When the citizens of Hoonah, Alaska and surrounding Southeast communities arrived at Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay National Park during the morning of August 25th, 2016, it was a homecoming over 250 years in the making. The powerful events of the day were the culmination of nearly two decades of collaboration between Hoonah Indian Association and the National Park Service which helped heal the past and prepare for the future.
Glacier Bay National Park is the traditional homeland of the Huna Tlingit. In the early 1700’s, Sit’k’i T’ooch’ (“Little Black Glacier”) in Glacier Bay National Park surged forward and pushed the Huna Tlingit from their homeland by destroying their settlements, including L’eiwshaa Shakee Aan. This forced the Huna Tlingit out of their homeland and they eventually settled in Xunniyaa (“Sheltered from the North Wind”) which is today known as Hoonah. Eventually the glacier receded and the Huna Tlingit began to hunt, fish and gather in Bartlett Cove where there had once been ice. However, in 1925 the establishment of Glacier Bay National Monument and regulations that followed ultimately led to a strained relationship between the people of Hoonah and the National Park Service. This was coupled with ongoing cultural loss due to integration into Western society. Through a tragic portion of American and Tlingit history much of the language and culture was lots due to repression. Fortunately in recent years patience and collaboration with the NPS has led to development of many program that have helped to strengthen the relationship and served to bring back traditional activities in the park boundaries. In 1995 the concept of a tribal house in the Park was first suggested and the dedication of Xunaa Shuká Hít on August 25th brought that dream to reality.
Entering the Park
The ride over to Bartlett Cove was marked by a Fire Bowl Ceremony symbolizing “feeding the ancestors” and remembering those who were no longer with us. This somber entrance was a reminder to me that this day was not only about going forward for the future, but also to commemorate and embrace those not able to see the day themselves. After the ceremony we continued to the shores of Barlett Cove and walked up to the Tribal House site.
To begin the ceremonies in Bartlett Cove the traditional donning of regalia commenced. Following tradition the opposite moeity members dressed each other while stating “this is not me placing this on you, but __________”, filling in the name of an ancestor. The regalia marked the clan that each was from with incredible artistry and color. The oldest robe was over 100 years old and its faded colors stood in stark contrast to the vibrant new shawls, but was no less incredible to see.
Canoe Landing Ceremony
After donning regalia hundreds of people walked down to the beach of Bartlett Cove and lit a welcome fire for the canoes. As I mentioned in my previous article, these hand-carved dugouts were commissioned for the entrance into the park and their emergence from the far shore was remarkable to watch. The heavy fog of the morning shrouded Bartlett Cove in a thick haze, and by squinting you could see the canoes appear through the curtain of fog. Custom-carved and painted paddles dipped seamlessly into the flat water and the three, vibrant-red boats glided closer to us. On the shore, many members of the community and kids from school were dressed in traditional colors, robes, tunics, and headbands. They stood on the shore waiting expectantly and with anticipation. The canoers approached with their paddle blades raised in the air to signify they came in peace. As the bow of the canoe slide onto shore and the first feet set onto the beach drums broke out, and with paddle blades raised the pullers danced while the throngs of people and brilliant color swayed to the music. As the songs receded the canoe was hoisted onto many shoulders and brought to the Tribal House. A beautiful, hand-woven Chilkat Robe was presented to Master Carver Wayne Price. He was the first of many to wear the robe to celebrate canoe journeys as the robe will travel to future events which include canoe journeys.
Without the correct process the dedication of the tribal house would not be complete. Per tradition, the tree ceremony acknowledged the resources that were required to make the tribal house and canoes. Without the yellow cedar and spruce nothing would have been possible.
Screen Ceremony/Naming Ceremony
All of the artwork in the Tribal Households symbolize stories that are just waiting to be told to be told. During the screen ceremony the clan leaders described the exterior screen of the Tribal House to let the people know what the design symbolized. Finally the name of the Tribal House was announced and breathed life into the Tribal House. Xunaa Shuká Hít. The crowd repeated it three times and it gave me goosebumps. The name approximately translates to “Huna Ancestors House’”. It could not be a more fitting name for a building made to tell the story of the past and prepare for new generations.
It was a privilege to walk into Xunaa Shuká Hít with the Tlingit People. The inside smelled of fresh cedar and spruce, and throngs of people packed around the edges to leave room in the middle for the elders. Each clan leader began to tell the story of their clan as expressed on the interior house screen and house poles. Their stories mingled with the low murmur of the crowd. As they concluded the drums started to pound and the dancing began. The sound made the walls of the tribal house throb and pound. It was a joyous end to a dramatic and memorable day.
