“Our food is our medicine,” says Lgeik’i Heather Powell, leader of the Gaawt’ak.aan Dancers of Xunaa (Hoonah). On this stormy Saturday she’s surrounded by her regalia-clad “kiddos.”
More than 100 community members, including several out-of-town volunteers from nearby Icy Strait Point, jam together in a huge tin-roofed shed and under Fourth of July-style tents loaned by the City of Hoonah. The dancers in their bead- and button-decorated robes are the only ones without layers of sweatshirts and jackets.
In fact, during set up an hour earlier, the wind temporarily transformed one tent into a rollicking red, white and blue tumbleweed. But now it’s been firmly re-attached to the ground, the tables are laden, and everyone smiles.
This is the celebratory culmination of Xunaa’s 6th annual Traditional Food Fair, held this year on Sept. 9. Performing for their families makes the students feel good, explains Lgeik’i.
“Part of who we are is family,” she said.
Yes, regardless of weather, everyone is here with their families. They celebrate traditional foods from the land, the ancestral knowledge of how to prepare them and the strength of culture.
Since 2018, Huna Heritage Foundation (HHF) and the tribal government, the Hoonah Indian Association (HIA), have been co-sponsoring the Traditional Food Fair. They organized the first fair with the assistance of Ecotrust Intern Miakah Nix, who worked with HIA Environmental (https://ecotrust.org/photo-essay-huna-traditional-food-fair). That year 75 people gathered to enjoy a cooking contest and share food largely prepared by volunteers.
However, today it is an interconnected, multidimensional and multi-month, hands-on process occurring simultaneously with all the desk-bound work of running an office.
HHF Executive Director Tlagoonk Amelia Wilson says the event “provides so many opportunities to learn and share Lingít cultural values.” These include gathering subsistence foods through the lens of stewardship, safe food preservation and hosting a positive event to bring as many people as possible together simply to share a meal.
From the first moments of the two-hour meal everything from the door prize announcements to the servers’ demeanors communicates Tlagoonk’s belief that, “sharing good food together is so fun.”
Platters of herring eggs on hemlock branches arrive as table centerpieces. Cups of frozen mixed berry salad quickly fill the tables, followed by bowls of steaming halibut chowder and carton lids of hot fry bread. All this deliciousness is the work of Kashgé Debbie Picken, official chef, and Kaal’ keen Niccole Williams and Heen Dei Tláa Jessie Wright, the fry bread makers. Now Ghagetch Rebekah Contreras, HHF Executive Assistant, circulates with a pint jar of seal grease, spooning puddles of the rich delicacy onto plates. “My hands are sticky,” she laughs. “We love our community (and) want to celebrate this life we have together.”
Soon it’s time for another door prize drawing, this one specifically for elders. Cháak Tláa Julie Jackson from the tribal government donated a case of jarred subsistence foods specifically for elders. Her co-worker Koodeiyatóon Darlene See explains why Cháak Tláa made this distinction: “our elders (can’t regularly get) our traditional foods, especially the widows.”
More jarred foods follow. Then Koodeiyatóon shares a special treat, gumboots (chitons) from Ghaathéeni, also known as Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay National Park. These were gathered by students at the Tidelines Institute under the guidance of Seik dul Xeitl Wayne Howell of Gustavus.
The meal winds on: crab harvested by Shoo Keesh Jeromy Grant, HIA Environmental Coordinator, as well as pies and other desserts baked by community members with blueberries picked and donated by Tooléich Sally Dybdahl. Another round of door prizes: this time colorful gift bags from the Kittiwake Cafe (Koontz Miranda Dawn) and Wakeesh Don Starbard’s Sagū Studios. By now the tables are layered with jars and plates. “Anyone need a box?” calls a server.
Although the planning and calendaring happens in the spring, the summer harvesting experience is the foundation of the food fair. This year, the student workers in the local Alaska Youth Stewards program (AYS), led by Julian Narvaez and instructed by HIA and HHF staff, gathered and processed enough blueberries, beach asparagus, and bull kelp to give out 120 jars of food. Add to that what was collected on a sunny August day in the muskegs below Hoonah’s Elephant Mountain — 80 snack bags of Hudson Bay Tea — what Tlagoonk calls Lingít Thera-flu. Community members helped with the beach asparagus and tea collection. You would need a very large table to display it all at once, something 15-year-old AYS student Gis’óok Chloe Lane, both a harvester and a server, thinks “would be so cool.”
“The harvesting is my favorite part … I love getting out with the AYS students,” says Tlagoonk. “Harvesting together is an excellent way to build relationships over the course of the summer, and the youth really deserve a shout-out for being so engaged” — especially in the critical but sometimes tedious work of processing.
“Fifty percent of the processing can be done on site,” explains Sei Ya’ Eesh Jeff Skaflestad, community specialist for HHF. The other 50% requires the sanitation that can only be achieved in a more controlled environment. That hygienic kitchen is the upstairs of the HHF office, right across from the Hoonah Harbor.
