Sustainable Harvesting and the Alaskan Foodie
*By Vivian Mork Yeilk'
My mother squished a blueberry and put it in my mouth. Everything was new. I was new. She walked me through the forest, setting me on the forest floor beneath a large spruce tree. Though I don’t remember any of it, she said I felt the wet, cool earth beneath me and I didn’t cry but looked around. She wanted me to know the scent of the world; to know how it felt, how it smelled and what it looked like. She wanted me to belong here. This is how she introduced me to the land where my ancestors have been for thousands of years.
Lately, my mother and I have been discussing sustainable harvesting since we’ve noticed an increase in Alaskan foodie interests. Even 10-20 years ago there weren’t many non-native people harvesting our plants. Now, foraging is popular and it’s frustrating when various organizations, schools, and publications utilize a non-native forager as their expert and don’t consider me or the many excellent Alaska Native plant experts. This is especially problematic considering the connection of our traditional foods to the history of colonization and resulting trauma.
Over the last couple decades, as I’ve learned about Tlingit traditional foods and medicines from Elders, aunties, uncles, cousins, clan sisters and brothers, and community, I’ve heard their life stories and their connections to these foods and medicines. I discovered we carry stories of trauma. Elders tell about boarding school experiences, about going hungry, how teachers and administrators wouldn’t let them eat the “uncivilized” foods. At Sheldon Jackson in Sitka, Tlingit children were not allowed to eat the abundant herring eggs on the beach at Totem Park. And ironically, now generations of Tlingit children have never seen herring eggs at Totem Park because of commercial overfishing.
The colonizers view of traditional foods was (and still is) transferred to some of our Native family members. In reference to harvesting, as a child I was told by a family member, “Don’t grow up to be a dirty Indian like your Aunt.” Another comment I heard numerous times while growing up is, “That’s poor people food,” meaning anything harvested from land and sea. Many of us traditional harvesters have overcome a history of this shame in order to gather our traditional foods and medicines.
What does this mean for Alaska Natives, for traditional experts, and for our clans and families? It means we now experience “outsiders” claiming to be experts in our foods and medicines, even more so than we are. It also means the spots we have traditionally harvested are being picked clean instead of sustainably harvested. We have to go further and further to harvest. In addition, misinformation is disseminated by Alaskan hobby foragers online, a place where more and more people are turning to in order to learn. This perpetuates improper harvesting techniques and improper use of medicines. For example, you can’t learn to properly harvest devil’s club online. It takes years to learn everything there is to know about this plant, how to harvest it, when to harvest it, and its uses.
Years ago I served on the Kayaaní Commission with Sitka Tribe of Alaska. From their website: The mission of the Kayaaní Commission is to preserve our spiritual way of life. The religion of the Tlingit was the Earth. The Tlingit are one with the Earth. The Kayaaní Commission is here to preserve and protect traditional ways of our ancestral knowledge.
The Sitka Tribe of Alaska finds that tribal peoples have forever relied upon plants and their traditional knowledge of the plants for food, medicine and the creation of artistic and utilitarian works and continue to rely upon plants for the very same needs today, as they will for generations to come.
*Traditional Knowledge refers to the traditional spiritual methods, means and ways of gathering, processing, utilizing, and protecting traditional plants.
Many Alaska Natives are hesitant to teach non-natives how and where we harvest. We’ve witnessed the commercial depletion of our resources in addition to poor harvesting practices for personal use. At times I’ve refused to teach people because of a few bad experiences when my students went out on their own and disregarded our protocols. This is one of the main reasons why many Alaska Natives guard the precious knowledge they have.
Despite some negative experiences, I began to change my view when I befriended Janice Schofield who has written many popular Alaska plant books. At first I was reluctant, but through mutual mentoring and respect, I realized I needed to share how to harvest our plants in order to preserve our plants. I mean, societies are always changing, and foraging is one area where people are trying to take better care of themselves and the planet. So I asked myself how are Alaskan foragers and foodies going to learn proper protocols and harvesting, in addition to the history of trauma, if I don’t share or explain things?
I point to the s’axt’. Today, I am Auntie Viv and I am teaching my cousin’s daughter and my young nephews, about our sacred plant. Today, I’ll show them how to dig for roots and how to harvest the bark. We touch the dirt beneath the plant. Our fingers get dirty. We laugh and share these moments. They will grow up connected to this land, knowing respect and protocols. They belong. This is how is should be.
(This article first appeared in the Capital City Weekly's Juneau Empire.)
Resources: Forest Service: Non-timber forest productsState of Alaska: Non-timber forest products
Lingít x’éináx Yéilk’ yóo xat duwasáakw. Dleit káa x’éináx Vivian Mork yóo xat duwasáakw. Yéil naax xat sitee. T’akdeintaan áyá xat. Tax’ hít dax. Teikweidí yadí áyá xat. Hawaiian ka Norwegian yadí áyá xat. Kaagwaantaan dachxán áyá xat. Sámi ka Irish áyá xat. Kachxana.aakw kuxdzitee ku.aa Xunaa kaawu dax.
My Tlingit name is Yéilk’, or Little Raven. My English name is Vivian Mork. I am of the Raven moiety. I am a member of the T’akdeintaan clan (black-legged kittiwake). I am from the Snail house. I am a child of the Teikweidí (brown bear). I am a grandchild of the Kaagwaantaan (wolf). I am Sámi and Irish. I am a child of the Hawaiian and Norwegian. I was born and raised in Wrangell, but my kwáan comes from Hoonah. I live in Sitka, Alaska.