raindrop-mottled surface, we look deep in the water for color. Martin does not attach buoys to his branches, fearing the egg wranglers — people who steal branches laid by others. He hides his branches and has done such a fantastic job that we struggle to find them.
“See that? That yellow glow down deep,” calls Martin. We drop a grappling hook and yank. A growing pale form rises to the surface, a young hemlock heavy with eggs. “Not ours!” The line, and anchor are unfamiliar.
Martin is many things, but he is not an egg thief.
“For me, this is all about honor. I honor my culture, honor where I come from, honor my father and honor this resource.” Thievery is not honorable. He loosens his grip and the tree slips back into the darkness.
We continue in this way for hours, though most of the trees we pull are ours. This year, however, most of those trees are empty. “Junk! Junk!” Martin says as he clips the small sections of tree worth keeping. “It’s getting worse every year. It’s getting harder to make this happen.”
We motor back to the Shirley N. All the sets the Hoonah crew pulled were empty. Barren hemlocks balance sadly on deck. Everyone is tired, feeling defeated.
A changing harvest
Martin and the crew of the Shirley N were not alone in their struggles this spring. Sitka Tribe distributed 3,240 pounds of this culturally revered resource, not even half of what they distributed a year ago.
Harvey Kitka, born and raised in Sitka, has been chair of the tribe’s herring committee for 10 years. “Harvesting … was really bad. Usually, I have so much that I distribute to not only family in town but some friends, too. We all have friends who don’t have boats; some of them are older … and we usually get eggs for them,” Kitka says.
He remembers a time growing up in Sitka when the herring were so thick that the crack of their flipping backs would echo across the Sound like a hailstorm. Back then, subsistence seasons were more reliable. “It used to be that the duration of the spawn was so long you could see which way the herring were heading, you could watch them every day as they got closer in town. We would try to get there right before the herring would start spawning, anticipating their movement.”
This season, the spawn seemed different.
“The herring came in tiny bunches, just scattered on the surface and there were just little balls of herring. It was just a little spot here and a little spot there,” Kitka says. “You had to be really lucky.”
Back on the water, Martin and the Hoonah boys are determined to get lucky. By chance, while Martin and his buddy Russ James are hunting seals and otters north in Salisbury Sound, they stumble upon a late spawn. They move fast, lay branches and lead the Hoonah crew there to do the same. They all cross their fingers.
After weeks of battling waning optimism with die-hard persistence, the Hoonah crew and Martin taste salty, crunchy success. They pull plentiful branches from Salisbury Sound. The next day, I join Martin, James, his girlfriend Teresa Moses and her sons Eli and Andrew as they sort and package the spoils. The sun is bright, the atmosphere warm with relief and rejoice.
“I was pretty worried that I wasn’t going to be able to hold up my obligations, but now I’m very happy,” Martin says. “I try to be honorable and honor my word. This was the first year I almost didn’t make my obligations. It’s getting worse every year. We all but gave up on this season and just lucked out and stumbled into it in Salisbury Sound, the farthest north I’ve ever had to go,” Martin says.
The afternoon is rich with celebratory sounds: pruning shears clip, packaging tape stretches across burgeoning fish boxes, Creedence Clearwater Revival sings “Proud Mary” on the radio and two little boys crunch gleefully on eggs.
“I wish that we could have herring eggs every day,” one says. With a grin, their mother promises fresh eggs in tomorrow’s school lunchbox.
All together, Martin packages more than 2,000 pounds of herring eggs on branches. Four-hundred pounds are set aside for a particularly important purpose: Martin’s father passed away earlier this spring. These eggs will feed guests at a ceremonial party to honor Chief George Martin Jr., clan leader of the Chookaneidi. The rest are distributed to family and friends within Sitka and across the state. He pushes cartload after cartload through the gates at Harris Aircraft Services. He estimates these eggs will hit the tongues of nearly a thousand Alaskans.
“There’s not a lot of people who can do this anymore, and it’s my culture. A lot of people do their culture with dance and music. With me, it’s the thrill of showing people this, sharing whatever is in season,” Martin says.
In Hoonah, the community celebrated the triumphant return of their hardworking men on the Shirley N. Residents fought with fervor and glee over the thickest branches.
As spring tapers off into summer, Sitka’s residents wear down our winter weight, pulling skates and hooks heavy with halibut and salmon from the Sitka Sound. As we clean our bounty, we look graciously to our plentiful waters and curiously in the pink bellies of our chinooks. We are reminded of the little fish that begin it all, the shimmering foundation of our rich subsistence culture.
