Hands hold freshly harvested berries. Photo by Vivian Mork Y&

Hands hold freshly harvested berries. Photo by Vivian Mork Y&

Planet Alaska: Sustainable harvesting and the Alaskan foodie

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.

I was born into the time of year that is prime harvesting for devil’s club. Many people know me as the devil’s club lady. Today, I’m an Alaskan Native traditional foods and medicines expert. Sometimes, even my mother asks me about how to harvest s’áxt’ (devil’s club) or spruce tips. I hold a certification from Rutger’s University in biologically analyzing plants, in addition to a Masters in Cross Cultural Studies, where I studied Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Not only do I know harvesting methods, I understand the biological mechanisms of plants in the area and why we do what we do when we do. I can put our traditional foods and medicines in a beaker and say, “See, my ancestors were right: more than 10,000 years of science!”

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. Traditional knowledge should be understood as intellectual property and as such, property cannot be used to create commercial items intended for resale by people who do not possess the cultural birthright to such property.”

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?

First of all, if you are a non-native resident of Alaska, I highly recommend searching out a local Native food and medicine expert in your area to learn from. Please be patient with us as we get to know you and your intentions with the knowledge we share with you. In turn, my Alaska Native family and friends, please be patient with people who are new to our harvesting techniques and protocols. We can all learn from and with each other. The whole point is: if we do not show people how we have sustainably harvested for more than 10,000 years we may not be able to harvest off the land for the next 10,000 years. It’s not easy to consider preservation on such a long-term scale, but it is a worldview at the core of Alaska Native cultures.

I point to the s’áxt’. 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 it should be.

For more information:

Forest Service: Non-timber forest products


State of Alaska: Non-timber forest products


Kayaaní Commission


• Vivian Mork Yéilk’ shares the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott.



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