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Finding Balance at the Speed of Trust

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.

 

Click here to download the full PDF

 

 

 

Herring Without Borders

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

SSP Reconnects in Juneau for Spring Retreat

Written by Paul Hackenmueller, Program Director

SSP’s annual spring retreat was in Juneau, March 7-9.  This three day workshop gave catalysts and partners a chance to reflect on the growth of the network, learn new tools to apply to their work, grapple with questions about growing SSP into the future, and (of course!) reconnect.  Over 35 individuals from 20+ organizations attended the event, from longtime partners and host organizations to new friends in new communities. As usual, this year’s spring meeting coincided with other regional gatherings in Juneau.  Many partners began the week at Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition’s Restoration Workshop and spent time with the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership’s technical team before spending two days with the whole network in downtown Juneau. The whole group spent Thursday night and Friday at the Shrine of St. Therese where we saw rain, snow, sun and sea lions in a serene setting overlooking Lynn Canal.

Each SSP retreat has a different flavor, if you will, and this spring we spent our time and energy thinking about the future.  As the network grows, we want to ensure partner communities, organizations, businesses, and individuals are empowered to participate in ways that contribute to our region’s resiliency.  Maintaining equity and inclusion while strengthening the network in an uncertain funding landscape is of critical importance to the network, and participants embraced these discussions with gusto.
 
We’re fortunate to make new friends each time the network gathers, and this year was no different.  Many catalysts have worked with Ecotrust on projects in SE, and several of their staff were able to come learn more about SSP in person. Thanks to The Nature Conservancy’s Emerald Edge Community Exchange program, several members of the Puyallup Watershed Initiative joined our discussion for the week.  PWI is a network in Washington state with a collaborative approach to community well being that’s similar to our own.  The relationships forged and insights gleaned from these new friends are already bearing fruit, and I expect them to continue well into the future. Learn more about their exchange by reading their reflection here.  TNC also supported the retreat with additional staff and facilitation from Reos Partners, a global firm with expertise in helping teams work together effectively.  
 
One other important event to come out of the week was the announcement of a new SSP Program Director.  Alana Peterson, SSP’s director for the last for years has decided to transition out. The SSP Steering Committee opened the position to existing SSP catalysts and selected me – hi, I’m Paul.  I’ve been working at Spruce Root as the Regional Catalyst for Economic Development for the past three years. I’ve worked closely with Alana and have learned a great deal about our southeast communities, collaboration, and trust from each of the catalysts I’ve met. It has been one of the true pleasures of my life to work with such this group.  I will be coming to all of the SSP communities in the coming months, and look forward to connecting with each of you soon.
 
On the ride home on the final day, I was exhausted, of course, by the intensity of the discussions, but invigorated and encouraged by the passion of the people in the room and filled with a sense that the work we’re doing just might be the start of something big.  Something that helps drive us toward a more resilient and, yes, sustainable Southeast.

Stewarding Klawock Lake Sockeye Salmon:  Conversations in Community Fisheries

Written by Christine Woll, Southeast Alaska Program Director of The Nature Conservancy 

Beach seining on Klawock Lake. Photo by Lee House

 

“What does sockeye salmon mean to Klawock?  I didn’t have to think that hard about that question.  Klawock is here because of sockeye salmon.”  Lawrence Armour, the mayor and tribal administrator of the Klawock Cooperative Association opened the Klawock Lake Sockeye Salmon Stakeholders meeting on November 14 on Prince of Wales Island.  This 2-day gathering brought together  community members, land managers, local government officials, fish and wildlife managers, tribal members, researchers and subsistence and commercial fishers in order to build a common understanding of the history and current status of sockeye salmon in the Klawock Lake Watershed.  Stakeholders identified opportunities to partner on shared goals that will help steward this critical resource.

