Atxhaayí Haa Khusteeyixh Sitee; Our Food is Our Way of Life

In Southeast Alaska we have a saying: “You can’t out give a man from Hoonah.” For the Tlingit, the gathering, preparation, and sharing of food, is a way of life: Atxaayí haa kusteeyix Sitee; our food is our way of life. Though I am not Tlingit, my relatives participated in similar lifeways. Having lived my entire life on Tlingit land, eventually intermarrying among the Tlingit, the gathering and preparations of foods that are unique to this landscape are essential to my family's survival.

A friend told me Tlingit food is ‘soul food.’ Another Elder claimed, “We do not subsist.” The use of the term ‘subsistence’ can be offensive, implying eking out a meager existence or alternative to welfare.

Atxaayí Kusteeyix is a way of life in rural Alaska as well as a means of providing traditional foods for Alaska Natives who choose to live in urban Alaska. Tribal survival depends upon atxaayí kusteeyix activities; our food-activities are integral to the Tlingit worldview. Food links my family to our ancestors and ensures my children’s culture will continue to the next generation. The past-present-and-future tastes like the bitter/sweetness of spruce tips, the oils in King Salmon. "Home" is a sense of harvesting and preparing our own foods. "Home" is blueberries heaped in a bowl, a pot of shrimp boiling on the stove.

In my worldview, the atxaayí kusteeyix— traditional lifeway, is not something I do in order to eek out a living.  Our atxaayí kusteeyix is a living culture: It defines my culture. It is a way-of-life, survival birthright for my children and grandchildren, a process of transmitting values.

I have a relationship with the lifestyle, to the foods I eat. I raised my children on halibut, shrimp, crab, clams, salmon, moose and deer meat. Grandson remembers that Spring tastes like herring eggs on beach grass, salmonberry shoots emerging from the earth. My children, like others raised on traditional foods, are not happy in spirit until they have access to their traditional foods. The atxaayí kusteeyix lifestyle is life in its most intimate way. Traditional foods are a way of defining who I am, who my children are, linking us to the landscape. I am oil from freshly smoked King Salmon, blueberry juice seeped into finger whorls, the deer's blood on my jacket. I am the halibut slime dried on my boots.



Unknown said…
Vivian, I like this entry very much. "Subsistence" - the word - begins with "sub," implying something under or lesser. I agree with you that it's an oddly-wrongheaded word for living off the land in a more traditional way. Excellent article.

Popular Posts