Join gardeners of Southeast Alaska in Haines Feb 16-18th, 2018 for a 3 day conference on growing local produce in our short challenging growing season. Focusing on home use and small-scale farms, topics will include soil health, gardening practices, storage and preservation, composting, and food security.. Jeff Lowenfels, acclaimed long-time Alaskan garden author and writer, will be the keynote speaker. Format will include break- out sessions with local experienced growers, community extension personnel and sharing forums.. There will be many opportunities to network and share knowledge.
February 16- 18, 2018
More information and sign up at:
Brought to you by Southeast Gardener’s of Alaska”
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 email@example.com
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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Need to think through what the community will likely use the most of when planting.
- 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.
- Hinderance was that it was a summer thing – and people are busy in the summer!
- 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.
- 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.
Written and published with Alaska’s Capital City Weekly
The days are getting shorter and full of rain. Many Southeast Alaskans are dreading the impending seasonal shift. In Hoonah however, one 12-old boy is pretty excited. Standing over his garden, Ted Elliot pops another snap pea into his mouth.
“The most exciting thing is the end of fall when you get to harvest all your stuff and have a good green meal,” Ted said.
Tucked into the center of town behind the Fishermen’s Daughter, a local restaurant shaped like a boat, sits a grid of raised garden beds called the Hoonah Healing Community Garden. These beds are free for community members to use. Exploding out of the bed that Ted has cared for over the past two years stands impressive snap pea bushes laden with pods. This season, Ted has been bringing fresh produce home to feed his family. His mother, Elleana Elliot, is beaming about it.
“I made jojos the other day from his potatoes! I invited his grandpa down and fed the whole house. We have a family dinner gathering every Sunday and different houses come down and its tradition. Ted has been bringing fresh greens to those Sunday dinners,” Elleana said with excitement.
Located on Chichagof Island, Hoonah is an isolated Tlingit community that is home to roughly 750 year round residents. Like all Southeast Alaskan communities, the great majority of store-bought food travels at a snail’s pace from the lower 48 by barge. Serving quality, fresh produce for family dinner is both challenging and expensive. Residents who aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty, however, see this challenge as an opportunity to learn how to grow more locally.
“At first it wasn’t like this, the way we ate. It was more store bought carrots, more store bought potatoes, store bought snap peas which my mom don’t like that much,” Ted explained. “With gardening, we save a little bit of money and it’s tastier.”
And Ted’s green thumb isn’t just caring for one single raised bed.
“This is Moby,” Ted said as he marched into a small, bright, wooden structure beside the community garden. “Moby is a great and wonderful greenhouse on wheels.”
Moby the Mobile Greenhouse is a project by the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership to kickstart greenhouse growing in rural Alaska. The structure was designed by students at the University of Alaska Southeast and built using local lumber by Juneau-Douglas High students. Moby comes equipped with raised beds and classroom curriculum.
When Moby first came to town in April, Hoonah teacher Melissa Thaalesen used the greenhouse as a tool to teach nutrition and healthy eating. Moby also provided starts for 12 community members looking to jumpstart garden growing. With the help of those seedlings, growers in the Healing Garden celebrated the lushest and most successful growing year since the community beds were raised in 2012. When school ended, Hoonah moved Moby to the Community Garden where volunteers, like Ted and his mother Elleana, began caring for it.
“It’s been a good food provider for us,” Ted said as he showed off chard, kale, peas, green beans, tomatoes and more. “It’s solar powered too! Not many greenhouses are solar powered which really saves on electricity and what not.”
A solar panel installed on the roof powers a fan that helps circulate air and regulate the temperature.
Below the solar panel and the growing space is another unique characteristic of Moby: wheels. Moby is made to move. Like many residents of Hoonah and Southeast, Moby gets a ticket on the Alaska Marine Highway System and can travel to different rural communities. Last year, Moby spent the growing season in Kake. This year, Moby paid Hoonah a visit. Next spring, Moby will begin its journey to a third community.
“I’m going to be sad when Moby moves to a new community but I’m excited that someone will go through the same experience I got to go through,” Ted said.
Where will Moby go? Applications will open in late October and any Southeast Alaskan community can apply. Teachers, individual schools, school districts and community organizations are eligible.
Ted’s advice for the next cohort of gardeners who get to fill Moby with greens:
“Be nice to Moby and Moby will be nice to you. If you weed its gardens it will give you whatever you planted. And if you don’t, you don’t get what you really want or maybe you get half as big as what you were thinking.”