As the mayor mentioned, sockeye salmon has long been the critical resource that brought people to Klawock.  Tlingit settlers from Tuxekan first used this area as a fishing camp during the summer, fashioning traditional fish traps, the remnants of which you can still see today in the tidal flats.  In 1878, one of the first Alaskan canneries was built in Klawock, and a significant commercial sockeye fishery operated out here through the late 1930s.  Today, sockeye continues to be of high value in the community – as Millie Schoonover, the president of the Craig village native corporation Shaan Seet, inc., stated “Sockeye is not just about subsistence – it is our traditional food.”

It is well documented in Klawock traditional knowledge that sockeye salmon have declined over the last century.   The potential factors for these declines have been studied over many years, and are very complex and intertwined.  These factors include:

  • Commercial harvest of sockeye salmon in the past and climatic change may have permanently altered the ecology of the lake;
  • Significant timber harvest, road building, and other development have altered the health of the spawning habitat
  • A salmon hatchery, permitted before the Alaska Department of Fish and Game stopped permitting hatcheries on wild salmon streams, likely interacts with wild sockeye in unknown ways;
  • And commercial and subsistence harvest continues to impact run size.

The Sustainable Southeast Partnership’s community fisheries program focuses on ensuring that local priorities are central to fish and fish habitat management.  So when the organizers of the meeting began to plan this meeting, we knew that community priorities must take precedent to enable continual long-term stewardship and action.  As community member Harry Jackson stated, “We are the original stakeholders of Klawock Lake.”  Two community meetings and an online community meeting offered the general public a time to come, eat salmon, hear music and dance, and share their thoughts on how the community and managers should approach salmon stewardship. Over 100 people attended these events or responded to the survey.  Quinn Aboudara, the Klawock community catalyst, followed the Mayor in the agenda, and presented on the results of this outreach..  It was made clear that sockeye harvest continues to be a major subject of passion and survival.  Salmon habitat management, hatchery protocols, overharvest, and climate change were all voiced by participants as concerns.  Many respondents also offered possible solutions, ranging from raising sockeye salmon in the hatchery;  improving habitat; practicing traditional methods of predator control, and others.

The meeting also offered community leaders and members the opportunity to hear from managers and researchers on their current practices and information.  Meeting participants learned the process for influencing and changing regulations in subsistence and commercial fisheries. Participants discussed and debated hatchery practices with the hatchery managers and regulators.  And, they provided feedback on ongoing research into the ecology and habitat condition of Klawock Lake. 

It is hard to facilitate difficult conversations like these when so much is at stake.  These conversations require attention to power dynamics, avoidance of technocratic language, and the willingness to move past conflict. Luckily, participants acknowledged that they were all here for the same reasons – because they cared about sockeye.  This type of shared learning and understanding between the community and managers is often the first step towards solutions, and an essential part of successful community fishery programs. 

Meeting participants acknowledge that, in Klawock Lake, there is no “smoking gun.”  No one action or one person is going to bring back sockeye salmon to historical levels.  Brainstorming and discussions brought forth many great ideas and recommendations on ways to move forward – together. For example, participants recommended community-facilitated harvest reporting, watershed monitoring projects for students, and a community task force to develop recommendations on hatchery practices.  We hope that the relationships and trust built at this meeting will help catalyze these next steps into action – and lead to a thriving future for this community fishery.

Stakeholders gather in Klawock to discuss stewarding the critical salmon resource. Photo by Christine Woll.

This meeting was sponsored by The Nature Conservancy, the Southeast Alaska Fish Habitat Partnership, the Klawock Cooperative Association, and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership.  The meeting was funded by the North Pacific Research Board.  Thank you, Gunalchéesh, and Háw’aa to everyone who helped organize, facilitate, provide food and logistics, offer review and guidance, and share their knowledge before and at the meeting – all were essential to making this happen.  To learn more about the final synthesis from recent research and this meeting, please contact Christine Woll at cwoll@tnc.org

Growth Inside and Outside of the MOBY Greenhouse in Hoonah, Alaska

Growth Inside and Outside of the MOBY Greenhouse in Hoonah, Alaska

In April 2016, “MOBY”, the mobile student greenhouse, rolled off the ferry in Hoonah. The trailer-become-greenhouse had a mission in the small community of 750 – educate students and community members on to grow in a greenhouse and to inspire conversation around a larger, permanent greenhouse in Hoonah. Four months later MOBY had produced beans, peas, tomatoes, sunflowers, swiss chard, kale, spinach and more. The green growth experienced in the greenhouse is a metaphor for the growth in individuals and community.

