Sheit.een, English name Michaela Goade, is a Kiks.ádi artist and picture book maker from the Steel House and a child of the Kaagwaantaan. In 2021, Goade became the first Indigenous winner of the prestigious Caldecott medal for “We Are Water Protectors.” The Caldecott is easily recognized by a shiny gold medal on the cover of distinguished American picture books, and has been awarded every year for 85 years. Goade’s most recent work “Berry Song,” was published in July and is the first picture book that Goade has authored as well. Goade describes “Berry Song” as a celebration of our connection to land and to each other, centering on a young Lingit girl and her grandmother on a search for tleikw (berries).
“I love berry picking and I always have,” Goade tells me as we take cover from the rain after an hour of salmonberry picking. “It’s playing and it’s an adventure, and it’s magic— but it’s also a way to feel connected and grounded to home.”
I too feel that connection deeply. My mother passed forward a love for Lingit Aani passed on to her through many generations of Lingit stewards. Our family’s love for this land runs deep, and it’s evident through Goade’s picture book that her family holds a similar story.
We had just said goodbye to her nephews Kai and Ryder, who would surely agree on berry picking as an adventure. They remind me of my sister Sienna and I— running, play-fighting, and eating our harvest across the alpines, forest, and muskegs of the Tongass. Of course Sienna and I spent our time imagining up bog monsters and rolling down muskeg hills in our raingear as mom busily picked cranberries. Those early memories with my family stick with me still as we create new memories harvesting each year- full of joy. You can see that same joy behind Kai and Ryder’s eyes; they’re two perfect examples of the audience Goade aims to reach: Native youth, youth from Southeast Alaska, and future stewards of the lands and waters that sustain our harvests. She wants her readers to experience berry picking through her words and images and to connect with these lands, as our families have for generations.
When I ask her how she feels when she’s out harvesting she starts slowly, looking for the right words to describe her complex feelings towards a somewhat simple act. “Berry picking can be just something you go out and do.” Her voice soon gains power behind it, “But if you go out with a certain intention, it can be a much more impactful experience. That’s what I’m hoping to encourage people to look at. Talking to the berries, talking to the plants and animals and thanking them, and asking permission, and things like that sort of feel weird at first but it helps you feel more connected. When you’re more connected, you’re more inclined to be a better steward and to learn about this place you call home.”
Goade’s face lights up when we steer the conversation back to youth, “I’ve been working with Kai, and we would go out trying to learn the names of the berries and say Gunalcheesh. I’ll just be out picking berries, and Kai will say, ‘It is so beautiful! I could just stay out here all day!’ and that happens when we nurture it.”
At the core of “Berry Song” is an intergenerational relationship that mirrors her time with Kai, based on the traditional teachings of her Lingit relations. Lingit people and many other Indigenous peoples used harvests as a way to pass down information, values, and relationship with land and food to their young ones. Goade sees Indigenous knowledge as a potential path to bring great impact to the world. “I share it [this story], in the hopes too that it helps people care. Because it’s hard to encourage change if people don’t care, if we don’t bring it to something real and something that people can relate to.” For Goade, that something ‘real’ is the healing that harvesting can facilitate.
Beginning to work on “Berry Song” in 2020, the pandemic and a thyroid cancer diagnosis brought a whole new level of healing to Goade’s harvesting. Berry picking by herself, she was navigating cancer and the human journey while crafting “Berry Song” “and it all worked together.” As she describes this journey, I find parallels. Between Goade and a cancer diagnosis, my younger self and a mystery illness, my mom and her chemo, my friend and their grief, all strung together with salmon bones and berry bushes, the smell of the muskeg and the power of the harvest. Simple joys and deep connections made while together on the land, can bring comfort to those caught in feelings of anxiety and loss — emotions we all experience and hold close.
Now, as her book is in the first few weeks of being out in the world, Goade continues to bring more to her first authored picture book by sharing it directly with a particular audience Goade cherishes- local youth. On Aug. 6, through a partnership with First National Bank Alaska, Sitka Public Library, Sitka Conservation Society, and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership with support from Hames Corporation and Our Town Catering, Goade and partners hosted her first “Berry Song” event. Goade read to an overflowing library and volunteers helped hand out 90 signed copies of “Berry Song.” To-go breakfasts were provided to youths and participants learned to paint with blueberries.
When Goade describes what she wants local youths to get out of the book, you can hear a warmth behind her voice.
“I hope at least that people from this region feel proud when they see ‘Berry Song.’ and I have always tried to keep Native youth in mind. I want them to get to the end of the book and just feel more pride in who they are and know that leaning on their experiences and their families and histories is like a superpower.” “Berry Song” is full of that same warmth— a love for children and a love for land.
“People get a lot out of ‘Berry Song’ because I put a lot into it,” She says to me as we part ways– berry bucket in hand. I can’t help but agree, because after flipping through the beautiful illustrated pages of ‘Berry Song,’ the little Lingit kid in me already felt prouder.
• Ḵaa Yahaayí Shkalneegi Muriel Reid is an artist and student based in Áak’w (Juneau) and Sheet’ká (Sitka) Alaska. They spend their time with friends and in nature and with friends in nature. Ḵaa Yahaayí Shkalneegi takes photos and writes to share their love of people and place.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.