For many, art is defined as a pretty landscape painting interpreted by a single artist using store-bought materials. The final product is sold to an admirer, tossed up on a wall and enjoyed for a generation before ending up discarded at the Salvation Army.
Sgwaayaans (TJ) Young is not in that business. As a Haida carver who works predominately on community-based projects, his artwork is dynamic and consuming. His process pulls together a collective vision, a tested history and a proud future. He uses materials borrowed from the landscape and shapes them with tools hand-made from trees. Though sometimes, he proudly uses chainsaws (more on that later). His work encourages collaboration between teams of artists and depends on the support and love of a community at every step in the process. The final pieces live and breathe and eventually, like the best of us, they return to the earth and rot.
TJ helps work on the raven pole at the 2015 Hydaburg Culture Camp.
I first met Young in his hometown of Hydaburg. In the summer of 2015, he returned home for the annual Culture Camp, where he was quickly locked up in the carving shed and put to work helping to complete two totem poles to be risen later that week. Light crept out through the boards of the shed until the wee hours of the morning.
Community members helped the carvers long into the evening before the Totem Pole raising at the 2015 Hydaburg Culture Camp.
The night before the raising, I joined community members and visiting dance groups in the shed. To the beating of drums, singing, dancing and laughter, friends took turns helping the carvers layer on paint and varnish late into the night. Everyone crossed their fingers that the paint would dry before men, women and children hoisted the eagle and raven pole to attention the following afternoon. The energy not only left my head, heart and body pounding to a powerful beat, the experience redefined the role of art and culture for me.
Needless to say, I was excited to hear that Young was joining a talented crew of artists on a local canoe project in the Sitka Historic Park. For more on that project, please check out the CCW’s story here: http://bit.ly/1YOVjFX.
After months of sheepishly admiring their handiwork, I built up the courage to finally ask Young on a pizza date to discuss in more depth his art, process and aspirations.
BG: How did you find yourself in this career?
TY: We grew up carving a little bit but it wasn’t in school past grade seven so it just kind of tapered off for most people. What happened with us was that our mother got my brother (Joe Young) a tool roll with some carving tools and I think I got jealous and she ended up getting me one, too. It was pretty expensive back then but we were both excited about our tool roll. We were always fascinated by my grandpa Claude Morrison, too. He used to make halibut hooks, functional ones that people would actually use.
Then, a group of us made a model-sized long house about 3 feet by about 2.5 feet. We used a little diagram sketch in one of the old books and got $600 for the longhouse. That was a lot of money to us as kids back then as sophomores in high school. Our superintendent bought it and that was one of those ‘Aha’ moments: We could get paid to do this and make a living doing art.
BG: How has the scope of your work changed since that first model longhouse?
TY: So, my grandma, Gladys Morrison, died in ’97 and the following year my brother Joe and I decided to carve a little totem pole for her. It’s right in front of her house still and I remember thinking how big of a project it was despite it being only 7-feet tall. We had our tool rolls and two little adzes and we were fishing in the meantime and it just seemed like we were never going to finish it. It was a gift, it had my grandma’s crest on it, a beaver with an eagle on the tail and a watchman on top to represent my grandfather looking out at the ocean.
TJ and his brother Joe carved their first totem pole in honor of their grandmother, Gladys Morrison. From that point on, the poles got taller and the scope of their work grew and grew.
So, we had a little totem raising and it was nice weather and it went up in just a second because it was so small, ha! It seems like a small project now but it was a big project to us and to a lot of people because what it meant was big. My grandpa was real proud of it. His generation was more apt to let that way of life go, to move on, so it brought a twinkle to his eye to watch us carve.
We were getting little jobs here and there, commissioned poles on Prince of Wales and the poles were getting bigger and bigger and we were getting more comfortable as we went. It wasn’t until 2006 that my brother and I actually got our first big job, a 40-foot pole here in Sitka. I remember coming in on the ferry and we were getting docked up and we looked at each other, my brother and I, and we were like: What are we doing? We’ve never even done (something) like this before! We were anxious.
In the meantime, we have done some poles for galleries in Anchorage, a couple commissions down in Texas and Washington, more on Prince of Wales and I am pretty excited about this canoe I am helping work on. I hope we jump on another one in the next few years so we can get real familiar with it.