“The elders used established protocols,” says Sei Ya’ Eesh. They knew the dangerous outcomes of sloppy preservation. However, “often our home life doesn’t have processing time built in, like it commonly did long ago,” says Lgeik’i. Thus, some of the AYS students had limited processing experience — nor had they all collected beach asparagus and bull kelp. In fact, that knowledge is not universal among the community’s adults either. The first time Ghagetch ever did any jarring was when she worked for as an HIA Environmental Team Leader preparing for the very first Food Fair. But until this round with HHF, she says, “I didn’t fully understand the importance of gathering and safe processing.”
The students gathered around big tables at the office. As they sorted loose Hudson Bay Tea leaves and prepared jars for high temperature canning, Sei Ya’ Eesh and Tlagoonk shared experiences from their lifetimes of subsistence gathering and processing. In effect they were serving as uncle and auntie to these members of the younger generation. Narvaez, the AYS leader, was pleasantly surprised to see that, despite the unavoidable sitting and waiting time, the harvesting and processing ranked highest on his participants’ end-of-season evaluations. The bonding and group joy generated during the hours inside a hot, steamy kitchen deeply impressed Ghagetch.
But Sei Ya’ Eesh sees it all as more than a positive multi-generational experience — although that has also become less common in some families. “We bring the old-timers’ values forward. The old people passed this on to us … we are responsible to the ancestors to pass this on to the future.” In other words, “everyone will eventually be a teacher and no one owns the knowledge.” Tlagoonk reminds the students, “you should be in a good frame of mind” when you gather and process our foods. Sei Ya’ Eesh Jeff Skaflestad explains that “in the past there was always a thankfulness for what you have, a humbleness…take what you need and be grateful. It’s not an unlimited resource…the western mentality isn’t going to work with traditional harvest styles.”
That’s the message Ian Johnson wants the Food Fair to promote. He sees it as “an event without riders,” a way to share with the community. Like all of HIA Environmental’s programs, Johnson hopes the Food Fair develops “a sense of ownership and pride for the gatherers and processors,” as well as “new skillsets that will help perpetuate the culture.”
Julian Narvaez echoes that when he explains that “AYS work is all about giving back to the community,” whether by stream restoration, data collection, or harvesting. However, the harvesting yields the most tangible results that also directly honor traditional culture. He also values the introduction to HHF that the collaboration provides his students.
For Shoo Keesh, the Food Fair is a powerful symbol of celebration, connection, and resilience. “We’re still here, doing the things that were once outlawed.” He likes how it pulls members of the various organizations, “out of their siloes (to create) something so impactful.” Like Tlagoonk, he appreciates the Food Fair’s inclusivity, involving everyone in town rather than just the Native community. He’s delighted with his role in it. Not only does he serve as a bear guard on gathering trips, but this year he leveraged his BIA-funded Subsistence Program to take AYS and HHF groups to gather the bull kelp and catch the halibut that was served. Many of those participants had never done either of those activities, even though tourists commonly pay hundreds of dollars for the experience. “I work in an office. I (can easily) forget that I’m a Native man with a job to do,” he explains. That expanded job includes harvesting for elders and sharing his subsistence knowledge. “If we don’t use it, we lose it,” he says.
As the Traditional Food Fair winds down — and becomes a whirl of running equipment through the rain to trucks, it’s obvious why the community of Keex’ Kwaan (Kake) has recently started its own food fair assisted by Miakah Nix’s insights (https://sustainablesoutheast.net/the-power-of-coming-together-traditional-food-fair-and-farmers-summit-represent-breadth-of-southeast-alaskas-food-system/). Even people who don’t normally connect have shared a good time.
“It’s heartwarming to see so many come out even in such miserable weather!” enthuses Tlagoonk.
Ian Johnson says that a sign of its success is that people are now expecting this annual event. The youth who have participated “appreciate the work involved in preparing this food,” says Lgeik’i, “and now know not to drive their ATV’s over the beach asparagus flats.” All the participants have been part of the concept of haa shagóon, the Lingít idea that the ancestors and their knowledge are simultaneously united with the present and future generations. Each organizer already has goals for next year. As this continues to grow, so should the structure behind it: a commercial kitchen to teach classes on traditional food preparation; elders working with the AYS students; skiffs and a salmon net; bigger tents to keep everyone dry.
Meanwhile, what Sei Ya’ Eesh calls “tangible evidence of the land’s bounty” lingers on everyone’s tongues.
• Stephanie Harold has been a teacher in Xunaa (Hoonah) since 1992. As a visual storyteller and writer in the traditional territory of the Xunaa Káawu, she documents on location with watercolor and pen. She strives to draw her viewers into specific moments of life in Southeast Alaska, also giving them an intimate experience with some of the planet’s last remaining temperate rainforest. See more of her work at https://www.discoverybysketch.com or on Instagram @discoverybysketch. 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.