Deep in the coastal rainforest of Prince of Wales Island, the Haida village of Kasaan prepares for the 5th Annual Kasaan Community Harvest. This event attracts people from across the island to this remote village of less than 80 residents to share techniques in harvesting, process salmon and other wild edibles and to celebrate place.
This year, the event will be held Aug. 10-11. Terry West, the Economic Development Director for the Organized Village of Kasaan (OVK), is organizing this year’s event but isn’t waiting until August to get her hands dirty.
West has been facilitating monthly “Health Hikes” to begin gathering and processing. In February, a group from Kasaan, Craig and Klawock harvested Usnea (Old Man’s Beard) to begin the tincture process. The final tinctures will be available to trial for their microbial and antifungal properties at the event. In April, the group squeezed through salmon berry brush and mucked through riverine mud, to harvest Devil’s Club stalks.
Marina Anderson is the Vice President and Administrative Assistant of OVK. She helped co-lead the Devil’s Club hike with her brother Quinn Aboudara. Both have looked to the lands and waters for a seasonal bounty of plants, fish and game their entire lives.
“Devil’s club is our sacred medicinal plant. Aside from it being one of the closest related plants to ginseng, it has other beneficial properties: it can flush you out, give you energy, and balance things inside you,” Anderson said.
Anderson shared an impressive list of uses for Devil’s Club. The inner back can be dried into tea or soaked in oil and combined with wax to make a salve. The soft and lightweight wood stalks are turned into drum sticks or beads. The berries can be applied to the scalp to treat lice. Different stages of the bud offer different healing properties and the root, which like ginseng is more concentrated than the rest of the plant, can be processed to lower blood sugar, boost the immune system, cure gall stones, and more, she said.
People also hang branches above home doors or in fishing vessels for protection.
“Devil’s Club also wards off evils spirits and can give you a good mental state of mind, close to a euphoric state. And when gathering it you know that it has always been our medicine so the way it feels to be out there gathering is insane because you know that for over 10,000 years this plant has been healing our people. And the smell itself is healing,” she said.
For Anderson, the act of harvesting is not only physically healing — the benefits are emotional and spiritual.
“My dad was really into harvesting and even when he struggled with alcoholism he was still able to hold onto harvesting and I think that is what really helped him get sober.”
Anderson admired her father for his ability to consistently provide healthy food to her family of 13 brothers and sisters while still reserving food to share with the community.
“He had a golden ratio of ‘60.20.20’ which meant that 60 percent of what you gather you give away, 20 percent you keep for you and your family and, the other 20 percent you store so that you can give it away later to people who are in need,” Anderson said.
The skies above the group battled between soft golden sun and a chilling spring downpour. The youngest in the group, Josiah West, took shears to a short shoot of Devil’s Club. Old pros like Marina Anderson, preferred taking a packable axe to a twisted stalk twice her height.
Many of the participants harvest on their own time. But for Anderson, West and the tribe, there’s a unique value to hosting formal gathering events.
“One of the biggest benefits of the formal harvest events that we host is that they address the fact that there is a lot of lost knowledge here. When I moved out to Kasaan it wasn’t soon after that my dad got sick with cancer and I realized that I was going to have to help carry on his legacy because people are still going to need fish and seaweed and deer and herring eggs and they were still going to need to know how to preserve food properly in traditional ways,” Anderson said.
“Sharing your food and your knowledge to put up food is not something that we own. It is something that is given to us by our ancestors and Mother Nature and it is something we need to share with everyone else around us because if we don’t have a healthy community, we don’t have a happy community.”
Community harvesting walks are a powerful space to ensure knowledge transcends carefully through time. According to participants, they also help thread newcomers to a culture that has been rooted to these shores since time immemorial.
“A lot of people move here because the salmon fishing is good but once they learn how good the seaweed is and the fiddleheads are, they have whole new doors that are open to them. And, I think it really helps integrate those people into our communities and they can get a good sense of who we are by how we share our tools and our knowledge,” Anderson said. “And when you do something like harvesting food together, you know you are going to feed it to both of your families so it is an intimate thing.”
The group spent the long afternoon running butter knives across the Devil’s Club stalks, carefully removing the spiny outer bark to reveal the brilliant green inner layer within. This skin is peeled from the wood, torn and laid out to dry. Once dried, it will be left in oil to steep until August’s event where participants will learn how to process it into a salve. Harvesting, hunting, fishing, foraging and processing are certainly time consuming, but for many Alaskans, it’s well worth the effort.
“I remember a few summers ago, I had grown these potatoes that my grandmother had grown when she was a child, and then I boiled them with some salmon my dad and I had smoked together and I threw them with some beach asparagus that my mom and I had gathered together and walked it over to one of our elders here in Kasaan,” Anderson said. “And I remember thinking how much love was in the food compared to getting a burger at Carl’s Jr. and how much time went into it. It becomes more than just sustenance. You have a piece of everybody’s soul in every bite you take and it dates back over 10,000 years.”
The Kasaan Community Harvest welcomes everyone. It will be held in tents near The Totem Trail Café in Kasaan on Prince of Wales Island. For more information, contact Terry West and the OVK at (907) 401-0824 or (907) 542-2230. This event is sponsored by OVK, the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, Kasaan Barry Stewart School, City of Kasaan Volunteer Fire/EMS and University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service Juneau District.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct that Anderson is the Vice President, not the president of OVK.
• Bethany Goodrich is a freelance storyteller and the Communications Director for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership (SSP). SSP is a diverse group of partners dedicated to the cultural, ecological and economic prosperity of Alaska’s rural communities. Visit www.SustainableSoutheast.net or www.bethany-goodrich.com for more.