Written by Bethany Sonsini Goodrich for Edible Alaska Magazine
Across the country cafeteria trays aren’t often admired for their nutrition, freshness, or taste. In rural southeast Alaska, however, a dedicated school district and its greenhouse program are challenging that notion, while invigorating local economies, growing entrepreneurs, and gratifying taste buds.
Prince of Wales Island rests at the southernmost end of Alaska’s panhandle. The communities that make up this island are isolated, connected by seemingly endless miles of winding roads. The Southeast Island School District (SISD) is the major school district on Prince of Wales. It includes nine schools in unique communities from the small Haida village of Kasaan to old logging camps like Coffman Cove. All of these communities share some key challenges. Only one of them has a grocery store of considerable size, and the majority of the food is barged in. By the time these costly imported vegetables hit family plates, they are often wilted and unappetizing. Residents are in search of long-term economic solutions.
As in many small schools across the state, cafeteria lunches also lack crunch. “Small schools don’t have full time cooks and use mostly warming ovens to make eggrolls and burritos,” says Lauren Burch, the superintendent for Southeast Island School District on Prince of Wales Island. “That’s not what we should be feeding our kids.”
Those heat-and-serve lunches are not only uninspiring, they are costly too. “In my school district I lose roughly $100,000 a year even having a food program at all, and that’s gotta come from somewhere,” Burch says. The state’s purse strings aren’t loosening any time soon. Alaskans are witnessing the slicing and dicing of many key programs, including the whittling away of school funding. “State funding right now is traumatizing,” he admits.
But Burch—along with teachers, students, administrators, and community members of Southeast Island School District—is stepping up to face these challenges with gusto. What started with a few raised garden beds and a heat recovery system in one school has since grown into an island-wide phenomena. Kasaan, Naukati Bay, Thorne Bay and Coffman Cove have all replaced costly diesel generators with wood boiler systems and are using local wood to heat schools, greenhouses, and businesses. They are growing their own food, freshening up those lunch trays, and supporting the local economy as they revolutionize district thinking. This inspiring cohort is accomplishing all of this while giving the next generation of Alaska’s leaders a mouth-watering hands-on education.
So, how does it work? Let’s take a tour.
AQUAPONICS: FROM FISH TO FRESH VEGGIES
“Everything we do starts with those fish. All we have to do is feed them. We use their feces throughout the system as nutrients. We use the poop to grow the plants, in short speak,” explains Ieshia Searle. Ieshia is a senior at Thorne Bay High School and has been involved in the greenhouse since its’ inception.
Eager goldfish crowd the window of a big central tank as Ieshia sprinkles a bit of fish food from above. A pump moves nutrient rich water from this tank through colonies of bacteria that filter the solid waste and convert fish feces into a form of nitrogen the plants can use. The water is then funneled into a series of pools where rafts of lettuce float beneath energy efficient LED lights. Different varieties of lettuce reach down into the water, absorbing nutrients while filtering and cleaning the pool. Ieshia pulls up a raft of butter lettuce, carefully inspecting the long spindly roots. “These are beautiful roots!” she declares. “Normally we harvest once a week, if not more, depending how our crops turn out. We actually stay pretty busy at the Thorne Bay greenhouse.”
Over in Coffman Cove, the largest and most impressive of the school greenhouses is over 6,000 square feet. At full capacity Coffman Cove will be churning out 800 heads of lettuce a week. That’s a lot of greens.
But, greens aren’t all that these greenhouses produce. Water continues to move through the aquaponics system into a series of beds containing a very fine matrix material made of coconut husks, which fully filters the water. It then returns to the fish and the loop continues, nourishing everything from turnips and tomatoes to green onions and basil. The vegetables are packaged by students, served in school lunches, and delivered and sold to shops where they reach families throughout Prince of Wales.
INTEGRATED LEARNING: GROUNDING THE ‘COMMON CORE’
All four greenhouses are using adaptations of an aquaponics system. Originally, Thorne Bay tested hydroponics, but made the switch to aquaponics in order to diversify their crops and offer students more integrated learning opportunities. “We wanted to dive more into the process. Hydroponics felt like a mystery machine where you pumped chemicals in and lettuce came out,” says Megan Fitzpatrick, the SISD science teacher. “Aquaponics is more of a natural ecosystem approach to growing.” She is able to teach the nitrogen cycle, soil chemistry, plant biology and more. Students are also able to craft experiments. “It’s more engaging. There is a lot of flexibility,” Fitzpatrick explains.