Despite its transitory lifestyle, the impacts Moby leaves behind appear lasting in Hoonah. “It’s almost like Moby helped me,” Ted said. “My garden last year wasn’t that good. It helped me learn that daily weeding would lead to success.”
Community wide, Moby has helped seed momentum for a more permanent greenhouse project. Hoonah Indian Association and the City of Hoonah teamed up to initiate a feasibility study analyzing the economic viability of a district biomass heatloop. This proposed heatloop would connect and heat five downtown buildings with renewable energy. Community volunteers are itching to tether a greenhouse structure into that loop.
For now, as long as there are greens to gather in Moby or his raised bed, Ted will keep sharing.
“He will come home with a handful of snap peas every day and we put them in salads. He comes home all muddy and it’s nice to see him getting dirty again,” Elleana said.
Ted is currently deliberating how he will plant his garden next year. He’s considering focusing on carrots and potatoes. Of course, he plans to keep space for his famous snap peas.
“When he comes home, he tells me all about his snap peas and he has pride in his eyes. He’s learning, you know? He is getting involved and it’s pretty cool. We are very impressed and proud of him,” Elleana said.
Learn more about Moby the Mobile Greenhouse by clicking here!
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.
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.
Written and published with Edible Alaska Magazine
On a sunny Sitka afternoon, a group of Pacific High School students and community members carve four inch deep lines into the soil. Gingerly, the students cradle seed potatoes in their palms. These small fingerlings, studded with dimples also known as ’eyes’, aren’t your typical Russets or Yukon Golds. The United States Forest Service and Sitka Tribe of Alaska are partnering to cultivate a unique community garden. With sprouting eyes facing toward the sun, the group carefully lowers ‘Tlingit potatoes’ into the earth.
This variety of potatoes is also called Maria’s Tlingit, named after Maria Ackerman Miller of Haines. Because potatoes are cultivated not by seed but by planting part or all of the tuber, each new season of potato is a genetic clone to it’s parent. This means that a potato planted now could be genetically identical to the original ‘cultivar’ planted a century ago. Families may care for potato varieties that fare well in a given climate and pass these unique lines from one generation to the next. Maria’s Tlingit family cared for this particular lineage for over 150 years.
If we could teleport back in time, Maria’s Tlingit potatoes would be found in many south facing gardens and patches across the region. The method of cultivation for this variety was pretty hands off. “I call it ‘plant it and forget it’,” laughs Elizabeth Kunibe. Kunibe is the leading academic researcher of Alaska’s unique potato past. Because of their easy cultivation, Kunibe explains that Native gardeners often planted large patches on nearby islands with ideal growing conditions.
In Sitka, oral history traces local potato cultivation north to the turbulent and wild coast of West Chichagof Island. Tucked into a calm cove, sits the ‘Potato Patch’ where story has it, that the Tlingit people would plant rows of these potatoes on their way to fish camp annually. Each autumn, in wooden dugout canoes laden heavy with dimpled spuds, they would return home each autumn to stock underground cellars with a winter load of these nutritious root veggies. Attentive locals still report stumbling upon potato plants in this lush meadow today.
Potatoes are not native to Southeast Alaska however. So how did spuds migrate to our island-clad rainforest?
“At first people thought that European settlers brought them, but the thing is, there were potatoes here before the settlers,” says Kunibe. Settlers did bring potatoes from Europe but they were different varieties.“The other theory is that Russian explorers and fur traders brought potatoes as they circumnavigated Chile. And then there’s also many Alaska native stories about Tlingit and Haida travelers who were going down to South America in big canoes who brought potatoes north.” Kunibe believes that potatoes populated our coast via a combination of these theories.
Artistic rendering of the Potato Patch of West Chichagof by Michaela Goade (click the image to see more of her work)
Maria’s Tlingit potato is a ‘primitive cultivar’ meaning they have not been selectively bred and genetically altered like most commercial varieties today. Their ancestry has deep roots. According to Kunibe, primitive cultivars “usually have more eyes and some may be oblong and finger shaped.” Thanks to advances in genetic research and collaborations like ‘The Potato Genome Project’ that Kunibe works with, we can trace Maria’s Tlingit back to Mexico or Chilean varieties.
There are only four varieties of primitive potatoes traditionally grown by Native North Americans according to Kunibe. Two of those, the Tlingit potato and one other, are grown right here in the temperate rainforests of Southeast Alaska. To learn more about the second spud, we need to leave the garden plot in Sitka and head South to Prince of Wales Island.