MOBY’s Timeline in Hoonah 

April 17th, 2017 was planting day for the greenhouse. Melissa Thaalesen paired the greenhouse with her middle school health class. Students absorbed the sun rays outside of Hoonah City Schools where MOBY was parked. They got their fingers dirty and planted many flats of leafy greens. Once planted, the health class cared for the small plant starts each day.  

Three weeks after planting the greenhouse school ended for the summer. With the release of the students came a change in location and intent for the greenhouse. It was moved to the Hoonah Indian Association and paired with the Hoonah Community Garden. The exposure to the community garden members provided great outreach. Twelve of the community garden members used starts to populate their gardens.

For the rest of the summer, the responsibility of the greenhouse was spread among different people. Ian Johnson, Community Catalyst, worked with student Ted Elliot almost daily. Their work was boosted by Tesh Miller who worked with her student Duane Jack, and five other community members periodically helped with planting, watering, and care of MOBY throughout the summer.

“As a community member who was raised in a subsistence lifestyle, this has taken me back to the idea of clean eating and knowing where our food comes from.  After seeing MOBY my family has picked a place in our yard to build a greenhouse, and have begun talking about the items that will go into the greenhouse, how it will look, and how to make it yearly produce.” — Hoonah Community Garden Member

MOBY greenhouse engaged 17 students during the school and during the summer. These students had a great opportunity to be involved in the initial setup of MOBY, however, throughout the summer, one student maintained regular involvement with MOBY. In late June, 12-year old Ted Elliot took his first harvest of swiss chard, kale, and spinach home to his family. Soon after he was regularly snacking on peas draping from heavily laden vines and bringing those to his family too. The produce from the greenhouse was subsidized by Ted’s community garden plot and was well received by the Elliot family. His mom, Elleana, posted to Facebook several times to express her gratitude.

When asked whether a greenhouse could be viable part of Hoonah City Schools, Tesh Miller thought so. “Yes, I could see a greenhouse become a huge part of school.  Starting with growing our own produce to growing produce to share with our elders and also growing produce to sell.  I could become a class for students to take and learn.  The possibilities are endless.”, she said . Shery Ross from Hoonah City Schools added that the MOBY curriculum was useful to teachers and that integration was pretty simple in the classroom to get students interested. “The staff all have a copy of the [MOBY] curriculum. This has provided support for our teachers. The list of seeds and when planting occurs was extremely helpful to new gardeners. The elementary students planted within their own classrooms.” She also added that students were able to bring the successes home to their family, “Grandparents and parents were thankful to receive lettuces and herbs this summer from their student. We see an opportunity to supply fruits, veggies to our school cafeteria and culinary department. The students were very engaged and thoughtful with the planting process. We see this as a viable lifeskill in Hoonah; teaching our students how to plant, care for, share and preserve a garden.”

“I had three students involved with the greenhouse during summer.  I included it in their daily summer program session so their involvement depended on their attendance.  One of my students had a garden plot also which he was very proud of.  He was able to take produce from his garden plot (the starts came from the greenhouse) to his grandmother’s house one afternoon for a snack.  The pride in his eyes as he left to share what he had grown with his grandmother shined through his face.  He is still talking about going and watering the greenhouse and also is talking about the day he saw produce come from his garden and was able to share it.  Another student who helped water has discussed with her parent the possibility of growing her own veggies in the spring. She has talked to me about ideas for what she can grow in garden containers.”  — Tesh Miller, Hoonah City Schools

What’s Next?