BG: What do you like most about this work?
TJ: I couldn’t see myself doing anything else beside this. I’ve worked other labor jobs but this is a real privilege. I learn something new every day and it’s my way of keeping in touch with who we were as a people. You learn more about who you are by doing this kind of work. You get to step into your ancestors’ shoes and you are constantly studying these old pieces and reflecting on what they were going through at that time, through the art.
They were able to reflect their everyday lifestyle and values through their work and I want to get to a point where my art can more accurately reflect what I was going through instead of trying to cater for a market. I want to get to the point where I can reflect through my work how I see the world and how I interpret not only who we were but who we are (and) who I am now.
It takes an entire community to raise a totem pole. The community helps carry the raven pole out of the carving shed during the 2015 Culture Camp.
BG: How do you define a successful community project?
TY: I guess just involving as many people as you can. It doesn’t take 10 people to pick up a pole, it’s 100 people. The kid at the end who isn’t really pulling hard but he has his hand on the rope and in his mind he thinks he helped out, it’s all about that feeling, that sense of belonging.
And, it’s sometimes hard to get that feeling when you grow up in some of these communities where there are struggles. To feel like you belong, that’s why we need to get back into our language and our culture. All of a sudden you are one of a kind, you speak a language that a hundred people speak at the most in the world. It’s a commitment. You start getting into language and like one of my teachers Robert Davidson told me, you have to look back to look forward sometimes.
BG: What is the most frustrating reaction to your work?
TY: When we get called out during carving for using modern tools, like small chainsaws on the canoe project. Things changed pretty quickly for us with European contact and survival is always based on whether you can adapt or not. So we get our balls broken about using modern tools nowadays but we don’t get personal with it. They aren’t being personal, more ignorant than anything. One tourist the other day said that we were cheating our ancestors. Well, no, your ancestors probably cheated our ancestors, ha. But, we have a good humor and I think that’s one thing that’s gotten us through a lot of what has happened in the past. You can’t walk around mad, that’s not what life is about. Life is too short.
TJ Young adzes out a dugout canoe in Sitka.
BG: What is the most rewarding reaction?
TY: When the whole village cheers when we put that pole up. There’s nothing like it. You can score a game winning basket in a tournament and it’s maybe a bit like that. Also, somebody dancing in one of your masks or pieces in a dance group is a pretty cool feeling.
And that is what they were meant for, what they were needed for, to be used and not hung up on a wall and not created for just money. That is why a lot of people put more love into this type of artwork because they know certain people will be using it and thousands of people might see it. So I think that seeing your work being used is the best feeling. And yes, it will be a good feeling when we get this canoe in the water and people jump in, so long as it doesn’t sink!
BG: Do you have any advice for aspiring carvers and artists?
TY: There’s this quote I like, “I’m aware that my time is near because I start to see my idols as peers.” I forgot who said it, but what it means is that if you are passionate enough about something then you are going to gravitate toward somebody who can help you get to be where you need to be. You might need to be a little bold, you might need to ask questions, but if you are passionate enough about what you do, find someone who can mentor and help you get to the next level and from there you will find something else. So be courageous, you can’t get what you don’t ask for.
Have balance. There is this story from Haida Gwaii where the Haida were disrespecting the hooligan and they went away and we had to get the hooligan from the mainland. They were overfished or something and they never came back and it was a tough lesson to learn at the time. The lesson was to have a strong sense of balance. And that’s important with everything. There’s a balance in life, with marriage, with kids and with art. The best artists have a good balance, and balanced proportions and they were sought after more. That’s why eagles marry ravens and vice versa and potlatches were about balance, about attaining wealth for five years or 10 years just to give it all away. It’s just a beautiful way of going through life and for creating good art.
And lastly, keep learning. I love what I do because it’s a learning process. No matter the project, I’m still learning. I’m 35 and I have a lot to learn. So stay open to learning, be courageous, be bold and ask questions. Have balance in life and in art.
BG: What are your hopes and goals looking forward?
TY: One thing I’m kind of nervous about, especially with these canoes, is that yellow cedar is getting harder and harder to acquire. That’s why we are working on a log that is so messed up right now with cracks. It was the best one available and that’s kind of scary. It’s kind of scary and sad that if we continue to pick up this technique of canoe carving, whose to say that my kids will even be able to carve? There might not be cedar like that around. So, preserving our old growth cedar should be a priority. When they are gone they are gone.
