Life imitates Art (of Place)

It didn’t take long for the room to fill with the pungent aroma of dried seaweed and herring roe. On the table sat a bag of dried red seaweed from Yakutat, traded for herring roe, as well as bags of herring roe and jars of seal fat with the oil already rendered from it, hooligan oil and seal oil. The third Edible Art of Place presentation was bound to make an impact.


Roby Littlefield of Sitka was the featured presenter, joined by husband John, who seemed at first to think he could get away with being just an audience member though he was called on often to contribute and was credited with creating the slideshow for the presentation, and local elder Helen Watkins. The Littlefields run a children’s fish camp, for about 25 years now, to teach children about subsistence activities. Sitka is where to go for herring roe. Roby opened by telling about a time when around 17,000 Alaska Natives could be found in the Sitka Sound, harvesting herring eggs. It’s still harvested the same way, but many other things have changed.

“Sitka is traditionally one of the most plentiful herring populations in Southeast Alaska. The take of herring eggs for subsistence has been taking place in Sitka for thousands of years. The Russians documented, one spring that they were here, 17,000 Natives that were in the Sitka Sound area harvesting herring eggs.” Roby said. People would come from all over Alaska for the harvest.

Using a combination of traditional Tlingit words and scientific terms — Roby attributes the scientific terms to John, who is on the regional advisory council for the Federal Subsistence Board — the Littlefields described the different substrates on which herring eggs are laid. Though one can harvest herring eggs by gathering maidenhair seaweed or kelp after the spawn, long ago, some inventive soul discovered that Western Hemlock made an excellent substrate for the herring eggs.

Whether high harvesters, gathering herring eggs for many families, or individual harvesters, Western Hemlock, not Mountain Hemlock, is the tree to look for. And don’t look deep in the forest where the trees are starved for sunlight and scraggly and moss-covered — one grown in the sun is best. Full, flat branches, bristling with needles, are what is best for the spawn, but these are getting harder to find, especially near the beaches.

How does one make a set? The hemlock tree or branch should have attached to it an anchor made from a heavy stone with seine netting and twine; rope; and an inconspicuous bobber, though there are many variations on the process. Today, one would go out to a prime spawning location in a boat and set the hemlock, submerged by the weight of the stone and retrievable by the rope, then wait.

“It’s best to set your branches in the water just before the first spawning activity, or as soon as possible after the water gets milky,” Roby said, “Sets usually take from one to four days to deposit an inch or more of eggs.”

It is preferable to set up in 10-30 feet of water, depending on the location and the tide. If timing is perfect, it only takes a day or two to get a good quality of Haaw — the tlingit word for branches herring have spawned on.

The spawn leaves the branches (Haaw), seaweed (Daaw or Né) and most anything else that might sit still long enough, covered in up to a few inches of herring roe. Roby said blueberry bushes, wire mesh screens, cheese cloth and plastic tarps have been used. The setters would then collect their herring egg-coated hemlock and return home to prepare it.

The herring roe gets peeled off the branches, hopefully with few needles, or it can be left on the seaweed as Daaw (kelp seaweed) or Né (maidenhair seaweed) and is most commonly eaten raw right away or dried — when dried, John said it can last forever, though it will get eaten before that can be tested. The best method for drying roe or seaweed is the sun, everyone agreed; though other methods may be used.

“They had tricks long ago, if it was a rainy spring, they would hang the seaweed under special trees ... they would find these trees that were near the shore, where the wind often blew and these would be called herring egg trees, that way they could dry it even when it was raining.” Roby said. These would be large trees with long branches that would provide protection from the elements.

Né grows just below the lowest tideline, Roby explained, and is normally harvested at low or minus tide using a rake, though she said her nephews would sometimes dive to get it during higher tide.

Watkins does not recommend seaweed harvest underwater.

“When I was a young lady learning, it was a real rainy season... my great grandmother told my mom and my mom told me that it’s very bad luck to pick seaweed from the water, she said, because it will rain and rain and rain.”

Watkins said she was young, impatient and lured by some long ribbons of seaweed to ignore the advice of her relatives. She picked all the ribbons of seaweed, four sacks full. She said, “Usually the sun comes up after minus tide, but not this time.”