For me one of the most incredible pieces of the dedication was the art and colors of traditional Tlingit ceremonial clothing. Many of these pieces of regalia are only exhibited during special events. The blankets and robes depict clan crests which are images that document a significant event in a clan’s history and stake claim to a particular bit of territory. An example of this may be seen in the Chookaneidi regalia. In it, the octopus design is meant to memorialize an event in which two Chookaneidi men gave their lives to defend the community against a giant octopus. The crest then stakes the Chookaneidi claim to the Inian Islands where the event occurred.
The Future of Xunaa Shuká Hít
The tribal house dedication is only the beginning of a greater and better relationship between Glacier Bay National Park and the people of Hoonah. This photograph of Tribal President Frank Wright shaking hands with NPS Superintendent Philip Hooge says a lot about a relationship that is starting to bud and provides hope that future trips to Xunaa Shuká Hít will continue to remember the past while preparing for the future.
Special thanks to Mary Beth Moss of the National Park Service for her review of this article. All photographs taken by Ian Johnson. More are available to view online at : http://ianajohnson.com/past-future-xunaa-shuka-hit/
Written by Lia Heifetz for Edible Alaska
Adam Davis drives the Mobile Greenhouse off the Alaska Marine Highway ferry to Kake.
Puzzled drivers look on as the greenhouse cruises down Egan Drive toward the Juneau ferry terminal. There it is delicately backed down the ramp and on to the Alaska Marine Highway ferry. After a seven-hour journey through fjords and around the numerous islands of the Inside Passage, it touches down at its new summer home in Kake, a small coastal community of about 400 residents. In Kake the greenhouse is towed off the ferry and to the school where the Organized Village of Kake, the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, and students of Kake High School get to try out their green thumbs.
Meet Moby, Alaska’s first classroom greenhouse on wheels. Moby’s walls rise about ten feet high from an 18-foot long flatbed trailer. With clear polycarbonate walls and ceiling, a solar powered fan for ventilation, a water catchment system, sturdy wooden raised beds, and hanging baskets brimming with rich topsoil, the greenhouse is nearly an all-inclusive growing system. All Moby needs is now sun, water, seeds, and some TLC, and it comes to life.
The beauty of a traveling greenhouse is its mobility. Moby travels with a mission: to share knowledge and food production skills with schools, and to support healthy students while growing vibrant, sustainable, and food-secure Alaskan communities. It’s a steppingstone that helps communities whet their appetite for local foods by providing a space for students and community members to engage in hands-on cultivation and education.
Jaquelin Bennum, Simon Friday, Anthony Gastelum, Charles Duncan , and Loretta Gregory display fresh veggies produced in the greenhouse with pride.
Throughout the spring, summer, and fall, Kake residents will use the greenhouse to kickstart local food cultivation. “The availability of fruits and vegetables is a challenge, the stores are expensive. Additionally, energy is expensive and there are not many jobs,” says Jacquelin Bennum, a senior at Kake High School and the president of the newly formed Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter here.
Moby’s visit to Kake is what prompted the group’s formation. “FFA and the greenhouse have taught me a lot about responsibility,” says Jacquelin. The FFA students oversee the planning, watering, weeding, thinning, and harvesting to maintain the greenhouse crops. “We have the opportunity to learn how to run a business. The greenhouse is a place where we can go to unite with people our age, to get to know each other, and get to know a little more about our wonderful land around us and how we can grow where we live,” says Jacquelin.
Cucumbers crawl up the windows, while squash, tomatoes, and giant Swiss chard burst from the beds. By late summer, Moby is full of life. and expanding its reach beyond the indoor space. Raised beds have been built outside, and the students are gaining skills and inspiration to grow food in the open air. “I learned how much water things need and how often I need to be up here. The rainy days I can pass by a day or two and it will still be moist,” reports Charles Duncan.
Charles Duncan holds up his harvest.
Charles is a 10th grader and the treasurer of the FFA in Kake. He harvests a handful of chard from the raised beds to reveal a couple of smaller plants growing underneath. “The plant I have to pay attention to the most is the chard, which absorbs the most water,” he says. A raised bed dedicated to chard is harvested by Jacquelin and Charles, and brought to the senior center to be shared with the elders for lunch. It’s a tradition in Kake to share the first harvest of the season. The rest of the day’s harvest is sold to raise funds for the FFA club.