The greenhouse does not replace the curriculum, it brings it to life. Students spend one hour of class time each day working with the program and experiential learning opportunities abound—for more than just chemistry and the life sciences. Students across the island are investigating ways to make their greenhouse programs as self-sustaining as possible, while learning how to conduct feasibility studies, identify niche markets, gauge supply and demand, and brand their products. They are also looking at ways to improve the system, exploring opportunities for saving energy while increasing food production.
“Working at this greenhouse, I’ve been able to learn how to grow food while also being able to learn how to manage a business and keep it running without having to depend on the school district. At the start, we had the school district buying the seeds and the supplies that we needed, but now we are able to pay them back and make a profit,” Ieshia asserts with pride.
The four greenhouses are part of a larger program that also includes raising poultry, growing apples, making and selling tortillas and pizza dough, and a student-run restaurant and storefront. This engaging combination of projects creates opportunities for teaching business skills, life skills, employment skills and responsibility in a meaningful and hands-on way. “When kids first started here they were so shy and didn’t want to talk about the greenhouse,” says Fitzpatrick. “Now, so many people come by and visit the greenhouse from the community and even the lieutenant governor has stopped by. Kids are learning public speaking skills,” she says. “When students are engaged, they retain and when they retain they are more confident.”
AN IMPACT YOU CAN TASTE
Rural Alaska is hungry for fresh food and innovation. “Our schools absolutely are the heartbeat of the community and play a vital role in the sustainability of these communities,” attests Colter Barnes, the school greenhouse manager on the island. Southeast Island School District is looking at their students as powerful assets for building more resilient communities, supporting the local economy, and addressing food system challenges, while receiving a top-notch education.
“I think the progressive districts are out there saying, how can we do more with less funding, how can we generate revenue? I have a thousand students in my building, how can I give them real learning opportunities that are connected to standards, their diploma, their interests, and strengthens our community, but also generates revenue. There is so much you can do with kids, they want to engage,” Barnes says.
“We need to teach kids healthy eating skills. They need to use knives to cut their food, enough of these heat-and-serve open boxes,” adds Megan Fitzpatrick. “I saw these kids when they first started in the greenhouse. They weren’t eating the stuff and now they’re fighting over it. Seeing kids recognize the healthy benefits of eating fresh vegetables and recognizing that they can do this at home, that is a life skill they can carry on through their adult life. That to me is the most rewarding.”
Back at the school cafeteria, the rewards keep on growing as more and more students swap egg rolls for rainbow chard.
Written and photographed by Bethany Goodrich
Indigenous leaders from across our planet united in O’ahu this September. Foreheads together, they shared a breath during an opening ceremony for the E Alu Pu Gathering. E Alu Pu translates in Hawaiian to Move Forward together and this gathering was hosted by Kua Hawaii prior to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Conservation Congress to do just that. This intimate traditional Hawaiian greeting called ‘Honi’, helped introduce over 150 people from around the world together at this pre-gathering.
I traveled south to participate in both the E Alu Pu Gathering and IUCN World Conservation Congress as a representative of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership and Sitka Conservation Society. The World Conservation Congress is an IUCN event held every four years to bring together leaders from around the globe to map a course forward for our peoples and planet. I joined a delegation of indigenous leaders and environmental advocates from Alaska, British Columbia and Washington. This cross-boundary collaboration was funded by the Nature Conservancy’s Emerald Edge program.
The north shore of O’ahu shares many similarities with the rural island communities where we work across Southeast Alaska. The cultures, the languages, the faces and customs differ of course, but the thick ties to land and ocean are common. We fill our bellies with food pulled from the sea and gather nutrition from the forest. We live vibrant lives connected to the health of our coastline in everyday ways. Sadly, this lifestyle and way of being in intimate balance with the seasons of a local landscape is disappearing across the globe. It has not been completely eradicated though and this gathering brought together people from Papua New Guinea and Malawi to Alaska and Molokai, who share environmentally grounded lifestyles and rich cultural histories.
