I want to live an incredible story.
Having elders as friends is an important part of my story. I’m thankful to call Kaayistaan Marie Olsen my friend. This is the woman who tells me I remind her of Russell Means. This is the woman who calls to say she was thinking of me and that I should start a media company telling our stories. This is the woman who calls me to say, “Let’s go to dinner.”
Marie has lived some incredible stories. I want to be like her. As I think about my life, I know I’m already on my way.
Adding a tsunami to my story.
I am a tsunami. Early in 2018, a 7.9 earthquake struck 175 miles southeast of Kodak, resulting in an evacuation warning for Sitka. As my partner and I sat at the top of Edgecumbe Drive waiting, I realized that tsunamis are a part of the story of who I am. I’m Tlingit. I’m Raven, T’akdeintaan. We are connected to Lituya Bay and to tsunamis and earthquakes. The scramble to evacuate is a continuation of my story.
Eating across the Planet (Alaska)
2018 is the story of food. If I could eat my way across the planet, I would. Mostly, I love Alaska Native foods. This year I experimented with pickled fireweed shoots and spruce tip cornbread waffles made from the leftover spruce tips. I made chaga orange salmonberry syrups. I harvested rose hips and elderberry blossoms. I made jellies: red huckleberry, Labrador tea, gray current, hemlock, blackberry, salmonberry, honeysuckle and lilac.
In my carnivore story, I ate beluga and bowhead muktuk, salmon, caribou, halibut and more. I could go on. This year was full of harvesting and experimenting. I’m looking forward to expanding this story of my life.
The forest is a changing story.
The forest changed this year, and the year before that. I’ve been harvesting foods and medicines from southeast Alaska all of my life, so I noticed. We had hardly any snow or rain last winter and springtime in Sitka came earlier, meaning we’re harvesting sooner and harvesting some things more quickly. In 2018, the forest told a very different story. My story has to be adaptable. I wonder about 2019.
Telling an authentic story.
What is authentic? As an Alaska Native, I take time to spot the insane amount of “Alaska Native” items sold in Alaska’s stores. I’ve had a shop owner tell me and my partner that our art “it’s not traditional enough” while standing next to totem pole bottle openers. I think of “Alaska Native” art made in Indonesia and China. Shop owners claim fake products sell well. And incredulously, I’ve had several shop owners tell us: “We don’t sell Alaska Native art, only Alaskan things.” Huh? Am I not authentically Alaskan? Maybe I’ll figure this out in the coming year. It’s difficult to deal with cultural misappropriation and stereotypes but it’s a part of my story.
Traditional foods and the stories that connect us are good medicine.
I was born in devil’s club harvesting season. My story begins 10,000 years ago, though. My story is steeped in the Southeast Alaskan landscape. Many people know me as the “Devil’s Club Lady.” 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 foods and medicines. Some of the stories are about assimilation, shame and trauma. Other stories are about grandchildren, knowledge, and love. I bring those stories with me when I harvest and I know, too, that listening to one another’s stories is good medicine. I’m going to pay attention to more stories in 2019.
Berries tell a sweet story.
This past year, I realized I’m ocd about salmonberries. I carry at least two buckets with me: one for orange berries and one for red berries. Sometimes I carry another one for the dark red salmonberries. I pick them where it’s clean and try not to pick them where there’s dust from roadways. I don’t like washing them since they’re so fragile. I keep extra buckets in my car, incase I pick a lot and have to transfer berries to another bucket to save them from getting crushed.
I freeze the berries individually on a cookie sheet in their original, beautiful shape so they don’t become a giant cube of frozen salmonberries. Salmonberries will always be a part of my life story.
Telling our own story.
I work as a guide, so I’m aware of Alaskans love/hate relationship with the tour/visitor industry. This year I asked myself some tough questions and posed those questions to others. Alaska’s visitors may grow by 25 percent next year. Wow, are we ready?
Alaskan tourism needs to be a good industry economically, environmentally, culturally and socially. The story of Alaska’s tourism is my story too. I think about how I will be telling this story in the future.
Our story of boat life isn’t for everyone.
Often, while my partner and I are working on our live-aboard boat, we’ll get a passerby— mostly older men who are visiting Alaska — to declare: You’re living the dream. This is the phrase we now use, while laughing hysterically, when something goes wrong. We are living the dream. Is this dream doable, though? I’ve asked myself this question a lot this past year.
Boat life has pros and cons that we’ve been constantly reassessing. In fact, very soon, we’re moving off the boat to Juneau. I think about the things I’ll lose if we move: snazzy sunset Facebook photos with Mount Edgecumbe in the background; clogged toilets; tiny spaces; five minute showers; leaks; old boat smell; two people and two dogs on a boat; storage units for our stuff.
Oh, but I already think about the stories that I’ll tell about boat life. I’ll recall watching sunsets as the transient fishermen pee off their boats; our soggy groceries and wet clean laundry, from carrying them down the dock in a rainsquall. We’ll reminisce about salmon jumping, the old sealion named Scar, the eagles atop the boat masts. And our stories will begin like this: We were sure living the dream!
How to tell your story in 2019
Tell your story through photography, poetry, art and dance and taking care of your kids or dogs. Walk with a story. Tell your story to elders. Let our elders tell stories to you. Take a friend to dinner and tell stories. Tell stories while out harvesting spruce tips with a friend who’s going through tough times. Live your life like a story this year: do something different or finish something you’ve started. Learn an Alaska Native language; support our language learners and teachers. Make traditional food for someone. Share knowledge with someone who could benefit from it. Even if you’re living a sad story right now, or a scary story, your story is important. Maybe you’ve lived through an earthquake; you’ve lost things, you’re sick.
You are important, and the story of you is important.
Find a way to tell it. I’ll listen.
• Vivian Mork Yéilk’ writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott. Planet Alaska publishes every other week in the Capital City Weekly.