Down an ambling gravel road is the tiny remote village of Kasaan. With just 60 year round residents, Kasaan is the smaller of only two Haida villages in Alaska. Here, between ocean and forest, Eric Hamar and his family prepare to plant Julie’s Kasaan. This genetically unique variety is often referred to as the Haida potato.
“Deer don’t eat them, that’s nice. They pretty much bother everything except the Kasaan Potatoes,” says Hamar. His family has been planting Haida potatoes in their hometown for six years. “They are definitely more suited to the climate compared to other potatoes. They are really rot resistant,” says Hamar and that’s not the only reason his family digs Julie’s Kasaan. “They taste very, very buttery. You almost actually don’t need to put butter on them,” says Hamar.
When it comes to chatting about the deep history of Julie’s Kasaan potato, Eric defers. “Don’t ask me, ask Julie,” says Hamar. Julie Coburn, the ‘Julie’ in Julie’s Kasaan gave Eric’s father a box of shriveled old seed potatoes years ago. Today, she lives in the Pioneer Home up in Anchorage. “She’s 95, sharp as a tac and fiery,” Eric warned.
“Let me tell you, those potatoes have been in my family for well over a hundred years!” says Julie Coburn. Coburn has a melodic laugh and a sing-song voice that could draw a grin from a stoic. Her great aunt on her father’s side brought the original Julie’s Kasaan potatoes up from Washington State by dugout canoe over a century ago. She has many fond memories of her potato planting past.
“Oh yes, potatoes were a very big thing. Just about everybody in Kasaan had a garden,” say Coburn. Each spring, Julie and her family would scramble aboard her father’s 45 foot seiner and head to Adam’s Point up the bay where it was flat and south facing.
“We made a big deal of it and we would spend maybe a couple days planting potatoes and cooking over a beach fire and we always had a big coffee pot of course. We would put herring in a barrel and let it rot, good and proper and we used that for fertilizer and a lot of kelp and seaweed which was easy gathering.”
Julie is read this story at the Pioneer Home in Anchorage
After the leaves died down in autumn, Julie and her family would return to reap their harvest. “That was the fun part! You never knew what you were going to find as you kept on digging and digging each hill. I can remember my dad said it was a good year when we harvested 800 pounds of potatoes for our family alone!”
He built an underground root cellar for their bounty and while 800 pounds of potatoes may seem excessive to some, this is not the case for Julie Coburn. “Potato salad, fried potatoes, baked potatoes,” Julie sings. “Mashed potatoes, stuffed potato, boiled potatoes, potato salad! We enjoyed those potatoes every which way we could think of,” says Coburn.
Julie is certainly a fan of her namesake. How would her parents and great aunt react if they knew this potato would pass down in history named after her?
“Ha! They would be shocked, amazed and delighted,” says Coburn. “I was the keeper of the seed for a while but I just did it for the community. I never called myself the ‘keeper of the seed’, I just did it because I wanted to and didn’t expect anything as return,” says Coburn who has shared seed potatoes across Kasaan, in ports along the coast, in Oregon and in Washington. “I do always tell the people I shared with to spread it amongst your friends so they can have a garden too.”
Julie’s generosity is contagious. With support from SEARHC, the Organized Village of Kasaan and the Alaska Native Fund, the school in Kasaan is preparing to plant a community garden plot of Julie’s famous buttery fingerlings thanks to a donation of seed potatoes from Eric Hamar’s family. This tiny Haida village is dead set dedicated to keeping Kasaan’s potato heritage thriving long into the future.
Protecting Sacred Seeds
These little potatoes are more than a lip-licking connection to our region’s colorful cultural heritage. Protecting seed diversity is important and Tlingit and Haida potatoes are uniquely suited to thrive in our rainforest climate. Protecting hardy plant varieties and maintaining a diversity of types translates into greater resiliency and more success for growers in the long run helping to combat climate change and beat out yearly fluctuations.
Good news for Julie, Maria and all the other seed keepers and sharers across the Southeast, efforts are ramping up to cultivate and share these traditional Tlingit and Haida potatoes. From the Klawock Cooperative Association’s garden to community and household gardens in Juneau and beyond, Southeast Alaskans are hungry for these unique little tubers.
Back in Sitka, the students delicately blanket their tiny time capsules with seaweed in the same way Native Alaskan gardeners have done for over 220 years. Michelle Putz, one of the lead organizers of the event hands over two additional seed potatoes for the students to plant in their own school garden. With dirt under their nails and smiles splayed across their sun-kissed cheeks, the students pile back into the bus and eagerly look forward to the autumn harvest.