Cannery reunion days

Relentless hard work, punctuated by song, dance and learning, have made for undying memories

Posted: Sunday, August 21, 2005

Eunice Akagi, 85, remembers her youth working at the Hawk Inlet cannery, where the cultures that converged for the summer provided her with dances she hasn't forgotten and songs she sings to this day.

"We had so many wonderful memories, no matter how hard the work was," she said. "Sometimes we had to work 18 hours in a day, and then you got to get up in the morning and go right back to work. So we used to sing to keep awake so we wouldn't collapse.

"We would sing really loud, but of course nobody could hear us because a cannery is really loud."

Akagi was one of numerous cannery workers, fishermen and local children from those days who came together Friday night to celebrate and reminisce at the 2nd Annual All Cannery Days Reunion Banquet at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall. The night was filled with entertainment, door prizes, a silent auction, a raffle and traditional cannery food.

The banquet started as a small reunion for Hawk Inlet four years ago and blossomed into an annual event after Native elders began expressing desires to reminisce about the historic cannery days, said Andrea Ebona-Michel, one of the event organizers.

"We're doing it for the elders, because that is a time of their lives that they cherish," said Ebona-Michel, the elderly services coordinator for Tlingit and Haida. "They still talk about those days at Hawk Inlet, in Hood Bay, in Chatham, in Tenakee, and how hard they worked. It was a part of their life that they will never forget, and I will never forget, because it's dear to our hearts."

Helen Sarabia, 79, remembers working long hours and the bounties of fish at Excursion Inlet in her teenage years.

"A lot of funny instances happened because you are so tired," Sarabia said. "And you're just doing everything automatic and something would happen, nothing serious thank goodness, but everyone would get a bang out of it and that made it a little bit better."

Fisherman Butch Laiti got his first job in the commercial fishing business on a seine boat out of Hawk Inlet in 1965, when he was 16 years old. He said he learned his trade as a young man on the waters of Southeast Alaska and has used that knowledge while running a gillnetter for the last 30 years.

"Being a young guy, learning everything, it was the first time I stayed away from home," he said. "I lived on a fishing boat all summer. It was great."

Laiti said he is disappointed to see all the changes in the fishing business over the years.

"Boy, you used to go to all the communities and they used to have 30 to 50 boats ... all the towns had their own little fleets," he said. "It's something that was there and is a major part of the history of Southeast, and now it's gone."

Akagi spoke about the hardships she and her family had to endure in the cannery days because of their Native heritage.

"We worked hard because we didn't have the guarantee like the Orientals or the Caucasians," she said. "Room and board for them was free but we had to stop at the company store and buy our food and try to cook it. Sometimes they would give you just a half-hour for lunch and by the time you get home it was time to go back."

Akagi said they made the best out of it and overcame the challenges by singing and dancing.

"Our generation were dancers," she said. "We just loved to dance. We used to sneak around and pretend we had the Indian regalia. They wouldn't let us have any, but the folks used to manage something whenever we would have an Indian party."

Ebona-Michel, who was born at Hawk Inlet, said the cannery days are an important part of the history of her culture.

"The men fished on the boats, the women worked in the canneries, and the kids played in the woods and the beach all summer," she said. "Our mothers and fathers, grandmas and grandpas all worked in the canneries."

The reunion was sponsored by Tlingit and Haida Elders Caregivers Council, ANB Camp No. 2 and the Yaaw Tei Dance Group, and the profits from the event will partially fund the dance group's trip to the World Indigenous Education Conference in Auckland, New Zealand, from Nov. 27 to Dec. 2.

Ebona-Michel said the group had been invited by the Maori to visit New Zealand after the Rangimarie singing and dance group came to Juneau for Celebration 2004. The Yaaw Tei Dance Group will be hosted by the Maori for a couple of weeks after the conference, where they will tour historic locations and exchange protocols.

• Eric Morrison can be reached at

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