In May, Yéilk’ Vivian Mork of Planet Alaska organized “Stewards of the Land” a traditional plants symposium in Juneau to share knowledge, passion, and respectful harvesting practices of traditional plants as food and medicine. (Courtesy Photo / Jennifer Nu)

In May, Yéilk’ Vivian Mork of Planet Alaska organized “Stewards of the Land” a traditional plants symposium in Juneau to share knowledge, passion, and respectful harvesting practices of traditional plants as food and medicine. (Courtesy Photo / Jennifer Nu)

Resilient Peoples & Place: From Metlakatla to Yakutat, first food catalyst fellowship celebrates a summer of six

Program matches six community leaders with capital from the Native American Agriculture Fund.

By Jennifer Nu

This year, Spruce Root and the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition collaborated to launch a food catalyst fellowship program in support of Alaska Native and Native American leaders around Southeast Alaska. Catalyzed through the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, this program matched community leaders in six communities with capital from the Native American Agriculture Fund, and training and support through Spruce Root, SAWC and Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, to realize food sovereignty projects from Metlakatla to Yakutat.

Launching with virtual project planning and networking sessions in the spring, Food Fellows met monthly to collaborate and track progress before wrapping up projects together this fall.

We appreciate and celebrate these food catalyst fellows for all their hard work and commitment to their communities. Here are highlights from each of the catalyst-fellows about their projects and food sovereignty aspirations for their community.

Gatgyeda Haayk Tia Atkinson- Metlakatla Indian Community- Community Compost

Years ago, Tia Atkinson began volunteering at the community garden in her Tsmishian community of Metlakatla. At the time, she didn’t realize that her interest in growing food would lead her down a journey in leading food sovereignty efforts in her community.

Today, she is the community garden champion and works for Metlakatla Indian Community’s S’ndooyntgm Galts’ap Community Garden and manages raised beds and a 20×40 high tunnel, which offers space for community members to grow vegetables for themselves. Atkinson tends any remaining beds to grow food for the elders and families in need.

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In addition to the garden, she began collecting compost three years ago to amend the soil.

“We use our own compost in the beds and it made a huge difference,” she marveled. “The plants are flourishing in the beds that were amended, compared with the others that are small and grew slowly.”

Like the garden, the composting project has come a long way.

“First it started with a little box, then moved to tires, then pallets with three stalls, and now we will end up with a nice bin with a lid.”

For Atkinson, being able to supplement traditional foraged foods with cultivated garden foods is important to reduce dependencies on the barge, which also happened to experience a lengthy disruption this summer.

“It’s also important to supply our own compost because it reduces our carbon footprint from bringing soil from the Lower 48,” she said. “It benefits our food system, our global footprint. It impacts the effect we have on the environment, and our landfill. There are so many factors. To me, composting is just as important as our garbage pick-up.”

Her hopes are to have a composting program big enough to amend all the soil at the garden and provide compost for community members who garden at their homes. Through the SSP network, she will connect with composters around Southeast Alaska to exchange ideas, share resources, and provide support to others leading composting efforts in their own communities.

Maranda Hamme, Craig Tribal Association- Community Smokehouse Underway

Maranda Hamme of Craig laid the groundwork for a community smokehouse that will be finalized by next fishing season. With support from the Food Fellowship program, Hamme was able to pull together the people power, resources, and secure a location for the smokehouse. (Courtesy Photo / Bethany Goodrich)

Maranda Hamme of Craig laid the groundwork for a community smokehouse that will be finalized by next fishing season. With support from the Food Fellowship program, Hamme was able to pull together the people power, resources, and secure a location for the smokehouse. (Courtesy Photo / Bethany Goodrich)

In Craig on Prince of Wales Island, Maranda Hamme, the Environmental program manager at Craig Tribal Association, coordinated with partners in her community to build a traditional community smokehouse to provide an educational place for traditional food preparation and preservation activities. This summer, she was able to pull together the people power and necessary materials while identifying a site for the smokehouse. Key partners include the City of Craig, and the Craig Tribal Council. The plan is for local high school students to build the smokehouse as part of their shop class, which has been delayed due to COVID-19 closures.

“Having youth involved in constructing the smokehouses is very important for us, so we are in touch with schools on the island and are waiting to work with them when they’re open again,” she reported.

Although the project has been delayed, Hamme is confident that work will resume in the spring so the community will enjoy the smokehouse next fishing season.