Her impatience continued, ignoring her mother’s suggestion to wait for sunshine, and after putting in effort to dry the seaweed in the house and the car, she discovered it was all ruined. Now she follows that advice.

There are plenty of options for preparing dishes with roe or seaweed, from raw or simply dried to prepared in salads, fried with butter, or salted and frozen. The excess salt has to be removed before preparation, by soaking in water for 30 to 60 minutes, after which it can be prepared however one chooses. Herring roe not fit to eat, like that which has washed up on shore on pop seaweed, can be used as fertilizer in gardens. There are also many ways to prepare herring themselves, smoked and dried to kippered or fried, and pressed for oils for various uses.

Black seaweed, which can be colored green before dried, can be harvested year round, though it is longest in the summer.

John said if there is no sun, his grandfather taught him to dry black seaweed in the smokehouse. You would use a wooden box in the past — he said he uses a milk crate — with a layer of clean hemlock branches, then a layer of seaweed flavored with clam juice, alternating layers until the crate is full, then covering it with a board. John said he knows some people who would just throw it in the dryer, though Roby and Watkins both said they had tried it and didn’t plan to go that route again.

Some changes brought on by the intersection of modern Western society and traditional Tlingit culture can be positive — think using a dehydrator to dry eggs or seaweed or fish — but many changes threaten and diminish the traditional way of life. Everything from the language used — subsistence to describe traditional hunting, fishing and gathering methods still used for everyday life, Roby said, “Some people translate subsistence food as food that’s free, that you just harvest all the time, but a Tlingit person thinks of subsistence food as their regular food ... but it’s our soul food, it’s the food that feeds our heart. When we talk about subsistence food, we use that English word, even though it diminishes its value.” — to the introduction to the environment of new elements like creosote treated pilings, commercial fisheries or the change in habits of another species’ population. Herring and their eggs are also favorites of whales, seals, sea lions, other fish and birds.

Roby pointed out that subsistence hunters, fishers and gatherers are conscious of their consumption. John said they use all parts of the animals they harvest, including making pungent seal oil — the longer it’s aged, the darker and more pungent, and it can be raw or cooked and can be used to preserve other foods, and he says they will eat the meat from otters they take. Roby said they will not fish herring unless they plan to eat it, and that if they leave the herring population mostly alone, they will continue to come back to spawn for 15 to 20 years, though she said now they just hope to have 5-year-old herring due to the many other factors.

When an audience member asked if one could harvest herring roe from the shore, some in the room reminisced about times when the herring would spawn in Sitka’s downtown harbor, or at Indian Point in Juneau — no longer. Roby said she first learned to harvest herring eggs from right in front of her house with hemlock branches from her yard, but now the herring population has been impacted, she said, by commercial harvest or other factors and they don’t spawn so near Sitka anymore.

Watkins said everyone harvested from the beach at Indian Point until the herring stopped spawning there, until they put a dock in. Alaska Writer Laureate Nora Dauenhauer recalled harvesting herring eggs where the ferry landing is now, but said after the landing was built they stopped coming. Watkins blames the creosote treated pilings. Dauenhauer said the herring are very sensitive.

Regulations dictate creosote treated pilings be pressure treated to have a minimal impact on marine environs, but is a minimal impact still threatening some marine populations?

John did say the Department of Fish & Game documented more than 6 miles of herring spawning ground in the Juneau area recently, a comeback, he called it, though Roby didn’t think it would make for high quality Haaw yet.

The spawn is also dependent on the number and age of herring populating the area. The Littlefields are concerned with the way commercial limits are determined, based on a forecast they feel ignores an important phenomenon; Roby said humpback whales, who famously feed on schools of herring by teaming up to create bubble nets to confuse the fish, then gulping tons at a time, are staying year-round in Sitka. Since the prohibition of whale hunting, the populations have increased — she said 1,900 whales have been identified between British Columbia and Southeast Alaska — and they continue to feed on the herring population, unaccounted for by Fish & Game in making decisions about commercial limits for herring fishing. It’s a very important subject in Sitka. John said one year the commercial fishing almost completely wiped out the fishery.

