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Morning dew covers the picnic table near the smokehouse. In preparation for this day, my dad has thawed the salmon, swept spiders from the smokehouse, chopped the alder, and is now taking down the racks out of the smokehouse.
It’s my job to chop and slice the filleted fish for brining. My dad fills the brining tote with water from the hose. He pours in the boxed salt and stirs it with a stick until the salt dissolves. Then he adds a large potato. If the potato floats, the brine is perfect. I pour the pans of sliced salmon into the brine as my dad pushes them down with the stick.
There are many ways to smoke salmon, but it takes discipline to take the time to learn and listen. Some of us have our homes set up as fishcamp and others have property set up along rivers or the sea. We even have smokehouses set up in our backyards or small commercial ones set up on our porches. We prepare our fish in relation to everything and everyone around us. The values of discipline and tradition are essential. Kaa wudujeeyí ka kaa x’éix dus.aaxí ch’áagu haa shagóonx’ich kusteeyí. Discipline and obedience to the traditions of our ancestors.
It’s by helping smoke fish that I learned the basic smokehouse values: listening, respect, patience, readiness, gratefulness, and sharing. Here, on Ḵaachx̱ana.áakʼw (Wrangell) I am on Tlingit land. I am on Tlingit land when I go to City Market, when I walk my dogs down the Spur Road, and when I pick berries near Bernie’s Quonset hut. Even when I send my grandkids to school, I’m aware that the Head Start building, Evergreen Elementary and Wrangell High School are on Tlingit land. So, I try to live with an attitude of respect.
Around me the alder trees have grown larger; the big spruce tree above us is still healthy and full of spruce pinecones. Salmonberry and thimbleberry bushes have grown thicker next to the woodpile. I think about how all this is connected to our daily life—alder for the smokehouse, fish slime making the bushes grow, and smoked fish for us to eat and share. Life goes around and around. It is a relationship. In Indigenous worldviews, preserving relationships to the land and caring for the land, involves practicing community values while interacting with the land. We don’t separate ourselves from the values.
When I began to study my Sámi culture, I discovered similarities between the Sámi values and the Tlingit (Southeast Alaska Native) traditional values: the balance of nature is maintained; roots are remembered; education is experiential; and wealth is shared and given away. One of the most important values, though, shared by both the Sámi and the Tlingit is respect and it is disrespectful, to tell the Indigenous cultures of the area that they cannot post/teach or present their values in a public school. I want my grandchildren to point at a poster of Southeast Alaska Tribal Values in their classroom or lunchroom and say, “This is me.”
Now, I help my dad stir the fish in the brine one more time and after a few minutes it’s ready to dump. We drain the brine tank and pour the brined slices on the table. We arrange the fish on the racks. After the racks are loaded, it takes two of us now, to lift the rack up over our heads and slide them into place. After the smokehouse is loaded, my dad makes a small fire in the bottom base of the smokehouse. He knows how to make the fire with the right amount of wood, fire, and smoke. Sometimes it takes time to get the smoke just right.
Tlél kútx i yáa wdawóodlik—Have patience and don’t be in a hurry is something I’ve learned from fishermen and elders during my lifetime. It takes time to prepare the boat and gear and bait, and troll for the salmon or head to the stream with the net. Patience. Patience. It takes time to get everything ready to smoke fish so have patience at the smokehouse.
In Southeast Alaska, we harvest and gather, and hunt and fish for much of our food. Many of us in Southeast Alaska cannot separate ourselves, our identity from our land, our food, our values. This is what the Tlingit call Haa Kusteeyí –Our Way of Life.
Now, I sit beside my dad near the table next to the smokehouse. The smoke streams from the eves and drifts up into the tree branches.
This is as perfect as it gets: salmon, alder smoke and stories. I am learning and living Indigenous values. I am not separate from this experience. If this fact was really understood, though, there wouldn’t be a lawsuit asking a judge to prohibit teaching 14 Southeast Alaskan Tribal Values in the classrooms as well as prohibiting them from being posted in classrooms, hallways, and common areas. To understand the intentional damage this would cause, one needs to learn the historical context. This isn’t the first time the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian have encountered such attitudes.
As I sit beside my dad, I tell him that his great-grandson Bear is heading to Head Start Preschool this year and Grandson Jonah will be in the 4th grade. Grandson Jackson is heading to 8th grade and Grandson Timothy enters High School. “We are getting old,” my dad says.
I am happy that my grandchildren are proud to be Tlingit. They were not torn away from our family and forced into boarding schools. They did not get their mouths washed out with soap for saying “Gunalchéesh,” a word that I taught them. My grandchildren did not have to give up eating seal grease or herring eggs or wearing tanned deer skin vests to be able to attend school. Just down the street is the former Wrangell Institute boarding school grounds. Alaska Native children were severely punished there for adhering to any of their traditional values. They, too, would not have been allowed to hang a traditional values poster around their schools.
Smoke-scent fills the early afternoon. After storytelling and waiting and checking the smoke and waiting some more and drinking coffee and telling more stories, the smoke is done. We lift the racks out of the smokehouse and put them on the table. We remove the slices and put them into pans. We don’t have to smoke them long because we’re going to pressure cook them in Mason jars.
Two pans heap with smoked salmon. “Gunalchéesh,” I say, as I take the hot slices off the racks. I’m thanking a creator when I say, “thank you.” I’m paying respect to my life and all life. Yáa at wuné haa Aan Káawu jeeyís—Reverence for our creator is seemingly one of the Southeast Alaska Tribal Values that’s challenging for the lawsuit’s plaintiffs to grasp, which does not translate to a single deity from a specific religion. This could be readily understood by cultivating a relationship to the local Indigenous peoples and the land. It’s broader meaning is “living” or “being,” as in the state of being alive, no matter how that is viewed. It gives respect to the fact of life. For those who don’t hold any organized religious beliefs, it’s giving respect to your own beating heart, the salmon’s heart, and even the fire in the smokehouse, everything around you that sustains life.
I live and work and write on Tlingit Aaní and I trust the Southeast Alaskan tribes to make use of their own value systems. By living here, they have taught me a lot, including how to survive. To all the Native youth in the Ketchikan School District and beyond in our other Southeast Alaskan communities I say to you, “Yee toowú klatseen.”—Be strong in mind, body, and spirit. I’m a guest who’s been fortunate to learn some Lingít language, customs, and smokehouse values: listening, respect, patience, readiness, gratefulness, and sharing. May your hands be stained with berries, and your hoodie sparkle with salmon scales. And may the cardboard poster on the wall of your school lunchroom speak to you of sh yáa ayakdané ka ldakát káa yáa at uwanéi — Respect for self, Elders, and others.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Yéilk’ Vivian Mork. It appears twice per month in the Capital City Weekly.