Saantaas’ Lani Hotch- Chilkat Indian Village- Klukwan- Renovations for Dry and Cold Storage

In the small Tlingit community of Klukwan, Lani Hotch with Chilkat Indian Village began repurposing an abandoned generator building for dry storage for this isolated community of 72 residents. Klukwan is a 22 mile drive from the nearest grocery store. (Courtesy Photo / Bethany Goodrich)

In the small Tlingit community of Klukwan, Lani Hotch with Chilkat Indian Village began repurposing an abandoned generator building for dry storage for this isolated community of 72 residents. Klukwan is a 22 mile drive from the nearest grocery store. (Courtesy Photo / Bethany Goodrich)

When Lani Hotch set eyes on an old generator building in Klukwan, she looked beyond the piles of boxes, abandoned equipment, and broken machinery and saw a potential food security solution for her community. This summer and with support through the Food Fellows program, a small crew of local workers began renovating the junk-filled building and repurposing it into a food storage facility for their community. The nearest grocery store in Haines is a 22-mile drive, so a local store and storage would increase her community’s ability to store dry goods, local food, and even cold storage in the future. Today, the building has been cleaned, inspected, and ready for insulation. The local crew’s impressive pressure-washing efforts removed decades of grime to reveal that the building’s floor was actually made of concrete and not dirt. Lani is a long-time leader for food sovereignty projects in Klukwan including a community garden and hoop house. She has also led numerous salmon and moose harvest camps. The Chilkat Indian Village has been a dedicated partner in contributing funds and resources to complement the project funding provided by the fellowship.

“This is part of a vision of having Klukwan be a thriving community and being more self-sufficient,” she said. “It’s so exciting to see what’s possible.”

Kush Tlein Tlaa Penney James- Yakutat Tlingit Tribe- Community Garden and Greenhouse

Penney James with Yakutat Tlingit Tribe used her Fellowship to strengthen Yakutat Community Gardens, dedicated to the late city planner and community visionary Rhonda Costen. The garden includes 44 raised beds, two greenhouses, and a compost house. (Courtesy Photo / Bethany Goodrich)

Penney James with Yakutat Tlingit Tribe used her Fellowship to strengthen Yakutat Community Gardens, dedicated to the late city planner and community visionary Rhonda Costen. The garden includes 44 raised beds, two greenhouses, and a compost house. (Courtesy Photo / Bethany Goodrich)

For Penney James, Human Services Director at the Yakutat Tlingit tribe, highlights of her summer involved not only growing tomatoes but also and especially growing new gardeners. “It’s a long journey. It takes time, and it takes work,” she said of her dream to transform an empty lot behind the school and tribal buildings into a welcoming space for growing vegetables and community connections around food security and healthy lifestyles. Today, the area holds forty-four- 4-foot-by-20-foot raised beds hooped with reinforced plastic covers in its community garden, two 10-foot-by-20-foot greenhouses, and one 8-foot-by-20-foot compost house. Community members named each garden box after a value: Faith, Patience, Charity, Service, Resilience, Integrity, Empathy, among many others. The garden space also hosts a tool shed, storage shed, bathroom and pavilion, all on city land. A grand opening was held in June, with a memorial honoring the legacy of the late city planner and visionary Rhonda Costen, who shared this passion for food security and was instrumental in setting up much of the groundwork for the projects many years before her passing.

Yakutat Tlingit Tribe community youth adopted raised beds, named them after values and strengths, and enjoyed cultivating fresh vegetables from seed to harvest this year. This one is named Happiness. (Courtesy Photo / Bethany Goodrich)

Yakutat Tlingit Tribe community youth adopted raised beds, named them after values and strengths, and enjoyed cultivating fresh vegetables from seed to harvest this year. This one is named Happiness. (Courtesy Photo / Bethany Goodrich)

The project also included the completion of a sturdy, spacious compost house to hold and transform yard scraps into valuable soil amendments for the garden. James and her interns offered garden classes every Tuesday throughout the summer. Youth came regularly to work in the garden, starting with planting before the last day of school, and then harvesting in the fall when classes began again.

“It’s fun to see those kids learn the whole process that it takes to grow your food,” said Penney. “We’re on the first step of growing our future food leaders.”

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Yéilk’ Vivian Mork – Planet Alaska- Traditional Plants Symposium and Harvesting Classes

Throughout the early spring, summer, and fall, Yéilk’ Vivian Mork kept busy, organizing hands-on, outdoor, Covid-safe workshops and plant symposiums as part of her “Hike, Harvest, and Heal” program. A longtime Southeast Alaska traditional foods and medicines educator, Yéilk’ owns Planet Alaska, which she describes as “business with the purpose of perpetuating culture.” With support from the Fellowship and Winona LaDuke’s Honor the Earth Foundation, Yéilk’ organized a spring plant symposium at the Methodist Camp in Juneau at the end of May when there was still snow on the ground. Much thought and effort went into keeping people COVID-safe and spread out, so she rented multiple buildings and held activities in outdoor covered areas.

This year’s Planet Alaska symposium was called Stewards of the Land Vivian and two other Alaska Native plant educators, Meda Dewitt and Naomi Michalsen, led plant identification walks in the forest and along the beach. They led hands-on workshops preserving and preparing plants as foods and medicines. People gathered to share knowledge and much-needed healing time together.