Liana Wallace, who works in the UAS library and who conducted the traditional Tlingit introduction at the start of the presentation, brought up the babysitter or leader fish, fish who had been around many years and who know where to spawn. She remembers them being large when she was young, and that the herring roe was plentiful. Now it’s bare. Many in attendance attributed this to the over-harvesting of herring populations or harvesting too soon and taking all the scout or leader fish; without the guidance of the leader fish, herring would not spawn in the same places, and might spawn in less protected areas.

“Now that they’ve been hitting the oldest fish, and we only have 5-year-old fish as our oldest fish, they don’t have the leader scouts anymore and they tend to be going all over the place.” Roby said, explaining that a few years ago, they all ended up at Kruzof Island, “And that’s a bad place to lay eggs because the storms and winds that go through there will totally break up the substrate that they’re laying eggs on.”

The location and quality of the herring spawn is of concern today, and has been an issue in the past, as well.

“I had a friend in Sitka, Herman Kitka,” Tlingit elder Cyril George said, “He and his dad came to Angoon for a party one year ... he told us a story about the chief in Angoon. His grandfather told him Angoon had no herrings a long time ago, so when they were spawning either in Sitka or Juneau, he took his nephews in a canoe to go after herring eggs. As years went on, he started to slow down. He told his nephews “This is going to be my last trip, we’re going to do it different next time.” He didn’t say why he chose Juneau, probably because the tides, but they came to Juneau, put branches in the water. After the spawn, they took those branches back to Angoon. They took them up inside the bay and left them there. That’s how Angoon got their herrings.”

John said something similar is going on in Sitka right now, “We’ve been dragging branches to the southern part of Sitka Sound ... doing exactly what my grandfather said here. We’re trying to reintroduce them, get them back there.”

Though the presentation was at times serious, it was at other times lighthearted, with many sharing anecdotes of misunderstandings about the process, with Watkins’ children mistakenly thinking gulls laid eggs on the branches after she had told them to watch the birds to indicate where the herring would be and another woman saying a friend had asked her how the fish got up there to lay eggs on the branches, and misheard conversations about herring eggs, heron eggs and hearing aids. Ernestine Hayes, who organizes the Art of Place series, recalled someone being shocked that the locals would eat herring eggs, “Because they were such graceful birds.”

George was encouraged to share an anecdote about his great granddaughter apparently thinking he had herring eggs in his ears, when he was moved to talk also about his hope for Tlingit culture and to thank people for their interest in traditional ways and for writing things down. “Our food is our living,” he said.

“I come here (the University of Alaska Southeast) every once in a while and I talk to the students, there are times when I feel that my people, we’re losing our language, our culture, but then I see some things — I sat in a room here one day, as I got up to speak, looking around at the young people all looking up at me, when I saw that they want to learn — so I don’t think we’re going to lose our (culture). Thanks to people making the presentations, keeping the interest... we must keep it alive.” George said.

As with the herring population, Native Alaskan cultures have been impacted by the introduction of new populations, by the introduction of modern industry and amenities, and by the loss of many elders and culture-bearers. Where once the traditional ways, the language and culture were dominant, many worried — and some might still worry — that it could all die out. But George and others are hopeful now, because those who do have the knowledge, who speak the language and remember the arts, have found the perfect substrate in today’s students. Slowly, but surely, the population of Tlingit language speakers, of traditional artists, of those who can bear the culture on for future generations, is growing. The culture is celebrated and taught in schools, not quashed. One can study the language and culture at the university, one can take classes or apprentice under traditional carvers and weavers, and in the near future, the population, the culture, might be renewed.





Gáax’w- herring eggs (Helen Watkins said her Tlingit language is limited, but some things will tell you their names, like Gáax’w, which she said is the sound of munching on the dried herring eggs. “Listen to the sound in your mouth as you’re chewing it,” she said, “And that’s the name in Tlingit.”)

Yaaw herring

Daaw seaweed on which herring spawn

Haaw hemlock branches on which herring spawn

ne’ hairy grass on which herring spawn (maidenhair seaweed)


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