At the edge of the Mourant courtyard at the University of Alaska Southeast Juneau campus, flames burned brightly in a metal fire pit. Students from Wooch.Een, a student leadership group that focuses on creating an inclusive environment celebrating cultural traditions and knowledge, welcomed guests as they arrived at this year’s second annual Community Feast, an event for students, faculty, and staff to honor each other.
Wooch.Een in Lingít translates to ‘working together.’ The student club advisor is Kolene James, who is UAS’ Student Equity and Multicultural Services Manager. Her office is located in the Native and Rural Student Center, and is open to all students. Wooch.Een began as a student club to help bridge the gap between academic and traditional Alaska Native knowledge. Food sovereignty, wellness and healing have been Wooch.Een’s themes this semester and the focus of this year’s feast.
“The emotions we are going for is love and joy,” said X̱’unei, Lance Twitchell, a professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS, “I hope you feel a sense of being together and united on this place.”
The event began with a fire dish memorial, a Lingít cultural ceremony held to remember our ancestors. UA scholar and Wooch.Een member, Corinne James, handed out pens and paper for participants to write the names of those they wanted to remember. The papers were then collected and placed in the fire.
“For us, it’s saying ‘I would love to share a meal with you. I would love to still have you by our side.’ In our culture, those things we are happy to share with you,” X̱’unei shared, asking the ancestors to join us all in this celebration of coming together. After that, the guests moved indoors and the feast began.
Seikooni Fran Houston, who is an elder and speaker for Áakʼw Ḵwáan, welcomed the guests as they settled into their seats. “The ancestors are happy! Look at them, the ancestors are happy!” Seikooni exclaimed, raising her hand towards the window.
Outside, the branches of towering spruce trees waved about, and the lake and the mountains glowed a vivid yellow in the sunshine.
Fall break: transforming the narrative
As the seated guests listened to the speeches, student and staff volunteers moved quietly around the room, bringing plates of fry bread, steaming cups of smoked salmon soup, clam chowder and vegan tofu soup to the tables.
“We are blessed to live and work on the land of the Áakʼw Ḵwáan people,” said Chancellor Karen Carey smiling brightly, “I want you to know that we have changed the break name that is occurring next week to Fall Break.”
The room erupted in thundering stomps, hoots, and cheers.
Continuing, she said, “ I believe it is really important for us to do, if we are going to honor the people of this land, that we truly honor them.”
For Selah Judge, a UA scholar, student coordinator for the NRSC and Wooch.Een student leader who emceed the event along with fellow Wooch.Een leader and UAS Student Government Senator Almería Alcantra, this community feast is an opportunity to start these important conversations on transforming the narratives around Thanksgiving. It is also an opportunity to provide people the resources they need to educate themselves and others on the history, and share a nourishing meal that brings everyone together, strengthening our relationships to one another.
The renaming to Fall Break was a decision supported by the majority of students, staff and faculty at the university. This decision, along with the holding of this feast, is intended to spark healthier, more honest conversations on history and create more authentic experiences that begin from a place of inclusion, honoring the land and people, the traditional foods, ceremonies and values of this place. It is not intended to take away anything from those who celebrate Thanksgiving.
“Some of us have very good memories around Thanksgivings of the past, and learning this history doesn’t negate those experiences,” said Kaia Henrickson, who works as an information literacy librarian and as an assistant professor of library and information science. She spoke of the need for honest and inclusive history by addressing myths and facts. For example, the meal that took place in 1621 is often called the “first Thanksgiving.” Giving thanks, expressing gratitude, and celebrating a successful harvest have all been part of Indigenous culture since time immemorial, before Europeans arrived.
Henrickson ended her talk with encouraging words, telling the audience that it is okay to feel uncomfortable with the information being presented, explaining “[w]hen misinformation is tied to culture or identity or family, there’s not just the rational part of the brain. It also taps into the emotional center. The response is to get defensive— ‘this is attacking a part of me.’ So it takes longer to absorb that information. It requires us to feel uncomfortable. And it’s hard.”
She encouraged listeners to approach new facts with a curiosity to learn more and shared that the library offers a variety of educational resources they may seek out.
Food Sovereignty: Relationships to each other and tradition
In the back corner, a tasting table of traditional foods offered an opportunity for people of all walks of life and backgrounds to experience precious gifts from the land and sea: jars of sukkáadzi (beach asparagus), a bowl of laaḵʼásk (black seaweed), jams made from different berries: shaax (gray currant), kanat’á (blueberry), dáxw (lingonberry) and more. For many, it was their first time trying any or all these foods.
Forest Haven, the term assistant professor of anthropology and Alaska Native studies at UAS, took the stage. “[Gathering traditional foods is] actually a really dynamic, beautiful, loving practice. It’s not just about these foods that we consume to provide nutrients to our body, it’s not just about the economic need living in a rural area. It’s very much about these connections that we have to the land and each other– which happens through sharing.”
She continues: “[w]hat it comes down to is Native people do not have food sovereignty here– that is not something that exists for us because it was taken from us.”
With current state regulations, only people who reside in rural communities can practice subsistence legally so Indigenous people from urban areas like Juneau have less access to their traditional food practices. Despite this, Haven encourages Indigenous peoples to continue to engage with traditional ways of living and to get involved.
“We can create our own kind of food sovereignty, and it’s really through fostering these connections with our rural brothers and sisters.” Haven also recommends going out and learning traditional food harvesting and processing from their family members and friends in rural areas. “You can’t learn it from a book. You have to get out there, you have to be on the land and learn these practices… It’s also going to be the most rewarding types of work that you’ll do in your life.”
Healing energy and breathing
“A lot of what we are talking about is genocide of Indigenous people: erasure of culture. And trauma is stored in your body. That’s held literally within ourselves as Indigenous peoples,” Selah Judge explained. “A lot of people, if this is new info, and you’re learning trauma, it’s almost like secondary trauma. Then, they feel guilty. And, really it’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility to change it. Doing the breathing practice is a way for us to shake that up.”
As the chatter began to simmer down, it was important to end the event in an uplifting way. Carin Silkaitis, the dean of arts and sciences, shared a variety of tools, such as breathing exercises, to bring forth healing energy.
“Some of what you may have just heard today may have been hard for some of you,” said Silkaitis, who is trained in place-based performance: embodied work, focused on releasing tension, distressing, and centering yourself. Silkaitis also asked participants to partake in collective breathing exercises and to look about the room acknowledging all those who were present: remembering and appreciating all who experienced this educational and heart-warming feast with us.
Thank you to the Áakʼw Ḵwáan, Campus Life, Native and Rural Student Center, Kolene James, one of the event coordinators, Office of the Chancellor, the speakers and volunteers, Lakeside Grill staff, and Student Engagement and Leadership, Mallory Nash being the other event coordinator, and all of the speakers and volunteers for this beautiful day!
• Shaelene Grace Moler is a Southeast Alaska Lingít writer who worked as one of two Sustainable Southeast Partnership interns in the summer of 2022. She is currently a University of Alaska Southeast double-major in English and environmental studies with an emphasis in creative writing, working as a UAS Writing Center Tutor and as the senior editor of Tidal Echoes. She has been published in Alaska Women Speak, Capital City Weekly and by 49 Writers. The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a dynamic collective uniting diverse skills and perspectives to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska. It envisions self-determined and connected communities where Southeast Indigenous values continue to inspire society, shape our relationships, and ensure that each generation thrives on healthy lands and waters. SSP shares stories that inspire and better connect our unique, isolated communities. SSP can be found online at sustainablesoutheast.net. Resilient Peoples & Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly.