Elders help USFS make over book on Tlingit food

Publication features recipes, preparation, detailed descriptions of how to dry fish

Posted: Wednesday, March 23, 2005

When the U.S. Forest Service approached Southeast Alaska elders about how to revise a booklet on Tlingit food, the elders asked that "subsistence" not appear in the title.

"Subsistence" connotes handouts, but putting up food isn't an easy job, elder Ray Wilson said Tuesday.

The word seemed to be a regulatory term and didn't convey Native respect for nature and food, elders told the agency.

"You can tell there that this was our way of life for generations and generations," Wilson said Tuesday, after hearing archaeologist Madonna Moss talk about elaborate Tlingit fish weirs several thousand years old. "Each generation improved on how we caught fish, how we prepared it, how we took care of the land."

"The Subsistence Lifeway of Our People" now has a Tlingit title for its third edition, "Haa Atxaay Haa Kusteeyx Sitee." In English: "Our Food is Our Tlingit Way of Life." The 50-page booklet is based on oral interviews with elders dating back to 1978.

"In this book recipes are shared; there are detailed descriptions of how to dry fish; there are ways of preparing fish that can be replicated," said Lillian Petershoare, a tribal government relations specialist with the Forest Service.

Copies of the new edition soon should be in school, university and public libraries and at tribal organizations, she said. The booklet is not copyrighted and may be copied, she said.

The booklet was first published in 1984. It was compiled by the late Richard Newton, a Tlingit who worked for the Forest Service as a historian, and Moss, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon.

The latest edition updates the spelling of Tlingit words, adds more photographs of elders, and includes a compact disc in which Tlingit words about food are pronounced by Native speakers.

A brief closing section about how Tlingits view their homeland was recast from the past tense to the present tense. When the booklet was first published, the culture wasn't as vibrant as it is today, Petershoare said.

The section now "reads as a vibrant culture that is very much alive," she said.

At first the Forest Service planned to simply reprint the booklet, but the project grew into a revision with the help of Goldbelt, Juneau's urban Native corporation; the Tlingit-Haida Central Council; the Southeast Alaska Inter-Tribal Fish and Wildlife Commission; Sealaska Heritage Institute; and KTOO Public Radio.

The partners turned to elders for advice.

"The elders are the ones who are knowledgeable about our traditional ways," Petershoare said. "If this revision was to be culturally accurate, it was important that the elders guide us. Because it's the voice of our ancestors that you hear (in the booklet)."

Wilson, an elder from Juneau, said working on the revisions brought together Southeast Alaska Natives and opened doors between Natives and the Forest Service.

Many Tlingits have hard feelings about the Forest Service "because we feel they stepped in and took our land," Wilson said. "Eventually, this booklet's going to be used as a tool by the younger generation so they'll know how to follow what happened here."

The Forest Service in Alaska has been trying for several years to work more closely with Natives, said Dennis Bschor, the Alaska regional forester.

"This is Tlingit land as far as their historic land, and we're stewards of it," Bschor said. To be better stewards, the Forest Service needs to know what the Tlingit culture is, he said.

The partners celebrated the publication at a luncheon with traditional food Monday at ANB Hall, at which co-author Richard Newton's daughter, Myrna Newton Allen, said she'd like to think her father would view the third edition with pride.

On Tuesday at the Goldbelt Hotel, co-author Moss gave a talk and slide show about what archaeologists have learned about Tlingit food. Their studies help show what people ate, the seasonal use of areas, and changes in habitat.

A line of wooden stakes - part of a wood-stake fish weir on Admiralty Island - was so well-preserved, its adz cuts so sharp, the wood's color so bright, that scholars at first figured it was about 100 years old, Moss said. In fact, the stakes were 3,000 years old.

"It's really a remarkable construction," she said.

The archaeological sites "hold lessons for all of us as to how to live with the ecosystem of Southeast and the greater Northwest," Moss said.

When the information in Moss' talk can be brought out, "as our elders brought out their blankets, it brings out strength," said Paul Marks, a Tlingit who lives in Anchorage. "When I see these things, I feel the arms of our ancestors wrap around us."

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.

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