Education, community, and student engagement have been priorities from Moby’s inception. The greenhouse was designed by Kaden Phillips, a University of Alaska Southeast student in the Construction Technology department. It was then built by Juneau Douglas High School students in their Basic Construction class using local cedar sourced from Icy Straits Lumber & Milling, based out of the nearby town of Hoonah. Juneau start-up AKReUse, a local company offering high-quality repurposed materials, also provided materials to construct Moby.
Simon Friday gets to work in the Mobile Greenhouse learning hands-on skills in food cultivation in rural Alaska.
Kake is only the first stop for the traveling greenhouse. Each fall, rural communities in Southeast Alaska can apply to be Moby’s next home. Community partners are encouraged to submit applications and explain how using the greenhouse will help community food cultivation goals be realized.
The possibilities are endless – school gardening and farming allow the future leaders of Kake to recognize the potential for local food production. “It doesn’t mean we have to start big. Start small, slowly add on to it. Over time we could start an actual fresh business out of it,” says Jacquelin. Charles agrees, “What we planted has flourished and almost everything has grown. There is a giant possibility for something to happen. It is a great opportunity.”
Next spring Moby will be on the road again, with hopes of inspiring a new crop of Southeast Alaskan gardeners and farmers by planting seeds of awareness throughout the region.
Kake School was so inspired by Moby the Mobile Greenhouse that the students built raised garden beds to continue growing fresh veggies in.
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.”
Written for Alaska’s Capital City Weekly
Southeast Alaskans are not shy around the forest. Our rural communities are surrounded by the largest remaining temperate rainforest on earth. We build homes and businesses with the natural resources those lands provide. Every summer, Alaskans are reminded that the majority of the fish that feed our world-renowned salmon industry begin their lives among these trees. We escape into the forest and disappear between the spruce and hemlock in pursuit of Sitka black-tailed deer or wild mushrooms. We are forest people, and a coalition of land managers across the region are collaborating to ensure that the people who help manage these forests are the same people who call these lands their backyard.
Harrison Voegeli is one such man. “Seeing that locals are out in the forest hunting — they are the ones out in the forest cutting their firewood and getting trees for their totems — it’s very important to have the participation of locals,” Voegeli said. Voegeli is one of ten people who are spending their workdays inspecting the forests on Prince of Wales Island.
“At the moment, the timber industry is geared toward cutting down old trees. Trees that have been alive for several hundred years to in some cases, several thousand years. These older trees have older, denser and harder wood than young trees, but now there is a push to move away from cutting these old forests because the health of our forest is tied to these old growth stands,” explained Voegeli. “We want to start cutting trees that are younger than 150 years but not all are ready to be logged yet. So what we are doing is going out and determining how long it will take until they are ready.”
The crew are measuring trees, recording forest stand makeup and collecting a suite of data that is helping land managers paint a more detailed picture of our young growth forests. The inventory was initiated through an agreement between the State of Alaska and the USDA Forest Service’s State and Private Forestry arm earlier this year. The goal is to collect valuable forest data to aid Southeast’s transition to a predominantly young-growth timber industry. It’s also an opportunity to develop a local workforce.
Jason Anderson is the Deputy Forest Supervisor for the Tongass National Forest. “As we went out to try and understand what’s going in that older young growth timber on the forest, the need to capture that data was a good fit for figuring out how the work of that data collection could also benefit local communities who are interested in working in the natural resource field,” said Anderson.
The crew conducting the inventory come from a range of backgrounds. “Clayton Smally is kind of a local legend. He’s 57 now and he had been logging here since he was 14,” Voegeli said. “A couple of years ago he decided he was done with logging and wanted to see a different side, now of conservation. You can definitely teach an old dog new tricks!”
Then there’s Brent O’Conner, a former manager at Papa’s Pizza who wanted to try his hands at an outdoor job. Some have kids; one is a forester.
This group attended an academy in the spring that prepared them for careers in local forestry. This two-week field course was facilitated by Haa Aani, LLC (a subsidiary of Sealaska that is dedicated to local economic development) Kai Environmental, the United States Forest Service and the State of Alaska.
“Working with our partners, we put together the Forest Academy and found that we have an interested group of people who want to participate in that work and learn more about the forest while producing really valuable data that helps us manage those lands into the future,” said Anderson.