The arrival of MOBY was paired with a tour of the biomass-heated greenhouses on Prince of Wales Island. The tour brought five people from Hoonah to review how the systems and lessons learned at Coffman Cove, Thorne Bay, Naukati, and Kasaan can be brought to Hoonah. Since the tour, the greenhouse group has met 6 times to lay the groundwork for a biomass greenhouse in Hoonah. Most recently, the greenhouse group hosted a MOBY outreach event which will show off the greenhouse through a MOBY greenhouse culinary demonstration. This was also a brainstorming session with the community to understand the opportunities and hurdles of a future greenhouse project.  In Hoonah, we believe MOBY is the stepping stone that Hoonah needed for future greenhouse projects that will positively influence food security issues in the long term.

Thinking about bringing MOBY to your community next year?  Here are some lessons learned in Hoonah that you can “grow” from. These are based on the advice from the community and school members who were involved in the project.

  1. I think MOBY’s biggest success was that it was highly visible – near the community center and on a walking path that many people use – such that community members and particularly children got to see it.  It was attractive, had informational panels, and was clearly of interest to many who wandered past.  Our family used a number of starts from MOBY that grew reasonably well and kept us from 1) purchasing expensive starts from Juneau, or 2) being behind the growing season because we direct seeded.  
  2. It seemed that there needed to be more clarity about who was watering, etc. as there were many, many days when it needed to be watered and wasn’t.  I was afraid to water because I didn’t know the schedule. Many starts were never planted and were consequently “wasted.”  Even unplanted starts can be used for salads, etc.
  3. The starts were “over-planted” so roots didn’t fully develop.  They likely should have been thinned considerably in the flats so they could develop a better root system before separating for planting.  
  4. Need to think through what the community will likely use the most of when planting.
  5. I love the idea of MOBY and wish the school could be more involved.  That said, it feels to me that we are sometimes overly ambitious with garden plans, etc. and when summer rolls around we are all overwhelmed.
  6. Hinderance was that it was a summer thing – and people are busy in the summer!
  7. The greenhouse needs to be a part of the school throughout the year. Moving the greenhouse down to the community plot was a great idea but the school staff and students lost the feeling of ownership. They were glad to share with the community but the learning process of how to work together needs further development and organization.
  8. I feel that MOBY was successful with those that knew and were involved with it.  To touch more people, the greenhouse needs to be shared, possibly hosting a few community classes on growing produce and having it more visible to the public from the beginning to the end, combined with the community garden plots could improve its community impact. 

Yakutat Culture Camp

Written and photographed by Bethany Goodrich for Salmon Life

From sea to summit, Yakutat’s horizon boasts the tallest, most rapidly ascending mountain on Earth. It is here, below Mt. Saint Elias (Was’eitushaa), where the Yakutat Tlingit (Yaakwdáat) have carved their home.On the banks of the S’itak River, Elora fearlessly admires the beating heart of a freshly killed sockeye salmon.

Elora’s Tlingit name is Sei S’oox’, and she belongs to the Teikweidí clan. Her people settled in Yakutat centuries ago. Today, she is salmon (Xaat) fishing.

“When I was a little girl, I would make mom crazy trying to run into the river to swim with the salmon,” she asserts, her eyes transfixed on the heart as it dances its final rhythm into her palm. “I ate a salmon heart once because sister dared me to.” Gasps and giggles erupt across the plywood processing table. Boys and girls are learning how to properly fillet sockeye salmon they plucked moments earlier from turquoise set nets.

The group is participating in Yakutat’s Culture Camp (Haa Yaakwdáat Kusteeyi Yanshuká). This overnight camp is a place where kids are given space to be their honest selves.