For my art, I’d like to get my skill set up to par with some of the great masters of the late 1880s. Those old Haida masters were just on a whole different level than most people are now. That’s what I’m going for. And when I was done apprenticing with Robert Davidson he said, “Don’t be stingy.” What he meant by that was to just help other people out. Don’t take this knowledge I gave you and hoard it. I gave it to you to give to somebody. And I mean, don’t just give it to everybody on Facebook, ha!
But I will give it to the people who are eventually going to gravitate to me and that’s where I want to be. To get to that level and be able to pass it on to a couple of younger ambitious Haida who want to preserve what we do. It’s a wonderful art, its a beautiful art form and it needs to be preserved. I look forward to passing that on. That’s what I’m shooting for and to keep putting feeling and love into all of my work.
TJ works on a dugout canoe in Sitka.
The carvers dance before the Raven pole is hoisted to attention in Hydaburg.
The canoe project that TJ is currently working on with Tommy Joseph, Nicholas Galanin and Jerrod Galanin under the direction of Steve Brown, is being orchestrated by the Sealaska Heritage Institute and Sitka National Historical Park.
Hunting is more than a means of subsistence, it is a practice that deeply connects us to the land. Recently, 4-H Alaska Way of Life partnered with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Language and Education program to embrace the depth of this relationship by learning the art of respectful deer processing. Chuck Miller and Heather Powell shared their Tlingit background and knowledge about harvesting and processing deer. Miller explained that when a hunter kills an animal, it is not because the hunter has a lot of skill but rather because the animal chose to share its life with the hunter. This perspective encourages an important humility we all must have to successfully live with the land.
Miller revealed that to respect the spirit of the animal, one should act as if the deer were still alive throughout the processing. With this in mind, a person is more likely to take care while butchering the meat and behave in a way that will not offend the animal’s spirit. In this way, future animals will continue to trust the hunter with their lives. Powell and Miller stressed to the children that if they find certain parts of the processing uncomfortable or gross, they should keep the thoughts to themselves; saying “eww” is disrespectful to the animal which trusted the hunter with its life.
In the lesson, Miller demonstrated how to safely remove the deer hide, the head, and the hooves. Participants predicted what each element could be used for. The group concluded that the hide could be used for clothing and drums, the antlers could be used for buttons and tools and the hooves would make great baby rattles. 4-H members and STA language and education students assisted in removing the hide. They worked diligently to cut up the meat into sections and wrap up the meat so it could be frozen. Some participants learned important new vocabulary such as the shoulder, backstrap, tenderloin and hind quarters! The many lessons made it a very successful evening of skill-sharing.
Most importantly, along with practical skills, the participants gained an important connection to tradition and culture. In respecting the animal, we are also respecting the ancestors who lived here long before us who subsisted on this animal and passed the practice to future generations. This is the art of conservation: using what we have and protecting it to share with generations to come. A huge thank you to Chuck Miller, Stephanie Gilardi, Heather Powell, and the STA Language and Education program for sharing such important knowledge with 4-H Alaska Way of Life.
Venison Stew and a Family Night Out
As a follow up to the deer processing event, 4-H and STA Language and Education program hosted a family night out dinner at the Sitka Kitch, Sitka’s community/commercial kitchen space. Families were invited to arrive early to help cook up some delicious venison stew. People worked together to chop carrots, celery and 4-H grown potatoes for the dish. As the aroma of dinner permeated the air, families took time to make kindness chains, where each member wrote kind actions they intend to carry-out during the holiday season.
Dinner-time meant a table full of homemade bread and jam, wholesome salad and the hard-earned, mouth-watering, stew. While families indulged in the delectable dinner, sounds of joyful conversations filled the air.
The evening ended with crafts and the opportunity to make handmade deer calls. Children revealed their genuine generosity as they listed off the people who they planned to give their deer calls. Along with the fun, came an important lesson in safety when using the calls. “Be careful when you use your deer call because you may also call in a bear.”
The Family Night Out dinner taught us all that the process of preparing a meal is a wonderful way to bring people together. Each element of the dinner held a story: who caught it, who baked it, who ate it. This surely is the way food is supposed to be.
The Sustainable Communities Catalyst will develop, promote, and implement community sustainability goals in Sitka and other towns in the Tongass National Forest. Responsibilities will include practicing strategic leadership, coordinating and directing staff, establishing overall project priorities, disseminating best practices, developing partnerships with public and private organizations, and building regional capacity.