“Having a local workforce that understands forest dynamics rather than having the Forest Service, for example, hiring someone to come up from Kentucky for the summer to look at trees and after that they leave, is really really good. It brings the local community in to be a part of the process where they are able to make decisions and be informed and inform their fellows about what’s going on in the forest, and how their lands are being managed,” Voegeli said.
The academy was the collaborative effort of multiple land managers to train a skilled local workforce that could be called upon for work on both private and public lands. All eight of those who attended the academy were offered work on Prince of Wales.
“My sense is that all land managers are motivated by similar interests: a skilled workforce that they can count on to do work year after year to support the forest industry, not just logging but all activities that occur in forest landscapes,” Anderson said. “And these jobs will always be stable. I think the public will always expect goods and services from their lands — both public and private…. Individuals who already live here and love it have great employment potential and that is what are seeing so far.”
There are plans to orchestrate a second Academy in the next several months that would invite interested folks from beyond Prince of Wales to get professional development experience catered to work in Southeast Alaska’s forests. For more information check www.sustainablesoutheast.net or contact Alana Peterson, the Program Director for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, Haa Aaani LLC directly at 907-747-3132 or Alana.Peterson@sealaska.com.
As the morning of Sept. 3 broke warm and clear over the village of Kasaan, a small southeast Alaskan village of approximately 50 year-round residents, a sense of excitement and celebration — along with laughter, music, and the sound of carving tools on wood — filled the air. Carver Gitajang (Glenn “Stormy” Hamar) along with apprentice carvers St’igiinii (Harley Holter), Nang K’adangaas (Eric Hamar), and Wooshdeiteitxh (Justin Henricks) were in the carving shed, preparing for the rededication of Náay í’Waans (The Great House), better known as the Chief Son-i-Hat Whale House.
“It (Náay í’Waans) is our history and connects us to our heritage, our ancestors, and means everything to the people and to the village of Kasaan,” said Gitajang.
Prior to the past three years of reconstruction, the longhouse, built in 1880, was subject to insects, adverse weather and vandalism. Gitajang and his crew have replaced rotting and weakened poles, planks, and roofing, carefully restoring Náay í’Waans to its traditional beauty and strength. They’ve used as much of the original longhouse as possible.
As the day progressed, nearly 1,000 visitors began to make their way from Kasaan to Náay í’Waans, a leisurely stroll along a sun dappled trail, to meet canoes from Kasaan, Klawock, Ketchikan, and as far away as Juneau. St’igiinii ran briskly along the trail, calling out greetings to guests as he raced to meet the first of them.
St’igiinii has worked tirelessly on Náay í’Waans. Many who call him nephew or friend have heard his laughter in the carving shed or through the forest. On Sept. 3, however, he was serious when he spoke of what the longhouse means to him. “Náay í’Waans was a beacon of hope to the people of Old Kassan,” he said. (A century ago, many people moved from Old Kassan, on Skowl Arm, to Kasaan for jobs and the school.) “It was built to preserve and protect the Haida culture. And today it still serves as that beacon of hope to this community. It still preserves and protects the Haida culture and connects us to our ancestors.”
Náay í’Waans, The Great House in Kasaan, as seen from the beach. Photo Quinn Aboudara
That morning, a young voice announced the sighting of the first canoes as they rounded the point into the small bay in which Náay í’Waans sits, its main entrance facing the beach. People began to fill the beach as the canoes paddled closer to shore. Both those on water and on shore sang traditional songs as each canoe passed the beach, allowing the standing Chief Son-i-Hat, John McAllister, to recognize them before they gathered off shore and waited to be recognized. (Kóyongxung was the original Chief Son-i-Hat, a wealthy Haida chief and the man who commissioned Náay í’Waans; he died in 1912.)
Standing Chief Son-i-Hat’s voice sounded across the water as he identified each of the canoes and granted them permission to land upon the shore before Náay í’Waans. Those on land sang them in, and St’igiinii waded into the water to help the crews disembark and join those gathered on the gravelly beach. People sang songs of celebration and welcome as they walked the canoes up the shore with the rising tide; guests and locals filled the area around Náay í’Waans. As the grand entrance began, dance groups from Hydaburg, Klawock, Ketchikan, Juneau, and Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands), circled the longhouse, singing and dancing as they entered. Their voices and drums filled the air and drifted through the trees.