“Culture Camp strengthens us as a native community, and it shows kids a lot of the skills they need to just feel proud of who they are,” says Gloria Wolfe. Gloria’s Tlingit name is X’aal Eex’ Tláa, and she belongs to the Wooshkeetaan clan. She is the Cultural Heritage Coordinator with Yakutat Tlingit Tribe.  “A lot of native folks here feel lost in their identity. It can lead to things like suicide or not really knowing how to combat bullying because they just don’t have a strong base.” Across society, people are increasingly estranged from their heritage, the land, and the local resources that feed their families. Culture Camp is changing that for people with ancestral ties to the Yakutat area.

Whether in the art of salmon filleting, weaving or pulling oars through the S’​itak River, the children are naturals and their movements instinctual.

“We had one girl who came here from a difficult background who lives in a city separated from all of this,” Wolfe says as she opens her arms to embrace the scene. Siblings process salmon, and kids chase each other with fistfuls of mud, teeter on giant driftwood castles, or wade in the silty river. “What that girl told us was very impactful,” Wolfe continues. “She told us that ‘During this camp, I realized why I am the way that I am. I have never felt like I fit in anywhere before, and now I know why I feel the way I feel, why I do things the way I do. I never knew that I belonged to a people before.’” Wolfe smiles, her son tugging on her waistband. “It was emotional for her to have that connection. That is what we are hoping for with this camp, to ground kids and let them be healthy being who they are.”

Forty kids aged seven through seventeen are participating in this year’s camp. Activities include salmon and seal processing, Tlingit language classes, canoe paddling, form-line painting, and cedar bark weaving. The goal is to encourage campers to respect themselves, the natural environment, and the traditional tribal values and clan systems of the Yakutat Tlingit.

“Every single kid wants to try and cut fish and smoke the fish. There is 100 percent participation. Same with seal, you would think blood and guts would freak them out, but they can’t wait for their turn. There are these impulses and these instincts that show up out of nowhere, and their amazing fish cutting abilities just come out,” says Wolfe.

Whether in the art of salmon filleting, weaving, or pulling oars through the S’itak River, the children are naturals and their movements instinctual.

“Culture Camp strengthens all of us, and it strengthens kids who may be fishermen and hunters. They can be one of the top dogs here and share those skills, whereas in other scenarios, they may not feel like a leader. Here, they can be shining stars,” says Wolfe.

Culture Camp Reborn

The Yakutat people have not always celebrated Culture Camp beside the S’itak. In addition to carving their homeland into one of the most dynamic landscapes on Earth, the Yakutat Tlingit have overcome myriad social challenges in their journey. Under an increasing concern for Japanese attacks during WWII, the US military scrambled for a foothold to defend the Aleutian Islands. One of the communities they looked to was Yakutat. At its peak, 15-20,000 troops were stationed in this isolated Alaskan village, which is now home to roughly 600 people. Military occupation brought dramatic changes in lifestyle for the Tlingit and new technologies, and it increased pressure on natural resources. Tlingits were denied access to many traditional fishing grounds, and important berry sites were replaced by roads and regulations.

“After the war, land was redistributed and the Yakutat Kwann (the local Native Corporation) acquired the Ankhouw area,” explains Wolfe. “We were thrilled to return back to where we traditionally harvested, and we celebrated and had a Culture Camp on that land for many, many years until we came to find that there was tons of contamination left on-site: asbestos, agent orange, unexploded bombs, quonset huts, a huge oil tank that has been leaking ever since.”  The Yakutat Tlingit Tribe ended Culture Camp abruptly in 1996.

“Those days at Culture Camp were the best times of my life, seriously,” says Wolfe. Later returning to Yakutat after years of schooling, Gloria Wolfe became the Cultural Heritage Coordinator and went to work. With the help of countless volunteers, financial risk-taking, and hours of grant writing, the Yakutat Tribe was able to secure a permit for new lands from the United States Forest Service and begin building camp. Yakutat’s Haa Yaakwdáat Kusteeyi Yanshuká was reborn in 2015. “It was a truly collaborative effort,” adds Gloria.