“The symposium was a multi-generational gathering and cross-cultural opportunity to share how we have been sustainably harvesting for more than 10,000 years. A lot of people have a growing interest in our traditional foods and medicines and it is important to teach people how to harvest respectfully so that we can harvest here for thousands of years to come,” she said.

The teachings focused on respectful harvesting practices, reciprocity, and “setting seeds in the next generation” of land stewards. “It is very important to remember that one of the core values in the Tlingit culture which helps us survive in Alaska, and has for more than 10,000 years, is that the more we give the richer we are. You see this embedded in our koo.éex’, or potlatches. You see this in the spring harvest of herring eggs. You see this in the first harvest of a deer. The gift-giving economy is at the heart of our Tlingit culture and how we have survived here for thousands of years. But in order to continue to be generous we must tend to the forest and beach around us.”

After the spring symposium in Juneau, Vivian also distributed numerous boxes, jars, and a few freezers’ worth of traditional foods in Wrangell and Dog Point Fish Camp in Sitka. The long-term plan is to continue doing Zoom Plant Symposiums, online classes, as well as work with communities in Southeast who are preparing to host their own symposiums. She plans to work with local experts in communities and build them up to be able to host these gatherings every spring, and ultimately educate and train many new generations of respectful harvesters.

Everyone who attended the symposium received beautiful gifts of dried plants, foods, medicines, teachings, and gratitude for the generosity of the land, of the teachers, and of the Tlingit traditions of giving.

Check out Yéilk’s story about her project in her weekly Planet Alaska column in Capital City Weekly.

Tracy Welch- Petersburg Indian Association- harvesting and processing traditional foods

Tracy Welch with Petersburg Indian Association worked with Stephanie Silva to offer food preservation workshops throughout the summer to residents of all ages including gumboot processing and canning. (Courtesy Photo / Bethany Goodrich)

Tracy Welch with Petersburg Indian Association worked with Stephanie Silva to offer food preservation workshops throughout the summer to residents of all ages including gumboot processing and canning. (Courtesy Photo / Bethany Goodrich)

During a summer of bare grocery store shelves and supply chain disruptions, Tracy Welch, tribal administrator at the Petersburg Indian Association (PIA) (https://piatribal.org/) is thankful for a partnership with Stephanie Silva, the PIA Johnson O’Malley program director, who scheduled and taught a series of hands-on food preservation classes throughout the summer.

“We had 73 people over 12 weekends, and people were so excited to preserve seafood, jellies, berries, and also smoking fish and pressure-canning.” The project was developed in response to increasing interest among tribal members in gaining the knowledge and skills to preserve their own catch. The program welcomed a wide range of ages, from 2-76 years old. “Some families attended every single class that was offered and were inspired to invest in the equipment to do food preservation at home,” reported Welch. “ The best feedback that we have received was when one of the ‘students’ called to reserve space in our community hall to smoke and jar salmon with her family. We have seen the skills that were learned already being put into action and passed down to additional individuals in the community.”

This year’s project made use of mobile smokers that were constructed by the community earlier but not used until this year. “It’s excellent that our community is aware of the importance of sourcing locally,” said Welch. “Many individuals signed up for classes because it was an activity that they could do with their family. Not only did we teach new skills and provide people with the knowledge to preserve food for themselves, but we provided a place for community and gathering.”

Community members have already expressed interest in signing up for future classes, so Welch will build on what was learned this summer to create a bigger and more robust program next year.

Overcoming Challenges and Adaptive Leadership

Each of the Fellows faced many challenges in this second pandemic year as supply chain issues, inclement weather, and uncertainties with Covid-19 lockdowns necessitated an adaptive mindset, flexibility, and grit. In leading their projects, Fellows also harvested unexpected surprises, such as additional financial support from tribal organizations and very positive responses from the community. They witnessed how their efforts sparked interest in traditional foods knowledge and skills, especially among youth who showed up again and again, hungry to learn and become leaders themselves. As the fellowship comes to an official close, this first cohort of Southeast Alaska food catalyst leaders will continue to strengthen food sovereignty in their communities and stay connected to each other as a network of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership.

Gunalchéesh, haw’aa, nt’oyaxsn, thank you to Sarah Dybdahl, Miriah Twitchell, Ralph Wolfe, and Aldyn Brudie for serving on the selection committee, Aaron Ferguson for overseeing and managing the program, and to all the food catalysts out there who continue to be leaders in their communities. Partners are currently working on fundraising to launch a second Food Fellows program in 2022.

• Jennifer Nu is the Regional Food Systems Catalyst with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership and the Local Foods Program director at the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition. The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a dynamic collective uniting diverse skills and perspectives to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska. We envision 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. Resilient Peoples & Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly. SSP can also be found online at sustainablesoutheast.net.

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