Standing Chief Son-i-Hat, John McAllister, welcomes and grants permission to canoes to land on the beach before Naay i’Waans. Photo by Quinn Aboudara
Canoers from Juneau passthe shore to be recognized before requesting permission to land on the beach before Náay í’Waans. Photo by Quinn Aboudara
Haida elder from Kasaan Julie Coburn gave opening prayers and recognition to Taslaanas, the bear clan of Kasaan. Then Anthony “Tony” Christiansen, mayor of Hydaburg, and Chalyee Éesh (Richard Peterson), President of Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, who is from Kasaan, took over the duties of announcing the speakers for the event.
Speakers included Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot, Kavilco Incorporated president Louis Jones Sr., Organized Village of Kasaan tribal president Ronald Leighton, City of Kasaan mayor Della Coburn, Rasmuson Foundation representative Jason Smart, Skidegate Traditional Chief Russ Jones, and Chief Son-i-Hat descendant Clinton Cook Jr.
As the speeches ended guests began to make their way back toward Kasaan, where an evening of celebration awaited before the recently opened Totem Trail Café. Kasaan community members and volunteers had been preparing throughout the day, cooking and setting up seating for their guests. They filled long tables with traditional foods: salmon, halibut, venison, and more, along with endless pots of hot coffee and strong tea.
Lt. Governor Byron Mallot speaks before Naay i’Waans. Also standing, to the right, is Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA) President Richard Peterson (Chalyee Éesh), who is from Kasaan. Photo Quinn Aboudara
As dance groups from around Southeast Alaska and Haida Gwaii sang and danced, gifts of carved panels, woven cedar hats, headdresses, and regalia were given to honored guests while gifts of t-shirts, jams, honey, jarred salmon, jewelry, posters, clothing, and many other items were given in thanks to all that attended.
And as the sun set on Náay í’Waans and the village of Kasaan, the carvers had been honored, respect had been given to all who had made this historic event possible and Náay í’Waans, The Great House, often known as the Chief Son-i-Hat Whale House stood, restored, in the brilliant glow of the setting sun, a continued beacon of hope for the preservation and protection of the Haida culture and a testament of strength and unity.
The traditional Haida longhouse restoration project was made possible through the partnership of the Organized Village of Kasaan (OVK), Kavilco Non-Profit, and the Kasaan Haida Heritage Foundation. The efforts were also aided through funding from the Rasmuson Foundation as well as donations of timber from Sealaska Corporation, The U.S. Forest Service, and the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority.
Whale house carvers dance before guests at the Discovery Center/Totem Trail Café in Kasaan during the rededication of Naay i’Waans. Photo by Quinn Aboudara
Written for the Salmon Project
Like a salmon, I grew up running wild. As a toddler, I chased my brother through the trees behind our childhood home. Later (braver), with dirt beneath my nails and calloused feet, I trailed new boys through those same woodlands. And when I discovered that all the land I knew and loved was slated to become rows of cookie-cutter colonial houses, I ran away, right out of Massachusetts. I chased ambitions across the globe before finally falling face-first in love with the rich and plentiful waters and rainforest of Southeast Alaska.
Southeast is now my home, and I’m lucky enough to travel and explore the region for work, shadowing locals and documenting their ways of life. In each community I’ve found teachers who have helped me establish my gait in this new backyard. Teachers, like my friends in Hydaburg, who have taught me how to stop running through a landscape. To instead, take root. This is a story of beach seining with the Haida, of finding my footing. This is a story of how you gill a girl.
Beach Seining With The Haida
Hydaburg is one of only two Haida villages in Southeast Alaska. Located on Prince of Wales Island, this community of 400 pulses with energy. Colorful salt-worn homes border streets alive with laughing children. Gangs of all ages look out for one another, dropping fishing lines into cold clean waters and sneaking thimbleberries from neighbor’s yards. Yells, hollers and revving engines fill the evening as people return triumphantly with deer strapped to their ATVS. Haida dancers practice songs before scrimmaging basketball in open gym. Uncles tease and chase their nieces for hugs with the lingering stink of a successful salmon fishing day.
I head out on the water with Sam Mooney, Edward Peele and Toni Rae Sanderson to beach seine sockeye at Eek Inlet. Sam runs the show and I know he’s testing my character from the moment I step onboard. Who is this peculiar lanky white chick with the camera anyways? Ed sits on board with a grin like a Cheshire cat. He dips his hands into a giant bag of taffy before burning one of Sams cigarettes and whispering a prayer as we cut through the water and head out to fish.
