The communities of Kasaan and Hydaburg are distinct. They are separated by almost 80 miles of road and differ dramatically in population size: Hydaburg is home to more than 300 residents, Kasaan less than 60. A closer look, however, reveals a deep taproot connecting both by a common culture; Kasaan and Hydaburg are the only Haida communities in Alaska. This connection is especially evident during summer days. The air is pungent with alder smoke escaping from timeworn smokehouses and the docks and waters are crowded with families and friends returning from trips pulling sockeye from local spots. Prince of Wales Island is bustling with activity and annual festivities are held to reunite friends and families from both communities in celebrations of Haida culture. I attended two of those events, the Kasaan Community Harvest and the Hydaburg Culture Camp, in late July.
The Kasaan Community Harvest
Big, brilliant, juicy thimbleberries speckled bushes in the center of Kasaan. We were greeted with guilty smiles and pink-stained teeth by children and adults harvesting berries to crush into jam for the annual Kasaan Community Harvest. This weekend event, hosted by the Organized Village of Kasaan, Southeast Conference and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, brings community members and guests together to prepare food, learn safe processing techniques and exchange family recipes. This year, the group of 43 participants smoked and processed salmon, made jam, jarred venison, produced devils club salve from last year’s harvested bark and turned elderberries into jelly.
Frederick Olsen Jr. is the cultural resources coordinator with the Organized Village of Kasaan.
“There are quite a few important aspects to community harvesting. At a minimal level, folks get together, have some fun and save some money while making clean healthy food for themselves, their families and their communities,” Olsen said.
In the community’s cafe, jar tops popped, indicating proper preservation. Tired smiles crawled across participant’s faces and jars upon jars were added to the towering bounty of preserved foods that crowded the tabletop. The amount of food processed in just three days was pretty astounding and as families collected their share, the significance of putting up food was tangible.
“When you consider community food security, it becomes additionally important to teach these skills. Even in my lifetime it has changed, when I was growing up here it was more like half of our food was barged in, but now in Alaska, it’s something like 90 percent of our food is brought in. So if that stopped coming for some reason, we only have a couple of days of food. It’s actually alarming if you think about it,” Olsen said.
Events like the Kasaan Community Harvest create formal opportunities to combat Alaska’s food challenges by perpetuating skills in healthy food processing. They also continue a timeless tradition that Haidas share with countless Alaskans.
“Community harvesting can mean different things to different people. For some of us, it’s actually passing on or continuing our traditions, what our families have done here for thousands of years. So besides saving money at the supermarket, it’s actually far more important for continuing our way of life — the Kasaan, Haida way of life,” Olsen said.
Hydaburg Culture Camp
In the community of Hydaburg, a three-hour drive from Kasaan down gravel roads and curving highways, residents were also harvesting rich nutrition from the landscape. Extended families united on skiffs and in backyards, filling coolers, jars and smokehouses with sockeye. Hydaburg, however, was not only preparing food to stock the shelves of their personal pantries. For the entire week of their annual Culture Camp, the community nourishes participants with food harvested directly from the surrounding land.
Tony Christianson is the mayor of Hydaburg. He also leads the Hydaburg Cooperative Association’s natural resource program.
“The Haida take pride in our own natural resources. It’s our wealth, it’s what keeps us healthy with big bellies and smiling. So, our ability to gather and harvest that resource to share with a larger population at Culture Camp is a testament to our local wealth and our ability to manage resources in our area to a degree that we can share them. Sharing food with company is really a foundation of our Haida culture,” Christianson said.
Hydaburg Culture Camp is hosted by HCA and made possible through the generous contributions of many partners. The long list of contributors and volunteers includes those residents who donate both commercial and subsistence foods.
During the week, experts teach classes in craft, language, science and health. Participants practice formline techniques, carve paddles and stretch hide drums. The week culminates with a totem pole raising and an enormous potlatch celebration with local and visiting dance groups from across the region.
On July 24, to the pounding beat of drums and rain, with the strength of some perspiring men and a few careful tugs from local children, the Howkan Eagle pole was successfully raised. This marked the completion of a five-year project to repair Hydaburg’s totem park and replicate poles of historical significance. This year, however, participants raised an additional totem. This pole is a unique addition to the park because unlike past poles, this final pole is not a replication, it is an original: a raven.
“We are starting now to tell our own story. This replication project was telling our ancestors’ story. Now, we are laying down the foundation for history to tell our story,” Christianson said. “The raven brings balance and unity to the community by representing both clans — eagle and raven — in Hydaburg today.”
Beyond the Formal Events
These events serve to celebrate, continue and share Haida culture. Time spent in Kasaan and Hydaburg made it perfectly clear however, that truly honoring a culture requires much more than the annual practice of arts and crafts, song and dance, harvest events or potlatches. When the formal festivities end, the energy doesn’t simply evaporate.
“These events are about creating the momentum in the community to continue to strive to keep cultural activity alive and happening on a regular basis. It gives people pride and brings with it a level of energy. Just the feeling you have being there with the kids and seeing their eyes as they get involved. They are building a solid understanding of what being Haida means on more levels than just ‘we fish and hunt and speak a common language’. It gives our kids and community that strong sense of identity through pride — the common thread that keeps the community moving forward every day,” Christianson said.