It was a cool day in mid-May, and I was at the Methodist Campground for the Planet Alaska Plant Symposium: Stewards of the Land. Two dozen people sat outside in a shelter, around several tables, masked up, keeping distance from one another. There were patches of snow still on the ground and rain was in the forecast again, perfect conditions for spring harvesting. Heaped on our lunch plates was herring egg salad filled with wild cucumber shoots, deer heart leaves, fireweed stalks and a few hemlock needles for flavor.
As we ate my herring egg salad, I considered the planning and generosity it took to organize this symposium. Several friends had gifted herring eggs freshly harvested from the Sitka area. Herring eggs are one of the many foods at the foundation of our Tlingit gift-giving economy. Another friend gifted caribou meat from up north. With the concept of gift-giving in mind I had set out to obtain grants to support this symposium. Grants from Spruce Root: Community Development and Winona LaDuke’s Honor the Earth Foundation brought about the first Planet Alaska Plant Symposium: Stewards of the Land. My goal was simple: Teach people to harvest sustainably as we have done for thousands of years and encourage them to share their gifts and their knowledge.
Why give away knowledge? In the Tlingit culture, the more we give the richer we are. In Tlingit Aaní, we live a cyclic life, and our worldviews and values reflect this. To survive here, we must share, and in turn, we must have something to share, and that means taking care of Tlingit Aani. A káx yan aydél wé tl’átgi. We are stewards of the air, land, and sea.
Lately, taking care of ourselves and others has been challenging. We are living through a pandemic. The more we hike and harvest together, in a safe way, the more we heal. Because of what we’re all going through, I felt a need to gather again, no matter how complicated. From May 6 to May 17 of this year, I gathered family, friends, and participants from several organizations. May 6-13 we organized Planet Alaska’s Hike, Harvest and Heal classes ending with the larger Plant Symposium May 14-17. We made the space, gathered the people, fed them well, told stories, sang, gathered, learned and shared. Together, we sipped hot caribou stew made with freshly harvested spring greens and dined on caribou sausage and fiddleheads over pasta.
Due to COVID restrictions, though, the camp and classes were limited, and we were full before we advertised. Classes were led by Tlingit traditional foods and medicine educators: Meda Dewitt, Naomi Michalsen and me. Participants came from the Zach Gordon Youth Center, SEACC: Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Central Council Tlingit and Haida, and Sealaska. All together there were more than 100 participants, but not all at once due to COVID-19. We gathered in small groups and classes were held outside.
A central goal for the symposium was to decolonize cultural education and experiences. In traditional Tlingit education, hands-on learning happens when the plants are coming up, rather than taking place in an artificial learning session inside buildings and classrooms in fall and winter. If you harvest your foods that are plants, you need to start early and harvest often, typically around February through June. We harvested and taught sustainable and ethical harvesting every day, all day long, and offered a combination of day classes, evening classes and camping opportunities.
From participant Jennifer Nu: “The symposium celebrated our region’s beloved Alaska Native harvesters who are teachers and experts. I also appreciated that our instructors really encouraged participants to continue learning and continue practicing plant harvesting so they can one day share what they learn with others: knowledge of the plants and the land, practices of respectful harvesting, and respectful relationships.”
Planet Alaska Plant Symposium: Stewards of the Land began with a welcome by Fran Houston, Seikoonie, who provided the Aak’w Kwáan land acknowledgment and welcome ceremony. This was our first lesson, to show respect. Ldakát át a yáa ayaduwanéi (respect for land and property) is a value you learn while harvesting. It’s about respecting the plants, the people, and the land. Some of the plants that we taught participants to harvest were yarrow, plantain, cottonwood, spruce, hemlock, devil’s club, dandelions, wild celery, watermelon berry shoots, salmonberry shoots, thimble berry shoots, beach lovage, and chickweed. We also taught participants how to make infused oils, salves, teas, and tinctures.
One of my favorite things about being a harvester is the ability to help fellow harvesters help others. I also love to share my harvesting knowledge with the younger generation and multi-generational families. Participant Lily Hope said, “My children and I are still talking about the plants we learned of at the symposium. They’re counting down the months until we can harvest and roast fiddleheads again.”
We are all lifelong learners and teachers. Naomi Michalsen said, “I brought three young women along who learned so much about traditional plants and respectful harvesting. They also experienced storytelling, tlingit language and song, beautiful foods and met other fantastic human beings, they said it was life-changing!”
There is a need for sustainable and ethical harvesting, and thinking like a plant lover, I plant seeds into people harvesting in Tlingit Aaní. The core of having a traditional harvesting mindset is to have a generous spirit. My intention was to inspire different organizations to embed spring harvesting into their programs every year.
I think I accomplished this. One of the participants, Yolanda Fulmer, said: “My family and I were thrilled to attend this plant symposium. The educators were extremely knowledgeable and generous with their time and resources, packing a weekend full of hands-on and practical harvesting experiences. And best of all, COVID-19 responsible.”
Gunalchéesh to the amazing Alaska Native women who gifted their knowledge. We spent two weeks harvesting, teaching, and learning. At the end of the symposium, we were exhausted, but filled with love. There are obstacles when you bring people together, especially during these times, but everyone rolled with it. Memories and friendships were made. Knowledge was passed on to those who will come after us. Our languages were spoken, our ancient history shared. We are the stewards of Tlingit Aaní, the Tongass Rainforest, and have been for more than 10,000 years. Gunalchéesh to everyone who came and helped the Planet Alaska Plant Symposium: Stewards of the Land happen.
Our knowledge is a gift, like the tin of devil’s club salve and the baggie of herring eggs. When you give, you never know if that gift came at the right time. Someone could be mourning, or lonely. Maybe you gifted them a present that reminded them of their grandparent and filled them with strength. We gift the knowledge of how to make herring egg salad and caribou tongue stew. We are connected to Tlingit Aaní through our gifting hands showing children how to pick deer heart leaves, our stomachs eating gifted herring eggs, our knees in grass as we pull up a chocolate lily bulb. In the Tlingit culture, the more we give the richer we are.
• Vivian Mork Yéilk’ writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott. Planet Alaska appears twice monthly in the Capital City Weekly.