Spring is here and it’s cooler and wetter than normal. Our grandfather/father, Mickey, says spring is about two weeks late. He’s seen more than 80 springs. While we’re waiting to harvest spruce tips, this is a good time to introduce you, Dear Readers, to a project your Planet Alaska hosts have been working on this past year. We received a fellowship with the National Folklife Network to introduce the world to our rainforest life. The NFN initiative from the National Endowment for the Arts launched in spring of 2022. The goal was to bring together artists, community knowledge-keepers, cultural organizers and advocates committed to strengthening communities through sharing heritage arts, folklife and traditional practices.
As fellows, we’re asked how we’d introduce a stranger to our home place and its cultural treasures. If your hometown could talk, they asked, what would it say? We figured it’d say, “Let’s go fishing!” or “Let’s go berry picking!” We explored family traditions, heritage, and memories through the lens of our landscape, environment and community.
We thought in terms of small “postcard” images of our Southeast Alaska home, specifically Wrangell, that we could tell the world about. Here’s a glimpse of the postcards. First, in our traditions, we welcomed readers into our rainforest world:
The Tlingit have stewarded the land and ocean known as Tlingit Aaní, and also called the Tongass National Rainforest, since time immemorial. Tlingit Aaní is the largest temperate rainforest in the world and it’s one of the most diverse ecosystems left on the planet, filled with old-growth trees, salmon, deer, bears, wolves, berries and medicines. These are not just resources. This is home. We behave ourselves differently on land we’ve lived on so long that the trees are our Grandmothers, the wolves are our Grandfathers, the bears are our Uncles, and we are Salmon People.
Our Grandmother trees are some of the largest producers of oxygen on the entire planet. Spruce, hemlock, yellow cedar and red cedar stand tall across more than 1,100 islands. For thousands of years the ocean has been our highway connecting our families. We are among some of the oldest people to live in one spot sustainably for thousands of years — our origin stories are from this land. Our language was formed by the very mountains, glaciers, rivers, ocean, and animals surrounding us. The spruce, the cedar, the porcupine, and killer whales all know our ancient songs. This connection we have woven here for thousands of years is sacred. Not only is this forest important to Tlingit, but it is also integral to the survival of the planet. We steward this land and ocean for those who come after us.
The postcards are divided into four sections: spring, summer, fall and winter, and we further divided those seasons into harvesting and gathering selected plants and fish, except for winter, when the postcards focus on making jams and jellies and storytelling. The concept we wanted outsiders and visitors to Southeast Alaska to understand is “Haa atxaayí haa kusteeyíx sitee, Our food is our way of life”, a value inherent to the way of life in Tlingit culture.
SPRING RAINFOREST POSTCARD: This postcard introduces people to our gift economy, which is important to Southeast Alaska’s economy. We focus on spruce tips and hooligan.
Vivian Mork Yéilk’: In Southeast Alaska, spruce tips bloom from the end of April through May. Harvesting enough spruce tips in the spring for your winter needs is an important part of our Alaskan food traditions. We typically freeze them in quart-size baggies and put them in the freezer for year-round use.
Vivian Faith Prescott: Thaleichthys pacificus, also known as hooligan, candlefish, saak (Lingít), ooligan, or oolichan. Smoking hooligan is a Fishcamp Tradition! Hooligan run in the Stikine River region around mid-April when the migratory birds arrive on the river flats. Locals catch the hooligan on the Stikine River with nets. The fish are then gifted to elders and other locals. It’s common to receive a five-gallon bucket of hooligan. Hooligan can be frozen, pickled, fried up fresh or smoked.
SUMMER RAINFOREST POSTCARD: Summertime is one of our favorite times of the year and it’ll be here soon. Our postcards for this season are s’axt’ (devil’s club) and halibut.