We arrive at our spot and the fish rodeo begins. Scanning the horizon for jumping fish and disturbed water, we hunt for our target. Sam explains to me the significance of salmon, of harvesting rich nutrition from the landscape as being the crux and backbone of being Haida. His lesson is quickly brought to life.
“There!” Sam points and rams the boat into gear. Toni, watching from the dingy attached to our skiff, gets poised and ready. “Go!” screams Sam. She drops the bucket attached to the net into the water. Sam speeds the skiff in a circle, lassoing the school of sockeye. The loop is completed and the dingy reaches the skiff. Ed jumps on board with Toni and starts beating the metal plunger into the water. He is trying to startle the salmon into the net and also prevent the fish from sneaking through the open end. Toni slowly pulls the net in, tightening the circle, smaller and smaller. No fish this round. We try again and again, each time a little more successful than the last.
It’s getting late and we plan for one last rodeo. Sam looks at me with his testing expression and a mischievous smile. He doesn’t need to ask twice. I hop on the dingy and he sets off in pursuit of our glittery friends. “Go!”. We let the bucket loose and hold tight. I plunge as hard as I can to the yaps and demands of my mentor. “Faster! Deeper! You won’t scare the salmon like that,” he shrieks. As we pull in the fish he reminds me to take over for Ed, that you don’t ask to help an elder you simply do it. I take note.
Sam howls. He points his finger at me from the skiff, my tired arms collapsed pathetically at my sides. “Now, you’ve gone beach seining with the Haidas!” he hoots. “This is what we call a deck-load,” he says gesturing to the salmon overflowing the cooler resting on deck. The sun is starting it’s slow summer descent toward the horizon. Toni collapses at the nose of the skiff in exhaustion. The golden light trims the water and illuminates the proud beaming grin of Ed resting content beside our deck-load of salmon. We turn our tired faces toward town.
A successful day on the water means celebration. But first, it means work. When we pull up to the dock, exhausted and weary I hop into the truck bed with Toni. They slow at my door and I feel the gaze of my teachers land upon me as I leap out with my things.
“So where are we going to process these?” I ask.
Their stoic expressions crack and Sam lets out a guffaw and slaps his door. “Haha! You pass the final test. Drop your things and I’ll be back in fifteen to get you.” Salmon fishing is a means for testing each other’s character. It is also an opportunity for testing and building your own.
A warm dark night settles over Hydaburg as we head down the dock. We battle bugs for hours as our assembly line carefully heads and guts our bounty. We work until we can barely keep our eyelids from collapsing. Washing the blood and guts off our hands, we finally itch the bites that litter our faces necks and backs. I’m not sure if the blood on my body came from me, the mosquitos, my comrades or the salmon and I’m far too tired to care. Sam’s heart-melting smile erupts across his sleepy face. “You can be a little Haida now,” he says. He points to the very itty bitty tiny tip of his pinky finger, “That much!,” he laughs.
Well, it’s a start anyways.
The next day I process salmon with Toni and her sisters Mary and Jennifer. Neighbors stop by to offer advice, recipes and secrets. We float a potato in our brine to test its salinity and kids poke in to see the fish, learn the process and help. The sisters teach each other how to clean the sockeye and filet properly so the salmon straddle and hang in the smoke house. They take turns brining, hanging and using berry bushes to swat bugs from our bounty. The fire is set and the girls trickle off to their families. Toni will check on the fire through the night.
Trails of alder smoke chug out the chimney and through cracks in the wooden smokehouse. Streams of this potent heat sneak through my open window as my head hits the pillow. My drained mind slowly wanders and processes the days as it heads full speed to sleep.
I think about salmon fishing and my new friends. While we are united in our exhaustion and contentment, our perceptions of fishing are unique. For Ed, salmon fishing is a tradition as familiar as the sunrise. He explained how when he grew up in Hydaburg, there was no road that connected his village to the outside world. Your grocery store was the alpine or river mouth.
For me, this seasonal tradition is still fresh. With each passing year, I feel more tempered to the way of life here but I still have a lot to learn.
I roll over and stuff a grin into my pillowcase, thinking about salmon and all that they mean to this region. I visualize the fish as they tie together our forest and ocean, our economy and families, our health and our hopes, Hydaburg to Kodiak, age-old Alaskans to newcomers. They tie all these things into a complex web, a big ‘ole net. This is the net that finally gilled my wandering body, the net that caught me and roots me to this land. A net where I rest my bones, where many Alaskans place their futures and tonight, the net where I curl up and graciously succumb to a hard-earned sleep.