Salmon and Strength

The sun starts its slow summer tilt toward the horizon, illuminating the children’s faces as they race through the wildflowers with makeshift bows and arrows. In the smokehouse, seal fat oozes from purple flesh beside carefully hung strips of dry salmon. Students focus intently on form-line as they paint a new house front for their camp. Others practice weaving by dipping strips of red cedar into water for their regalia. One baby collapses in the mud with shrieks of joy. Tlingit is spoken casually across generations.

In the cookhouse, volunteers prepare dinner. Unsurprisingly, the food that sustains this sacred scene is fresh sockeye salmon. Ted Valle, Naatsk’i.éesh of the Galyáx Kaagwaantaan clan, is a community elder. He prepares his famous “supersoup” for bustling campers. He stirs seal fat, ribbon seaweed, salmon roe, salmon, and onions into a cauldron. The savory aroma crawls across Culture Camp.

“Here, steak is the rich man’s food and salmon, the poor man’s food,” Wolfe laughs. “Salmon is a major staple, and we literally eat it twice a day for three to four months out of the year. Unfortunately, kids, we are eating king salmon again for dinner,” she mocks.

Coho, King, Dog, Sockeye, and Pink salmon all pulse through the braided rivers and streams that surround Yakutat. In town, access to fresh healthy food and affordable protein is a challenge. Yakutat is not alone in its pursuit for community health. Across the state, 65 percent of Alaskans are either overweight or obese (dhss.alaska.gov). Access to salmon and the sharing of recipes, processing skills, and preservation is not only integral for cultural wellbeing in rural Alaska, but it is essential for community health.

“Not all of these kids come from healthy homes, and this is a healthy environment to talk about things. They get to be safe here, are well fed, and they have a place to laugh and have fun. We don’t serve sugary drinks here, and the kids don’t ask for them. The whole theme of this camp this year is ‘What makes me healthy?’ Part of that is having a cultural identity and part of that is eating your mother’s food.”

Gloria and a group of kids are running fingers across a blanket of black seaweed, carefully separating the pieces to dry.

“These recipes, these foods have been passed down to you, and your body craves it, but sometimes you don’t even realize what exactly you are craving. It just feels like you need carbs or energy,” she says with a laugh. “But actually, what you need is seaweed! Or sockeye!”

Nearby on sheets of cardboard, Kimberly Buller, Kuwúx, empties buckets of fresh salmon roe that the kids harvested this morning.  She and her sons begin to prepare the roe for the smokehouse. “My son told me that all he wants for his birthday is fish eggs,” she says and then laughs. Clearly, the smallest generation at Culture Camp has the appetite to herald family traditions long into the future. He plunges his chubby fingers into the glowing orbs, pounding fistful after fistful past his toothy grin.

This site, these rivers, these practices, these foods, and these ceremonies are sacred. Organizing this camp has demanded resilience and community champions in the face of asbestos, loss, and hardship. The true champions, however, are the kids themselves.

“Even though we eat salmon all the time, those skills are not necessarily passing down. Some families here make the best dry fish, and their grandkids have no idea how to make it. That generational separation is hard to navigate. But, when the kids are here, their peers provide the positive influence that brings more of their peers to the table. ‘Hey, this is what I know how to do, and I’m pretty cute, and I’m going to fillet this fish faster than you!’” Wolfe teases.

Across the camp, supersoup is served. “I could wrestle a bear after this,” Ted whispers after taking his first sip. Tlingit words are practiced, and elders share stories of great migrations and the Little Ice Age. Beside a blazing driftwood fire, counselors remix old songs with fresh beats. With salmon in their bellies, their smokehouses, and their streams, Yakutat’s Haa Yaakwdáat Kusteeyi Yanshuká closes another day beside the swelling S’itak.

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Culture Camp is a cultural leadership resource for Alaska Native youth. Elders believe that Tlingit values, worldviews, and a sense of morality are embedded within their culture. It is important to the entire community of Yakutat that their children become culture bearers, Tlingit language speakers, and ambassadors. Culture Camp focuses on the health of the mind, body, environment, and community.

Written and published with Salmon Life. 

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