S’áxt’ (Devil’s Club):
Vivian Mork Yéilk’: S’áxt’ is one of our most sacred medicines in Tlingit Aaní. I was born in s’áxt’ harvesting season, but my story begins 10,000 years ago in the Southeast Alaskan landscape. My journey with this plant continues. I’ve learned about Tlingit traditional foods and medicines from my elders, aunties, uncles, cousins, clan sisters and brothers, and my community. As I learned about this sacred medicine, I’ve heard their life stories and their connections to our foods and medicines. Some stories are about assimilation, shame, and trauma. Other stories are about grandchildren, knowledge, and love. I bring those stories with me whenever I harvest our foods and plants, and I know, too, that listening to one another’s stories is good medicine.
Vivian Faith Prescott: Like snow falling upward — thousands of halibut eggs reach the surface of the sea. Yes, halibut have scales so small they can hardly be seen. Hatched in deep water, developing halibut float freely for the first six months of life. Baby halibut are carried by the wind and currents to shallow waters. Halibut are shapeshifters. The young halibut’s skull bones bend and shift, a single eye moves over the nose, mouth moves to the side, the body tips sideways. One side of the flatfish pales, the other side is dark and mottled. The halibut turns parallel to the ocean floor and swims for the first time as its new self.
FALL RAINFOREST POSTCARD: Fall is a busy time. We’re making plans for the winter ceremonies and putting up food. Fall’s postcards focus on Labrador tea and cohos.
Labrador Tea: S’ikshaldéen:
Vivian Mork Yéilk’: My lifegoal is simple: Teach people to harvest sustainably as we have done for thousands of years and encourage them to share their gifts and their knowledge. There are three species of Labrador tea. The common variety of Labrador tea you find in Southeast Alaska is Rhododendron groenlandicum. It has many names such as Hudson Bay tea, muskeg tea, bog tea, swamp tea, marsh tea and s’ikshaldéen. Some people prefer to pick springtime leaves, some prefer to pick the leaves when the plant flowers, and some prefer the leaves in fall or winter.
Vivian Faith Prescott: A bald eagle sits watching us atop the large spruce above. My dad and I sit near the smokehouse, talking story: “Coho jump clean out of the water like a king salmon and make big splashes,” he says. “From July on, it’s usually a coho you see jumping because king salmon don’t usually jump that time of year.”
The smoking process will take several hours and consists of frequent checks to the fire and the fish doneness. Waiting for coho to smoke means learning traditional knowledge from my elder dad. Next time we go out fishing I might be the one to catch a coho. Now, I think about a slice of smoked salmon on pilot bread, and my grandson Bear tasting smoked salmon for the first time.
WINTER RAINFOREST POSTCARD: In Tlingit Aaní, the more we give the richer we are. We live a life where our values, especially sharing, are reflected in how we treat one another. Winter is a time for sharing our harvest and gatherings.
Making Jams and Jellies:
Vivian Faith Prescott: Even in the winter we are surrounded by a living world. Underneath the snow everything is still alive. The sandpipers have migrated, and the berries have dropped on the ground or into our buckets. We have packed away our berries in our freezers. In the winter we try our best to stay healthy in mind and body. In Southeast Alaska we often use this time to make jams and jellies to gift to family, friends and our local tribes. Our belief is that if we don’t share then the land won’t provide again next year.
A Season of Storytelling:
Vivian Mork Yéilk’: Winter is a season of storytelling. For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples told stories deep into the winter night, carrying wisdom to the next generation. We’ve survived on our traditional lands for thousands of years being skillful storytellers. Wisdom resides in our knowledge systems and at the core is our values. Storytelling is an important way to learn proper behavior among animals, plants, other human beings, and even celestial bodies. Stories are our survival lessons. Stories entertain, they teach, and they heal. If we listen closely, we can learn to balance our lives and the proper manner to conduct ourselves on the planet. We can learn how to treat our neighbors and the land around us with respect.
You can check out the complete and in-depth Postcards from the Rainforest project at the National Folklife Network’s website: Our Stories, Our Art: A Magazine of the National Folklife Network. There, you’ll find videos, recipes, a podcast and slide show, poetry and more. Our fellow Alaskans can also apply for fellowships to write about their cultures and communities. Thank you, gunalchéesh, for reading our postcards.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’. It appears twice per month in the Capital City Weekly.