For Alaskans like Maleah Wenzel, it’s hard to be away from home. Maleah is an Alaska Native student from Wrangell, attending Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. She’s Kiks.ádi yádi, from the Tlingit, Sámi and Hawaiian nations, and also my great-niece. Maleah’s majoring in psychology with an emphasis in childhood trauma, minoring in women and gender studies.
The following interview focuses on the importance of tradtional foods to Alaskan college students.
How important is college to you?
Maleah Wenzel: Growing up, all I wanted was to make a better life for me and my younger sister. I had a shitty childhood. I didn’t want her to live the way I did, with parents who weren’t there — or worse — parents who hurt her. I didn’t want my sister to worry about where her food came from, how to pay school fees or buy laundry soap. The plan I envisioned when I was 11 years old was: I’d go to college, take my sister with me and never come back. Luckily, we got away from our parents and since then family members have taken us in. Even now, college is what I need.
Are there advantages being from Wrangell and/or Alaska?
Coming from a village with limited resources puts you behind the curve, especially at an Ivy League school. But there’s an advantage because you have a small town work ethic, a support system and cultural attachment. There are few people in Wrangell, and in Alaska overall, who have a poor work ethic, at least compared to the rest of the country. I’ve seen rich white students struggle to do laundry and work five-hour a week jobs to the point of nearly dropping out. That was never a danger; I’ve done my own laundry since I was 8, thanks. Plus, Wrangell’s support system doesn’t stop when you go off to college. People check in now. If I really needed it, Wrangell would be there for me. However, being one of the only Alaskans in a school full of rich people from the East Coast sucks sometimes. Yet, the connections I’ve made with other Natives and Alaskans have been much stronger because of our culture. Celebrating cultures and teaching people about my special Tlingit culture is what’s kept me going.
What are the disadvantages?
It’s hard to transition from small town to college. Still, three years into school, when the sun shines on my shoulders I want be up the Stikine River. Also, though Wrangell schools are amazing in terms of social support and dedication, they don’t prepare you for Ivy League. I didn’t know what a study was, let alone how to read or write one. I made it in school by relentlessly pestering my professors. And obviously, it’s difficult to go between Hanover, NH and Wrangell four times a year.
Tell me about the traditional foods dinner recently held at Dartmouth College.
Dartmouth’s Aurora club for Alaskans exists to connect Alaskans with home and to encourage students to move (or move back) to Alaska after graduation. Once a quarter, we organize an Alaskan dinner. This last quarter, fellow Alaskan classmate, Reyn Hutton, and I posted on Facebook asking Wrangell for traditional foods. Reyn’s parents collected food and shipped it through Alaska Airlines to Boston (Dartmouth paid for shipping). It was serendipity — I picked up the box in Boston on my way back from a wedding and bussed it with me to Hanover. We needed enough food to feed about 20 people in the Aurora club and we ended up with a 50-pound freezer box and a 30-pound dry goods box.
We opened the event to all students, specifically focusing on the Native American community. One hundred students attended from all over the world: Alaskans, other Native peoples, students from Japan, Norway, Tanzania and other places. We had halibut, smoked black cod, deer roast, deer backstrap, ground moose, octopus, shrimp, rock fish, smoked hooligan, smoked fish, dungy crab, thimbleberries, assorted jams, popcorn seaweed and more. We made at least 20 different dishes, which took up every counter available at the Native American House, plus a table.
What were the highlights from the dinner?
The main highlight was cooking and eating the food I hadn’t had in five months. I was in charge of cooking with the help of 10 others. The student guests said the food was amazing. Most of them had never tried Alaska food, let alone home-caught, home-cooked Alaska food. One of my favorite parts was watching the students’ reactions when Reyn demonstrated how to eat a hooligan, by showing them how to bite the head off first. Most of the guests looked horrified. But they ate all of the hooligan!
How important is it for families and friends to send traditional foods?
I’m not joking, some of us cried when we ate our tradtional foods. We all agreed, even though we’re 3,000 miles away from Alaska, we felt like we were home. When you go to school far away traditional foods are a physical connection to your culture. We’re just like every other college student: getting a box of foods from home can help us get through the quarter.
What tradtional foods do you enjoy?
Fish, of course. Shrimp eggs are my favorite too. I really like dry salmon and halibut cooked with mayo and cheese. I love fiddle heads sautéed with garlic and now I like goose tongue cooked the same way. And I always love Grandpa Mickey’s cheesecake blueberry pie.
On your summer break, what tradtional foods have you had or do you hope to harvest?
Summer break is bittersweet because I harvest some of my favorite foods, but I’ve missed the harvesting season for others. Every year I miss two favorites: fiddle heads and chocolate lily bulbs. I harvest every berry during summer: salmonberries, blueberries, raspberries, thimbleberries, black huckleberries and red huckleberries. My favorite are thimbleberries and red huckleberries. I’m slowly learning how to harvest some other things through my family members and classes — goose tongue (thank auntie Viv) and some wild mushrooms.
How many more years of college do you have and what are your plans afterward?
I have one year left at Dartmouth and plan to attend grad school, probably Public Health. I want to stay on the West Coast for graduate school. I’m going to take a year off in-between undergrad and grad school and during that time I hope to participate in a youth engagement fellowship through Sealaska in Juneau.
And there you have it — the wisdom of an Alaskan college student. The club we belong to is the Alaska we love with all its diversity of peoples, traditions and foods. This summer we will pick berries, harvest goose tongue, set nets, jar up fish and put foods away for ourselves and our family and friends and to send off to the students we love. They’ll pack an extra bag of goodies off to college. Even nearby, the students at the University of Alaska depend on families gathering for tradtional foods and thank their good fortunes they can live nearby and still go to college. Food connects us to community and to one another. It’s a wonderful club to belong to.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes the column “Planet Alaska” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.