For days, the group talked climate and how changing seasons are shaking century-old traditions off kilter. We shared fears. The first US school to be swallowed by the impacts of climate change happened last month in Northern Alaska. Uncle Leimana from Molokai expressed his concerns for poached mollusks on his coastline. Deli from Vanuatu explained the exhaustion of her work and the apathy of her country’s youth. We share successes. A woman from Rappeneau (Easter Island) announced that soon, her people will have full management of their traditional lands returned to them. Obama designated the largest marine protected area on earth during the week leading up to the conference: the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Many participants share chants and songs passed on from ancestors, parents, and tribes. We learn the process of traditional Hawaiian home building using knots, rope and branches and are taught about local resource management. We help in the restoration of fish ponds, a customary Hawaiian fishing practice, by heaving stones and building fish rearing structures.
During the E Alu Pu gathering and over the course of four days, the group built a multinational community founded on living in balance with island earth. We left feeling humbled, motivated, and inspired by our international neighbors and were prepared to attend the IUCN World Conservation Congress with restored strength and momentum.
The IUCN World Conservation Congress
The Conservation Congress in Honolulu brought together more than 9,000 people from 190 different nations. Politicians, entrepreneurs, environmental advocates, scientists, and indigenous leaders shared inspiration and grounded examples of success and challenges alongside E.O. Wilson, Sylvia Earle, Jane Goodall. The 2 week event culminated in the ‘Hawaiian Commitments’, a series of international agreements that help guide the way we as individuals, communities, private institutions, public institutions and nations prioritize sustainability efforts moving forward.
The Congress’s theme this year was ‘Planet at the Crossroads’ in recognition of the harsh decisions that need to be made if we hope to prosper as a civilization on a finite planet in the long term. The commitments stressed seven key areas. Many of which have direct relevancy to our work in Southeast Alaska. To read the commitments please check out the link here.
Key Take Homes for the Southeast
Overall, a key take-home from the conference and gathering was the power of local grassroots community organizations and indigenous leadership in charting a sustainable path forward for our planet. Rooted to local rural communities, our SSP partners are on the frontline of environmental challenges and can therefore adapt and respond in ways that national and international institutions cannot. Localized resource management, community visioning, land-use planning, energy efficiency measures and sustainable subsistence practices are all examples of community actions that can positively impact our world and climate.
Thanks to the work of so many dedicated partners, there are plenty of success stories to call upon in these areas. Southeast Alaska is a region rich with opportunity in ways not present in many other places across the globe. We boast large expanses of intact ecosystems, natural resources, renewable energy options, a vibrant and hardy culture and resourceful residents. In Hoonah, the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership is integrating traditional knowledge and employing a local work crew to study, monitor and direct the management of the local landscape. Hydaburg Cooperative Association, the tribe in the largest Haida community in Alaska, monitors and records important anadromous stream habitat to direct local development in a way that protects and prioritizes salmon. The Sitka Tribe is integrating subsistence practices and western science to manage shellfish harvesting, understand PSP and encourage healthy safe gathering. The Sitka Conservation Society and Nature Conservancy are working to help transition regional timber management to a sustainable industry that maximizes benefits to our communities and ecosystems in the long-term.
Of course, there is plenty of untapped opportunity too. In our neighbor across the border, British Columbia, all First Nation communities boast Marine Plans that outline local resource management activities. The Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards Program (SEAS) in British Columbia, exposes youth to traditional resource stewardship at an early age by integrating stewardship activities directly into classroom curricula. The IUCN Congress also examined looming threats to natural resources. The United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work group expressed concerns about mineral mines in Canada threatening Southeast Alaska’s salmon stocks. To be sustainable in the long-term, our communities need to become more self-sufficient. We need to localize our energy and food systems and support diverse and robust economies. There is still work to be done.
The IUCN World Conservation Congress and the E Alu Pu Gathering helped chart a path forward for our planet. Of course, there are many uncertainties with that path but it’s a solid start. When thinking about that path I keep thinking back to the Hawaiian greeting that began my trip. Foreheads together, we must approach one another as partners with eyes open, acknowledging the work to be done. We must face our challenges together, step outside our comfort zone and acknowledge the work head-on. We share this planet, and by building lasting relationships and by pausing to take a breath together, we can move forward in solidarity toward a more prosperous and sustainable way of life.
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.